DID YOU MISS CHURCH?
Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland
Moosup Valley Church
Bringing Out the Blessings
February 9, 2020
“You are the salt of the earth;…” Jesus tells the people gathered around him. Why salt? Why does Jesus choose salt? We know we need some – especially on a hot summer’s day but our doctor may tell us to go easy on salt. Not good for our blood pressure! But what would popcorn be without salt? And how would we manage on slippery roads and steps without salt?
In ancient times, salt was not wasted on the roads! Its importance is emphasized by the Israelites who used salt as a sign of the covenant: in the Book of Numbers, in the Torah, “It is a covenant of salt forever, before the Lord,” and later in Chronicles, “The Lord God of Israel gave the kingdom over to David forever, even to him, and to his sons, by a covenant of salt.” Even today, on Friday nights, our Jewish neighbors dip the Sabbath bread in salt, keeping the agreement between God and God’s people.
So, salt was a precious commodity in the ancient world; people traded in salt, like we would in gold or cash. Salt caravans were among the earliest commercial enterprises. It was needed then, like now, for health, to sustain life. Salt preserves food and alters its taste, bringing out the goodness. So it’s no wonder Jesus chooses salt to describe his closest followers. Being called “the salt of the earth” was no small thing! His listeners must have been astonished! They must be worth something in Jesus’ eyes!
And then Jesus uses another metaphor: “You are the light of the world.” This, too, is a common reference for his audience, all those people gathered around. They know that the prophet Isaiah years before told his people that they are to be, “a light to the nations” (42:6). And in one of this week’s lectionary readings, Isaiah (58:1-12) says, “If you remove the yoke from among you, / the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, / if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, / then your light shall rise in the darkness . . ..”
Out here in Foster we know how dark it can be at night. But Isaiah is not just talking about outer darkness but also inner darkness, the darkness of the soul, the hidden places in our psyches that make us mean, or angry, or selfish, or a bully. We are all wounded by the harshness of life. It’s part of the human condition. When I meet people who are cruel or selfish or insensitive, I wonder what happened to them when they were little to cripple them this way? What abuse or demeaning language has stunted their human development?
But we don’t have to let the wounding define us. I meet people all the time who have overcome violent childhoods and the prejudice they were taught. God’s healing light can shine in our own darkness. And we live in a dark and broken world – stressful, dangerous, unequal, fearful. We all know we could use some light in our mental health system, in our schools, in our financial sector, in understanding why poverty exits in the richest country on earth.
Last Sunday, the Gospel was the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is a high call to be a blessed peacemaker, to be slow to anger, to be low on lust and high on love. Jesus is showing his listeners the pattern for living in God’s world, what often is called the “kingdom of God.” The Sermon also is a reminder that we fall from that high calling, that we are often broken people who have lost our saltiness, whose lights have been dimmed or put out. And so we come to church to hear the gospel, to receive words of forgiveness, to break bread together, to connect with each other, and to draw life from Jesus’ word. We come to church to receive a certain saltiness, to have our batteries recharged so that we shine more brightly,
Now, the people to whom Jesus was preaching knew the Old Testament texts, especially the Pharisees in the crowd. They, of course, knew the law – they were the professional interpreters of it. It must have made them angry that Jesus goes beyond the letter of the law and teaches that we must be God-like in our dealings with each other. It’s not enough to refrain from killing, stealing, bearing false witness. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Jesus adds to the law.
That is, in addition to following the Ten Commandments – thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness – Jesus says we also need to be like salt and light. Instead of a check list of dos and don’ts – actions – we are to demonstrate certain qualities of being – beingness – in the world. We are to use our saltiness to change the world, to bring out the goodness in the world. Our light to illuminate the dark places and bring the light of truth to bear on the confusion. And if not? Jesus challenges those who have ears to hear to be good for something – and if not, they will be useless, thrown out and trampled underfoot.
Salt and light…. On Friday afternoon several years ago, I stood with several ministers and rabbis at a mosque in North Smithfield, Masjid AL-ISLAM., as the worshippers from all over the world left after their Friday prayers. They were black and white, nicely dressed or not, men and women, some holding infants, young and old. We know the Mufti, a Muslim scholar, from our interfaith work, and he had announced to his congregation that a few religious leaders he knows would be standing outside as a show of support.
I was amazed by the number of people pouring out of the building and how appreciative they were that we were there. “Thank you!” they said, one after the other. Some of them shook our hands; some put their hand over their hearts. More than one women threw her arms around me with tears running down her cheeks. “Thank you for being here! It makes us feel safe!”
Salt and light…. We are called to be salt and light – and there are all kinds of ways to be these things, not just in visiting a mosque. We can be like the East Providence Police who park their cruisers off the Veterans Memorial Parkway across the Providence River from Hasbro Children’s Hospital and flash their lights to say goodnight at 8:30, creating magic for kids facing cancer. We can reach out to strangers on our shores, visit in nursing homes, collect groceries for hungry families, go out of our way to offer a kind word, to hold out a helping hand.
What can one person do? How can a small church like Moosup Valley be “the light of the world”? Are we too small? Too poor? Don’t have enough people? These things don’t matter in God’s eyes! Only faithfulness matters. In Palestine, people lived in one-room houses. Yet Jesus reminds them that a lamp set on a lampstand gives light to all the house. Every church has something to offer, gifts to bring, ways to make a difference.
Jesus tells us to be salt and light—and to live righteously, that is to live right, according to his, Jesus’, example. Jesus tells his followers to mix their special saltiness into the bread and the stew of all the world and to reflect God’s light and love into all its dark and broken-hearted corners.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
The Place God Calls You To
January 26, 2020
The story begins in earnest now. The Wise Men from the East have come and gone. Jesus has been baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River. He has been tempted in the wilderness by pride and ambition. John has been arrested for speaking truth to power, and Jesus steps onto center stage.
The Gospel of Matthew is not the first gospel to be written but it’s the first in our Bibles because he is writing primarily for a Jewish audience, and this gospel is a good bridge between the writings of Israel, which we call the Old Testament and our Christian writings, which we call the New Testament. Matthew wastes no time proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah, the One for whom they had been waiting for centuries. Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled: “…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Jesus is the Light, the One.
And the One comes with a message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” a message of good news. Matthew consistently references the Kingdom of Heaven. He’s not talking about going to Heaven or escaping from this world to another one. He’s telling us that God’s rule is coming to earth “as it is in Heaven.” So Jesus’ call is not to future salvation but to contemporary action – to fish for human beings, his first followers.
Jesus’ first action is recruitment, to engage others to undertake this journey with him. He comes upon two brothers – Simon and Andrew – and because they have only a net, we know they are poor. “Follow me,” Jesus says. Immediately, they leave their nets. Was there no one they needed to tell? Nobody who would wonder why they didn’t come home for supper?
Next, Jesus spots the sons of Zebedee, James and John, fishing from their boat. They are more affluent because they have a boat and can leave the shore for deeper water for their fishing. In Mark’s version of the story, they even have employees, so they have a little business going. How will Zebedee manage without his sons’ strong arms? Regardless, the point is that Jesus summons people from the midst of their daily lives, from their families, from their workplaces. Jesus calls them into a new set of relationships, into a new vocation as disciples. One commentator notes,
“God is still speaking to us in the midst of our efforts to focus on living comfortable, orderly, pleasant lives…. God calls us, each in our own setting, to repent, that is to turn in a new direction, to open our lives to a radical renewal that may upset and re-orient our neat little, hard-won patterns of comfort and familiarity, the unquestioned assumptions, perhaps the privilege we enjoy without being aware of it.”
We might wonder why Simon and Andrew, James and John, dropped everything and followed Jesus. We can’t know what was in their hearts. Were they were hungry for a different life? Fishermen only because no one had ever offered them anything else? Is this all there is? Are we the only society that raises that question? Perhaps Jesus knew these men were ripe for the adventure of a lifetime, to turn away from material things and self-interest, to let go of “stuff,” boats and nets and responsibilities, re-set their lives on the things that make for love and joy, for justice and peace.
The things that make for joy? I’ve always had the impression that the fishermen followed Jesus because he had ordered them to do so. They were followers out of a sense of duty – and we should follow out of our sense of duty. But what if it’s not duty but life in its fullest? The text goes on to say that Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching and healing and proclaiming good news.
Life was difficult under Roman occupation, crushing poverty and oppression. What a breath of fresh air Jesus must have been, the way he loved people, cared for people. We can imagine him sitting around the table breaking bread, enjoying the fish cakes his hostess carried in, passing around the goblet, telling stories while neighbors gathered in the doorway – and did he sing? I’ll bet Jesus sang his heart out!
What if the discipleship to which we are called brings joy? A number of years ago, I developed a gifts discovery course for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Barrington. They wanted to help their members find volunteer roles in the church and in the larger community that were based on their members’ gifts, not on the slots that needed filling. We called the program, “What in God’s Name Are You Doing?” Participants found their ministries based on their strengths, their spiritual gifts, their passions. Nobody was roped into taking on an assignment because nobody else would do it, or because he or she owed someone a favor, or was cornered by the nominating committee. People were invited to find something that was good for them, not just for the church, something life-giving. We all get “should upon” too often by society. Jesus invites us to new life!
If you were at our Women’s Retreat last April, you participated in that program. And I’ve been leading a version of that program for the Youth Group at North Foster Baptist Church. What brings you joy and fulfillment – perhaps not what your parents or guidance counselor have in mind. Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner writes,
“There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work,and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, say,or the super-ego, or self-interest. By and large a good rule for finding out is this.The kind of work God usually calls you to is (a) the kind of work that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Discipleship is a journey – but not a journey to drudgery, not a journey to something to which you are not suited. Yes, discipleship may take you somewhere you had never expected to go. Discipleship may disrupt your life – or not. Discipleship may take you far from home – or only help you to see home through different eyes. But discipleship grounds you in the work you most need to do – to be true to yourself, to be fulfilled – and sends you where you are most needed, to heal the world.
Come and follow me, and I will make you fish for people. And so teachers in public schools reach into their own pockets to buy supplies for needy students. And neighbors step up with hammers to build houses for neighbors through Habitat for Humanity. And doctors take vacations from their comfortable practices in US hospitals to go back again and again to villages in Africa to save children’s lives. And churches collect groceries for food pantries, invite the community inside for concerts, build ramps to make it easier to get in, drive elderly people to medical appointments, put out the welcome sign to immigrants and refugees to offer them safety and stability. “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!”
Come and follow me. This is the season of Epiphany. All the bad news in the world should not make us miss “Epiphany light” and “God’s saving reign which is continually on the move to the ends of the earth – as well as to the innermost reaches of the human heart.”
May it be so!
 Thomas Long, quoted in this week’s focus scripture on the UCC website.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
January 12, 2020
The baptism of Jesus by his cousin John is recorded in all four gospels. This probably means two things: First, the early church – with its people and congregations across the empire – agreed that Jesus’ baptism really had occurred at the beginning of his ministry. Second, it also indicates that the manner of his baptism held particular importance in the early Christian community.
We might wonder, like John wondered, why Jesus wanted to be baptized, and assuming he did, why did he come to John? The question brings to mind the nature of baptism – and not just Jesus’ baptism but also ours. We all hold our own ideas about baptism, and there’s probably more than one “right” understanding. But an idea held in the public imagination is that baptism is necessary for our salvation, to save us from original sin, to cleanse us from the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Often we hear it said that only persons who have been baptized can be saved, can go to heaven. Everyone else is damned. Catholics invented Limbo for babies who have not sinned but yet have not been baptized. Mormons identify people who have not been baptized and they baptize them after they have died. That’s why they do genealogy.
Yes, we know water is a frequent metaphor for cleansing and purifying, in the Old Testament as well as the New. In Genesis, the Spirit moves over the face of the water to separate the waters from the waters and then to separate the waters from the dry land.
In the same way, the Nation of Israel is baptized into Moses as they pass through the Red Sea, cleansing the people from the taint of slavery in Egypt.
For me, baptism is about welcoming a person into God’s family, inviting someone symbolically to wash away the old and to become a new person in the Way of Jesus. An adult makes that decision personally; for children, those promises are made by their parents who will help them grow into that new person.
But what of the one whom we know as our Lord and Savior? If you are one who believes that baptism is about washing away sin, and if you also believe that Jesus is without sin, then why does Jesus want to be baptized? There would be no need, so perhaps baptism is not about salvation, at least not for Jesus. Nor is it for me.
So, what is it about then? Why was this story so critical to the early church, so much so that all four Gospels report it? What did it teach about the nature of Jesus and his coming? And the nature of the people who gathered around him, and the nature of the church that emerged in his name?
The text offers a clue. John protests, we can assume out of awe and respect for Jesus: You should be baptizing me, cleansing me, not the other way around. But Jesus insists that John baptize him “to fulfill all righteousness,” that is, because this is the right way.
What is the right way? What is Jesus teaching here? It well may be about the nature of leadership, the nature of the true leader.
Jesus has come not as a leader who is gathering power for himself, like a Herod who had all the baby boys killed to preserve his power and authority after the wise men come seeking and asking questions. Jesus is not that kind of a king.
Jesus has come not as a leader who will accept the wilderness temptation to turn stones into bread, to throw himself from the temple, to seize all the kingdoms of the world as his own. Jesus is not a king who will turn the laws of the universe upside down for his own benefit.
Jesus has not come as a king to laud it over others. He has come as a leader to change the nature of the community from within, to raise up leaders around him, to empower others rather than to be the powerful one alone, to prepare the church to serve the world.
A number of years ago I read Robert Greenleaf’s work on “servant leadership.” Greenleaf was an engineer, hired by AT&T in the 1920s, to see if the company could do a better job of serving both the individual and the larger society. Greenleaf discovered that those AT&T organizations that thrived had particular kinds of leaders. They had leaders who acted more as supportive coaches than “bosses” to their employees, leaders who served the needs of employees as well as the need of the organization.
As he put it: “The organization [that cares about the community] exists for the person as much as the person exists for the organization.” I think of that today as corporations care more about their bottom lines than the workers, as they move companies overseas to cut labor costs, as they hire part-timers so they don’t have to pay benefits.
Greenleaf had developed his concept of the servant-leader after reading Herman Hesse’s “Journey to the East.” It is the story of a group of travelers who were served by Leo, who did their menial chores and lifted them with his spirit and song. Leo was the one who unloaded the camels, pitched the tents, cooked the meals, sang around the campfire in the evening. It was a wonderful trip, and all went well until the day when Leo disappeared. The travelers fell into disarray and could go no farther. The journey was over. Years later, one of the travelers saw Leo again – and he discovered that Leo was the revered head of the Order that had sponsored the journey. Leo, who had been their servant, was the titular head of the Order, a great and noble leader.
In The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf said: …this story clearly says—the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness. Leo was actually the leader all of the time, but he was servant first because that was what he was, deep down inside. Leadership had been bestowed upon a man who was by nature a servant. The best leaders, according to Greenleaf, are the best servants.
The people to whom Jesus came were expecting a Messiah who would overthrow their enemies and restore the nation of Israel. They were expecting a military overthrow, a messianic king who would consolidate power. They were expecting a Messiah who would do the baptizing, not the other way around. They were expecting a Messiah who would rule the earth, not someone who would serve it. They were expecting a Messiah who would hold all the authority, not someone who would share authority with his disciples.
And so Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan sets the tone for his ministry. It demonstrates for those on the river bank that Jesus has come to “save” by saving the community from within, by building a community to carry on after his earthly ministry.
All through the gospels we see Jesus’ insistence that the power to heal the world is something that he intends to share with the church through the power of the Holy Spirit.
He sends disciples out to heal, and in the Gospel of John he tells them that they will do greater works than he himself has done (John 14:12). In fact, Jesus also suggests in John (16:7) that he needs to depart to make room for the Holy Spirit to work through the church. Jesus has come not to accumulate and exercise power for himself but to disperse it for the healing of the world. As he said to his disciples in the Gospel of Mark (10:42-45),
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be servant of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
His baptism begins that process. In humility, Jesus lets John push him under the waves, just as in humility, he lets Pilate raise him up on a cross. Jesus comes as servant, the prototype, the example, of a leader pleasing to God. This is a good lesson for us in our world consumed with power and control.
Tuesday at the State House, as our General Assembly convened, fifty religious leaders of all faiths stepped in turn to the microphone and read the names of elected officials, beginning with Baptist Executive Minister Tom Wiles who read the name of the President of the United States and ending with me who read the names of the Mayors of Warwick and Pawtucket.
And the hundreds gathered in the rotunda, on the stairs, and overlooking the balconies, responded in unison, “May you govern with wisdom, care and compassion.”
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
January 5, 2020
Word spread quickly throughout the town. A large caravan was heading their way. Those in the fields and on the road saw them coming. Children climbed to the flat rooftops to watch their arrival. You could taste the excitement along with the dust.
What can it mean? Traders often passed through Bethlehem, situated about six miles South-South West of Jerusalem, near the chief North-South route. They would stop to fill their water bags and buy bread before their final push into Jerusalem, but the size of this group was unusual. And these travelers had an exotic look about them.
Three of them looked to be important by their dress and their bearing, and they were accompanied by all manner of servants – camel handlers, baggage carriers, cooks, and others. Gospel writer Matthew says they are magi, from the Greek, which also can be translated “wise men” or “astrologers.” The word has nothing to do with kings; that was an idea added later to our Christmas story.
The magi are a priestly class of Persian or Babylonian experts in the occult, such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams. They are the forerunners of those who compose our daily horoscopes in The Providence Journal – written by someone named Magi Helena, something I only noticed this week. Sometimes Magi offers good advice. One for Virgo last week read,
“There is no time like the present to offer an apology.” And for Capricorn, “An optimistic attitude could attract new friends who will help you in the future.” Sometimes, she leaves us wondering, like this one for Leo: “The labels might not describe the contents.” Or for Taurus, “Not getting what you want will yield more obvious benefits.” Huh? I take them all with a grain of salt, but I am intrigued by them. Who is this Magi Helena? How does she come up with these things? By watching the stars, apparently….
These Biblical magi are pagans, students of the heavens, not Jews, and they study the skies for a sign of the birth of a new ruler. A star has led them to Bethlehem; they have found him. The townspeople don’t know this, of course. They probably wonder, Who are they and why are they here? Why are these important-looking people dismounting in Bethlehem and not in Jerusalem? Stopping in front of a stable instead of a palace? Why are they drawing up their reins in Foster and not in Providence? Before Moosup Valley instead of a downtown cathedral?
An epiphany, according to a standard dictionary, applies to any manifestation or appearance of a deity. In Christian history, we capitalize Epiphany to refer to the manifestation of Jesus as the Christ. But increasingly the word “epiphany” in common usage has come to refer to any insightful or dramatic moment that instills new vision or perspective.
A gathering with loved ones during the holidays might be an epiphany for how blessed we are as a family. The illness of a loved one reminds us that money isn’t everything. Our cataracts and joint pains and forgetfulness announce with clarity that we are getting older – much to our surprise!
When do you suppose the people of Bethlehem had their epiphany that something extraordinary was taking place in their village, just across the way, in back of the inn? When had the birth of a child caused so much stir? When had they felt before that their little town in the backwater of the world mattered – to anyone, let alone these strangers?
When do you suppose the innkeeper had his epiphany about this poor couple in need of shelter whom he had sent to the barn because all of his rooms were rented? Or perhaps he had no stomach for the moans and smells of childbirth.
When do you suppose King Herod the Great had his epiphany that he was not the most important person in Jerusalem, and that, power held through violence will come back to bite him.
When do you suppose that Mary and Joseph had their epiphany that Jesus was an extraordinary child? Perhaps the gifts that these travelers presented as they knelt before the manger were an epiphany in themselves? Gold and frankincense and myrrh. These were no Fisher Price toys or Legos or computer games, but symbols of what was to come: gold fit for a majestic king, incense for his spiritual worship, myrrh for embalming, after they take his body down from the cross.
The magi had been preparing for years to follow the star. Now their discipline and study, their observation and action, have paid off, and they have witnessed the birth of the future. They also are living proof, too, that perseverance in our spiritual lives pays off.
And the epiphany for the followers of Jesus, for the early church? Hidden in the gospel story – but placed there deliberately by Matthew – is the epiphany that Jesus is born not only for Israel but also for the Greek and Roman world as well. Jesus is born not only for the Jews, who have been waiting for generations for their Messiah, but also for gentiles, like these sages from far away who have followed the star to this forlorn place. As we remind ourselves in the United Church of Christ, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
And what of our epiphanies? What will be made clear to us as individuals and families this year? To us as a congregation and a Larger Parish? What will be revealed to us? And how can we prepare for our future on this first Sunday in January 2020?
What stars do we follow? And where will they lead us?
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Are You the One?
December 15, 2019
In just one week’s time, our story moves from a John the Baptist crying “Prepare the way of the Lord!” in the wilderness to a John the Baptist asking questions from prison. John’s story, of course, encompasses many weeks, and in that time he has precipitated his arrest by criticizing Herod the Great’s son Antipas for marrying Herodias, Herod’s half-niece. According to Jewish law, such a union was prohibited.
While John has been railing against Herod, Jesus has begun his ministry in Galilee, attracting attention across the countryside. The news reaches John in prison. So he sends his disciples to ask of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” We are glad to hear John ask this question, because it’s our question, too, and we are afraid to ask it. Is Jesus the real thing? Is our religion about something that matters, or is this business of Christmas and the Christ child only a fanciful tale – but ultimately powerless against our hopes and dreams? We good Christians are afraid to voice our doubts, but if John –who is on his way to sainthood – can question, perhaps we can, too.
So John asks, “Are you the one to come?” What he means is are you really the one? Are you the Messiah, or not? Jesus’ response may be “right on” theologically, but it can’t be much help to John. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” The Messiah is known through his deeds. John gets the report, and he must think, “Lovely!” Lovely for the lame and the blind, the deaf and the temporarily dead! “You may notice, however, Jesus, that I am still in prison.”
One reason people find Advent and Christmas depressing is that they have good reason to be depressed. “Are you the one?” we ask from the emergency room and the court room, from the nursing home and the children’s home, from the ghetto and the refugee camp. If you really are the one, why am I cooling my heels in these difficult places? Why is there so much suffering in the world?
Advent and Christmas are hard for people because the culture says ‘tis the season for “tidings of comfort and joy” – yet there often is precious little comfort in too many lives and not too much to be joyful about. Cheery youth groups traipse down lonely hallways singing “Joy to the world” and shouting Merry Christmas while people look up from beds and wheelchairs. Where is there time to hold a wrinkled hand or listen to the story of a veteran or read to someone whose sight is going?
But wait! There’s more to this story which not only clarifies who Jesus is, but it also clarifies why Jesus has come. The poor and the blind and the lame receive good news in Jesus’ presence. They are healed not only of their physical complaints but also of their spiritual ones.
Jesus raises up John and his ministry in the wilderness and contrasts him with royalty who live in palaces. In the simplicity of his life, John suggests the simplicity of Christmas. The only rich people who show up at Bethlehem are the Magi, and they kneel down and give up their gifts. In the midst of a culture that celebrates consumerism – buy, buy, buy – Jesus’ celebration of John is a welcome relief. It reminds us to “Put Christ back into Christmas” by caring for the least among us.
At this time of year, the stores and the catalogues are full of people in soft robes in royal palaces – people in party dresses in decked-out-for Christmas living rooms, and Land’s End flannels and LL Bean boots at the country inn. And we love to admire and maybe buy. But the story about John the Baptist, God’s servant, makes the point clear enough: It is the contrast between the miracle on 34th Street and the miracle in Bethlehem, between the benefits of Macy’s and the wonders of God’s love.
Yes, we all love the soft robes and palaces and the extravagance and glitter of Christmas – I do, too – but the kingdom is about something else. In Matthew’s Gospel, it is about simple living, finding God in word and song and fellowship and in the quietness of the heart. It is about the least, the little ones, the sheep of God’s fold. It is about mothers and children. In God’s eyes, they are as great as John the Baptist, and they are entrusted to our care.
There is still time to put Christ back into Christmas!
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church, UCC
Prepare the Way
December 8, 2019
We are well into Advent. We have lit the Christmas tree; we are singing Advent hymns; we are lighting candles for hope, peace, joy, and love. We are buying gifts to make Christmas for families we have adopted and making plans for our Blue Christmas Service and our Annual Living Crèche. We are arranging meals for our own families, baking cookies, and sending cards. And, into the midst of all this, comes John the Baptist preaching repentance. Do we really need judgment in the midst of holiday spirit? Do we really want to be dragged away from our home fires into the wilderness as we prepare for Christmas?
John the Baptist – tough-minded, straightforward, no-nonsense preacher – attracts immediate attention in this morning’s gospel lesson as he calls up the words of Isaiah. “Prepare the way of the Lord.” One commentator notes, “John may have been like Alexander Whyte, noted preacher at Free St. George’s Church in Edinburgh,” in the early 20th century. “It was said that Whyte could be so direct and penetrating that to hear him preach was to take your life in your hands.”
I wonder if that’s not what we do when we come to church – regardless of what the preacher has to say. In the midst of the wilderness and the woundedness of our lives, I wonder if we don’t come to church to reflect on the tough questions, to give room for grief and pain and suffering, to take the meaning of our lives in our hands. When we stay on the surface, when we rush about from shopping, to parties, to concerts, when we gush over light displays on lawns and Santas on rooftops, when we fuss over just the right gift to impress someone, I wonder if we miss the meaning of Advent.
And then, when we get beyond the holidays, and have taken down the decorations and swept up the needles, we realize that we missed Christmas. Wouldn’t it would be a tragedy to get to January and realize that we missed the coming of God into our lives, that we missed caring for those whom God cares about, or that we missed opportunities to share God’s story with those who are lost and lonely?
Yes, I love this season, too. And Advent gives us a chance to stop and listen, to be still and to see the hand of God around us, and to be God’s face to those who need to see a reflection of hope and peace. Yes, John the Baptizer brings us to the wilderness and reminds us that all is not merry and bright and sweetness and light. John gives us the space and the permission to think through our lives and to wonder about all that is unknown and frightening and to cause us to double- and triple-check our holds on what is reassuring.
No matter how beautiful the wreaths and poinsettias, we sit on hard deacons’ benches in this wilderness of our own making with our fears and worries and responsibilities and face the howling winds, thorny brambles, and lonely emptinesses of our lives. All this is the stuff of life. John calls through the centuries for justice and repentance on which any lasting peace will be built. “Prepare,” John cries out! But he’s not suggesting we update our Christmas card list, or make out the grocery list, or check off our gift list.
No, John urges us to prepare for the One for whom we wait, for the Child who will be born among us: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John points beyond himself to God, to Jesus who is coming and who is already here, to the One who lives in us and through us. No one of us – least of all, me – is the Messiah. That position has already been filled. The church community – not this congregation or our Larger Parish or the Foster Churches Association, or the church universal – is the gospel, the Good News by itself. The community of faith, and all of our liturgies and hymns, and all of the trappings of our denominations, no matter how beautiful in this season, are not the Savior.
John points us to the Child Jesus, the Messiah, the One for whom we wait – and he prepares to get out of the way, to decrease, so that Jesus can increase. John suggests that, the more we love God, the less we will need to assert ourselves, to impose ourselves, to exhaust ourselves with anxiety about what will become of us. John is our model if we’re learning that life was meant to be lived beyond the boundary of ourselves, for the sake of others. Perhaps this is something we need to hear on this Second Sunday in Advent. We need to decrease so that God can increase.
When I thought of John the Baptist these past several days, I thought of Nelson Mandela – a symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation. In his statement to the court during his trial in 1964 he said, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” When he was released after 27 brutal years in prison, Mandela, a seeker of peace, built a government of all South Africa that inspired the world. He was able to forgive and to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
And what of us, this Second Sunday in Advent? I close with a prayer poem by Maren Tirabassi:
O preparing God, / Send me this day, a messenger / to prepare a way for you in me.
Send me, this day, an angel / for the covenant you expect me to honor.
Send me, this day, a voice / calling me to repentance.
Send me, this day, a friend / to love me with the breath of your passion.
Call me out from self-justifying barriers. / Call me down from self-promoting pedestals.
Call me up from self-defeating prostrations.
Call me into your wilderness / where I may find your forgiveness.
Return me to my center where you live.
Set my senses firmly on your truth / which is written on my heart
and yet needs another to / cry it out to me.
Ready my expectations that you will come—
come to the meal of my wild honey,
come to the bathing of my dark river,
come to the harvest of threshed words
with fork and fire and Spirit—
when I trust you to prepare my impossibilities
to receive you as living flesh.
 David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1, p. 45.
 Op cit. Some of the wording is taken from the comments by Mark E. Yurs, p. 49.
 Adapted from May Luti’s Stillspeaking Devotional on December 1.
 Providence Journal, Friday,, December 6, 2013, p. A14.
 Maren C. Tirabassi, An Improbable Gift of Blessing, p. 7.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Advent’s Wakeup Call
December 1, 2019
“The curtain rises. A prophet walks onto a darkened stage in a circle of light. He begins to sing – of a mountain and of nations streaming to it, willing to hear holy instruction and to be judged by it, willing also to make peace with each other. As the song is ending, another sound rises, the ringing sound of hammers striking metal. It fills the room. That sound is the first in the church’s new year.”
It was a time not unlike our own when war and violence loomed over the people. Tiglath-pileser III had become king of the Assyrian empire in the eighth century BCE, and he began his push to conquer lands to the west, including the Northern Kingdom, Israel, named after its most important tribe, and the Southern Kingdom, Judah, named after its most important tribe.
To strengthen their hand, the kings of Israel and Damascus tried to force Ahaz, the king of Judah, to join them, and when he would not, they tried to take over Judah to put a king more favorable to their strategy on the throne in Jerusalem. But instead, Ahaz turned to Assyria for help – which worked, but he paid a heavy price – he was now indebted to Tiglath-Pileser and Assyria. So Ahaz turns to the Prophet Isaiah for advice.
The Book of Isaiah – actually three books about three different periods – serves as a theological reflection upon Jerusalem’s experience of threat, exile, and restoration. It takes up fundamental questions of divine involvement in human history. Christian interpreters look to Isaiah to understand when the Lord would reveal the Messiah. This is why an ancient text in the Hebrew Bible becomes an important text in our Advent scriptures. “In the days to come,” Isaiah sees a different future, one where the instruments of war – swords and spears – shall be turned into instruments of community – plows and pruning hooks. The God of Jacob will teach us the ways of peace and show us the paths on which we should walk. And we shall be held accountable.
Advent captures the theme of disruption. In the Gospel lesson for today from Matthew, Jesus talks about End Times in which people are judged for settling too comfortably into business as usual. He urges his listeners to stay awake, to be ready, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Advent shakes us out of the lethargy of believing that nothing will change, at least not soon, like the first blast of north winds that reminds us that winter is coming.
Advent wakes us from our public resignation to accept politics as a dirty game and lies as truth, to be complacent in the face of injustice, to recklessly blame victims and outsiders for all manner of evils. Advent wakes us from complacency in the killing of police and men of color; in the hardening to the slaughter of innocent people in Charleston and Orlando, in Pittsburg, Paris, and London; in the brutality of police raids against water protectors at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, and the separation of families at our southern border.
Now, it is important to remember, when we read these texts, that Jesus has already come. While we treat Advent as a season of preparation for the birth of Jesus, the scriptures challenge us to expect and to prepare for a second coming, the return of Jesus. And he will not be pleased with the state of affairs. Isaiah’s prophecy is shockingly bold: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” We should be shocked by how far humankind has strayed from the vision that Isaiah sees, the vision that God calls us to over the centuries.
Advent is a time to wake up, to reset our moral compass, to be jolted out of complacency with what has become the new “normal,” the rhetoric of hate infiltrating our communities, the anger that divides us from each other. “Advent signals the hope and possibility of a fresh start, a resetting of our default mode,” argues Calvin Chinn writing in the Christian Century magazine. Unanswered questions hang over us. We don’t know how many killings there will be, where homegrown terrorists will strike next, what traffic stops will lead to an untimely death, which of our loved ones will suffer illness and die, and who will be born in our midst. We don’t know who will lose their jobs and who will welcome a new opportunity; which nations will find peace and which will engage in new conflicts; what environmental disasters will befall us due to climate change.
Yet, Advent is about the transformation of our hearts for the way we live our ordinary, everyday lives. Preachers today are preaching a dream, a vision of how God meant the world to be at its creation. In Advent, we long for this new creation – for a recreation – for hope, and peace, and joy, and love. Theologian Paul Simpson Duke urges us to picture “A new community…being gathered to the Holy, a multicultural, multiracial, multilingual convergence [in which] God will not only speak but will listen to the grievances, disputes, and concerns of the nations…” and will arbitrate. The old assertion is true: There can be no peace without justice, the true meaning of Shalom.
We long for this Shalom, don’t we, what Jesus meant by “the reign of God”? This is our hope, an invitation to “walk in the light of the Lord!” Each one of us moves into God’s future by making our choices about how we love each other, how we live with our neighbors, how we govern our communities and our nation. At the darkest time of the year, Advent draws us into this light to pray and to live. We begin today.
May it be so! Amen.
 Paul Simpson Duke in “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary,” Year A, Volume 1, pp.3.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
November 24, 2019
Today is “Reign of Christ” Sunday, the last Sunday in the Season after Pentecost. We are celebrating a full year since Jesus’ birth in that stable in Bethlehem. We have been traveling with him through Galilee, witnessing his ministry, standing at the foot of the cross.
Next Sunday we start a new year in the church calendar, the first Sunday in Advent, and we look forward to the birth of the Christ Child. But today, we celebrate the full cycle of God-with-us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. So this Sunday is like a New Year’s Eve when we look back at the past year and look ahead with hope to the future.
I have chosen to reflect on one of the Apostle Paul’s letters, written by him or a disciple, a letter to the little fledging Colossian church in the Roman province of Asia, in which Paul proclaims that Jesus Christ is the “real deal.” These Colossians are new to Christianity, torn between their old beliefs and this new faith. Paul urges them to put aside the worship of other gods and to see this new Jesus as Truth personified, the One in whom the Holy resides. This prayer poem by Paul is considered “high Christology” by the scholars, sophisticated theological ideas that declare that Jesus is Godself in contrast to the more homey stories in the gospels that I usually focus on.
Paul is making the case here that – for those of us who call ourselves Christians and proclaim that “Jesus is Lord” – Jesus must come first in our lives. Instead of fitting Jesus in when we have some time and where we can make some room, perhaps on a Sunday morning, Paul insists that it needs to be the other way around: Jesus is the center – the worldview – around which we see everything and fit everything.
So we have to ask, what is a worldview? We all have one, whether we know it or not. It is our set of beliefs about the fundamental aspects of reality that ground and influence our thinking, the lens through which we view everything, our understanding of how the world “works.” It might be referred to as our philosophy of life, our mindset, our ideology or religion, our values and priorities, a combination of all we believe to be true, often deep-seated ideas we’re not even aware of. A world view is often unconscious.
Some worldviews are helpful; others, not so much. For example: “By and large, you can trust people.” as opposed to believing “People are not to be trusted,” Or, about ourselves, we believe “I am lovable and capable,” versus “I can’t do anything right, I’m no good, not worthy.” This is dangerous because fear and hatred often rise from self-loathing. Or we might think, in a sweeping way, that all “People on welfare are lazy.” “Black people are inferior.” “Politicians are liars.” “Immigrants are criminals.” “Muslims are terrorists.” “Women are pigs,” is another worldview displayed on the front page of the Journal this week. And, of course, our rational minds knows that none of these are true.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul is urging the congregation to make Jesus their worldview. What does it mean to do that? I understand this as making the Way of Jesus – that is, how Jesus lived and cared for others – the way we live and care for others, our way, our worldview. We claim this in our mission statement. This is what I believe we are saying when we say, “Jesus is Lord.” So, how does Jesus live and care for others? What is Jesus’ worldview?
First of all, people are precious. Remember all we have been learning about Jesus this year through Luke’s gospel: How he cared for people, healed people, fed people, encouraged people, held children on his lap. And remember how they responded to him: the crowds who wanted to be near him, to see his face, to hear his words, to touch him. To Jesus, everyone was precious!
Everyone is welcome, everyone is worthy. Remember that many in the crowd were social outcasts: prostitutes, tax collectors, the poor, the sick or the disabled. Or they were otherwise powerless: widows and orphans. Or they were of another socioeconomic or ethnic group, Samaritans, for example. One of the key biblical principles running all through the Hebrew Bible is that we are to welcome the stranger. “…for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And in Matt. 25: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
The good life is a righteous life. Righteous means “right living,” having the right relationships between people, relationships based on mutual support, respect, and sharing of resources. The biblical prophets were constantly railing against those who took advantage of others, who cheated others. What is the first commandment? They asked Jesus. Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. This is the essence of the Bible.
So, to make Jesus our worldview, to proclaim that Jesus is Lord over our lives, is to strive for these things: to be kind to people, loving toward others; to include those who may be different from us, who may be strangers to us; to organize society in such a way that everyone is considered, everyone’s needs are addressed, everyone has opportunities to thrive and have fullness of life.
We celebrate this Reign of Christ Sunday 2019 when our political climate has unleashed hate and vindictiveness, when our nation is awash in fear and anxiety. Now more than ever, we need to adopt Jesus’ worldview, to strive to live in the Way of Jesus. There are many ways we do that. Each of us may do so differently, depending on where we live and work, and what feels authentic to us.
One UCC minister, Rev. Molly Baskette, has made it clear publically that she is a “safe” person to talk to. “God does not promise us safety,” she notes. “What God does is invite us into the safety of each other,…” And she is promising these things: If you wear a hijab, I’ll sit with you on the train. If you’re trans, I’ll go to the bathroom with you. If you’re a person of color, I‘ll stand with you if the cops stop you. If you’re a person with disabilities, I’ll speak up for you. If you’re an immigrant, I’ll help you find resources. If you’re a survivor, I’ll believe you. If you’re a refugee, I’ll make sure you’re welcome. If you’re a veteran, I’ll take up your fight. If you’re LGBTQ, I’ll remind you that you are beautiful and beloved, just as God made you. If you’re a woman, I’ll make sure you get home okay. If you’re tired, me too. If you need a hug, I’ve got an infinite supply. If you need me, I’ll be with you. All I ask is that you be with me, too.
These are Jesus-like ways of being in the world. You and I are already acting in these ways, I know. And they make a difference, whether we know it or not. We can all be points of light in a dark world. And sometimes those points of light come together and burn brightly in the community, overcoming darkness. I think of the editorial in The Sun in 1897, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” And because our UCC is bringing a Christmas gift to almost 6,000 families on the South Side of Chicago this December.
I know about it because I received an email from our Interim Transitional Conference Minister Marilyn Kendrix this week about a campaign in which the National UCC, the Illinois Conference, and Trinity UCC, along with a consortium of Baptist churches in the Chicago, area is wiping out medical debt for the poorest families in Chicago, saving them from losing their homes. This campaign was spearheaded by Rev. Traci Blackmon, our Associate General Minister for Justice and Local Church Ministries, and Rev. Otis Moss, III, Trinity’s senior pastor. Over the summer they raised $38,000 and then partnered with a nonprofit in New York that buys up medical debt for pennies on the dollar. With these strategic partnerships, they wiped out $5.3 million in medical debt for the poorest of the poor on the South Side of Chicago.
Our national church is wondering if we could do that all across the country wherever there is a UCC church. How many people in Foster, I wonder, are crippled financially by unexpected illnesses or injuries, hospitalizations, and prescription drug costs, even by the cost of their health insurance? Marilyn is inviting us, if we plan to participate in “Giving Tuesday,” to make a contribution to this project. This is one way that you and I can put Jesus at the center of our lives, live out of a Jesus-Is-the-Way worldviewPaul says that God has “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption… in whom is made peace.”
If we could see the world the way Jesus sees it, if people of faith and goodwill all over this land of ours could reorient their lives to make Jesus’ Way their way – one doesn’t need to be a Christian to follow Jesus’ Way – then perhaps we could make peace. It could start with you and me.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Imagine a World of Tenderness
November 17, 2019
The Book of the Prophet Isaiah is a long book. Actually three books by three different authors over more than three centuries that have been stitched together. (First, Second and Third Isaiah.) The book reflects periods of political intrigue, invasions and wars, times of relative peace, the Babylonian exile for 50 years, and eventual restoration. Consistently, the ancient Hebrew prophets raged against the people, warning of the need to repent in the face of imminent disaster – and there were many disasters to be blamed for – whenever the nation strayed from its covenant with God, some they probably could be blamed for and others out of their control.
Yet, at the same time, the prophets offered hope, a vision of restoration if a nation mends its dark ways and sees the light (Isa. 9:2). Speaking for God, Third Isaiah paints such a word picture at the end of the book and imagines what salvation might look like: new heavens and a new earth, a time and place where joy and gladness is the order of the day, people live long and healthy lives, fairness and equity in work is the norm, and peace reigns in the community between those who, without God, are adversaries (Isa. 65:20-25).
We’ve just heard some of these beautiful words:
20 “No more shall an infant from [Jerusalem] live but a few days,
Nor an old man who has not fulfilled his days;
For the child shall die one hundred years old,
But the sinner being one hundred years old shall be accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
They shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
They shall not plant and another eat;
For as the days of a tree, so shall be the days of My people,
And My elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
Nor bring forth children for trouble;
For they shall be the descendants of the blessed of the Lord,
And their offspring with them.
24 “It shall come to pass
That before they call, I will answer;
And while they are still speaking, I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
The lion shall eat straw like the ox,
And dust shall be the serpent’s food.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,”
Says the Lord.
The prophet who penned the beautiful passage above writes with buoyant optimism of a different world from the one the exiles find as they trickle back from Babylon to their ruined and wasted homeland. He writes of a world of tenderness. He draws upon earlier content in Isaiah where we read that God “will judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:4).
Former things – that is, the Babylonian Exile – are forgotten. The mood is one of rejoicing. Good tidings will again lift up the poor and the brokenhearted.
In fact, Isaiah presents a vision of a world where creatures are capable of changing their behavior, where the community embraces those who are different, where peace is the norm. All shall live together on God’s “holy mountain” in a revitalized Jerusalem reimagined
and rebuilt with justice for all. Isaiah presents a reality that perhaps the world has never known, certainly not in Jerusalem, or in Rhode Island, or in any other part of the world. He imagines a fantastic reality – a new creation, a world of joy and equity where there is no more “the sound of weeping” and “the cry of distress” (vs. 19).
Are these Isaiah’s pipe dreams? What kind of weed is he smoking? For surely, the vision he presents is a new vision for creation. Could it be, perhaps, God’s original vision for humankind? Isaiah invites us to imagine a world of tenderness where the lion of greed is tamed to make room for the lamb of vulnerability. To imagine a world of tenderness where the hidden snake of poverty will not slither forth to bite the innocent child. He invites us to imagine.
Steven Covey, author of the best seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People writes that “All Things Are Created Twice” and explains that, “There’s a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation to all things.” Before we take a trip, we create it first in our minds, don’t we? Where we are going to go, how we are going to get there, what we would like to see, and so forth. Before we build our addition, Carl first creates a set of blueprints designed to create the room we want to add, a place for storage and a sink, a table where Sunday School could be held, where we could gather for small meetings, a composting toilet.
Now suppose that we would like to build a new world, one that is tender toward all its inhabitants. What kind of a world would we like to create? What would that new world order look like? Where might our imagination take us?
In my mind’s eye, I can see a home with light spilling out of windows, and a family sitting around the table eating dinner. I can imagine a world where everyone has a warm, safe place to live and every child has enough to eat.
I can see a young mother supporting herself and her children with one 40-hour a week job and being able to focus because she has daycare. I can imagine a world where she has health care and opportunities for education and career.
I can see a father pulling up in front of the school with his first grader, confident that she will be safe. I can imagine a world where no parent will receive a call about a shooting on the playground and no family will be awakened by police at the door.
I can see an elderly woman with limited means being able to afford both her utilities and her blood pressure medication. I can imagine a world where she is remembered by her neighbors and people stop in to visit and take her shopping.
I can see a student who was brought here by his parents as a child being able to attend college, apply for a “green card,” get a job, become a citizen. I can imagine a world where immigrants are valued for their contributions to America and given a place of respect in the community.
If we can imagine these things, why can’t we do them? Why can’t we make them come true? Is our failure to build the peaceable kingdom, a failure of our vision? This is not a new idea. The wisdom literature in Proverbs answers our question: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18 KJV). Could it be that our failure as a society to bring about the “peaceable kingdom,” to create a world of tenderness, is a failure of our imagination?
Corporate consultant Joel Barker stresses the importance of vision as something we hold onto as we reinvent ourselves, the “rope” which we grasp to pull us across the chasm of our present reality over to the safe shore of our desired future. And then Barker says something very interesting: “The ultimate function of prophecy is not to tell the future, but to make it.”
Isaiah presents us with a tall order, God’s tall order! Isaiah intends that we open up his blueprint, fasten our eyeglasses on our collective noses, and proceed to meet everyone’s most basic needs, invest in medical research, provide for a just distribution of the wealth of our labor, turn our swords into tools of harvest and make war no more.
If we can dream it, we can do it. Barker suggests this formula, “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action” he proposes, “can change the world.”
Across the centuries, Isaiah – whose name means “the Lord saves” invites us to imagine a world of tenderness and then to build it, one stone upon another. Is there anything more important in our world today than working towards peace? Peace in our families? Peace in our communities? Peace in our world?
“How do we sing oracles of peace and justice that are not empty ballads? How do we not lose hope in working for a new Jerusalem in all corners of the earth?” God invites us to imagine a tender world as we approach the beginning of a new year. May God help us to make it so!
 Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989, 99.
 Rev. Dr. Anita Louise Schell writing for the Council of Churches’ Sunday.
Moosup Valley Church, UCC
Up a Tree
November 10, 2019
Today we have this charming little story of Zacchaeus, up-a-tree to get a better view of Jesus as he passes by. As always, we need to see this text in the larger context of Luke’s gospel, the themes that Luke stresses – welcome to outsiders, the right use of money and possessions, the character of faith and repentance, and the presence of God’s salvation in the world.
The gospel presents Zacchaeus as short of stature, but that may have less to do with his height than with his occupation. As the chief tax collector, he is despised by his own people not only for colluding with Rome but also for taking advantage of them for his own benefit – think corrupt subprime mortgage agents in our day who sell houses to people they know can’t afford them so they can foreclose on the property, or bankers who open up accounts in your name without your knowledge to earn bonuses and promotions. We don’t know why Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus; perhaps he’s heard that Jesus is a friend to sinners and tax collectors, and he wants a word with him. But the crowd is an obstacle, too many heads blocking his view, so he scampers ahead and climbs a tree to watch for him.
A characteristic of this text is how physical it is, all those verbs: Zacchaeus stretches to see, runs ahead, climbs a tree, hurries down, stands in front of Jesus. I’m out of breath just reading all these action words! And it occurs to me that we are all out of breath today, given the complexity and pace of modern society, the stress of the nightly news, the expectations weighing on us. Looking around, I see too many of us choked with fear for ourselves and our world, choked with guilt for what we have done – or not done – or that we aren’t doing more to make the world a better place. Where is the time to think, to be, to reflect, to rest and recharge? To get perspective?
Zacchaeus climbs a tree to get perspective. Perhaps we need to climb a tree, too, at least metaphorically. The classic example of how one’s life is changed by getting perspective is Charles Dickens’ play, “A Christmas Carol,” soon to be staged by Trinity Rep. and theaters all over the country. Set on Christmas Eve, 1843, miser Ebenezer Scrooge gets perspective when his deceased business partner Jacob Marley, now a chained and tormented ghost, visits him with visions of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. And George Bailey gets perspective on his life in “It’s a Wonderful Life” when the angel Clarence shows him the difference he has made in others’ lives. And, of course, there’s Dorothy in Wizard of Oz who discovers that there’s “No place like home,” even when nothing has changed but her perspective.
But our gaining perspective need not be so dramatic. Nor do we need to climb a tree to see clearly. My cousin’s husband Larry takes a five-mile walk every day to clear his head. I’ve begun to walk the track at Woody Lowden’s at least twice a week and welcome you to join me. We can take a walk in the fresh air and enjoy the fall colors without our cell phones glued to our ears. Nature is very healing and restorative. Being out-of-doors gives us perspective.
Now that I’ve moved to Foster, I have been reading more. Our Yellow Book Project this summer prompted me to invite all of us to read or watch or visit places that enlighten us and make us a more understanding and compassionate people. Reading or listening to stories is one of the ways that we gain perspective. When Sarah and I went to Vermont two weeks ago, we listened to Sue Monk Kidd’s magnificent novel, “The Invention of Wings,” a part true, part fiction account of the life of abolitionist and suffragist Sarah Grimke, her sister Nina, and their family slave named Handful. We were reminded about the cruelty of slavery and the narrow life of women in pre-Civil War America. We also learned that hope springs eternal and love eventually conquers evil. You have heard it said that we are what we eat. It’s also true that we are what we read (or see, or listen to, or watch). Humans beings are people of stories, told since the beginning of recorded time around the campfire. We can immerse ourselves in those that give us perspective.
In the same way, we are people who learn from each other. When was the last time you engaged with someone whose life is different from yours? Whose faith is different from yours? Years ago, when I was taking Clinical Pastoral Education at the Chaplaincy Center, we were given the MLK holiday to hang out at Kennedy Plaza in Providence and talk with people. I soon discovered that I knew who was just passing through on the way to somewhere and who was homeless – the difference between someone who has a purpose and someone whose purpose is trying to stay warm, passing the time until she could go back to the shelter. Over the years, I’ve learned from talking with people, understanding what their lives are like, their struggles and their hopes and dreams. I’ve learned the truth of “There but for the grace of God go I,” to use evangelical preacher John Bradford’s words in the 1500s, as he watched a criminal being led to the scaffold. We gain perspective when we get outside of our own limited experience.
In the same way, we gain perspective when we get away or try something new. Kim came back from Italy in October less bothered by petty annoyances at work. I’ve joined the Fellowship of the Ringers (along with Lee) under Dorothy Shippee’s leadership at Foster Center Church to open my life to something completely new – and a new appreciation of how hard it really is to ring on the right note at the right time with a bell in each hand!
It’s good for us, every so often, to climb a tree for a new perspective. Zacchaeus climbs the Sycamore, and he sees what Jesus sees: the poor and the sick, the lame and the blind, the lonely and the outcast. Perhaps he sees that his cheating on taxes has caused some of their suffering, and he climbs down from his safe haven in the tree, with a new attitude toward his fellow human beings, ready to make amends, a changed man to stand with Jesus who came “to seek out and to save the lost.”
We may not have to climb a tree, literally, to see Jesus above the crowd. We can find perspective in stories, in relationships, in new experiences. Jesus comes to us in and through these activities of daily life, and invites us to come and follow him. And it is there that Zacchaeus becomes a “happy saint” of the church. He is in relationship with the One who knows when we are up a tree or out on a limb. The One who doesn’t wait to be invited, the One who finds us even when we hide, the One who lavishes us – even us – with extravagant love.
Jesus is the “real deal” and Zacchaeus knows it. Immediately, he becomes part of Jesus’ mission to distribute his money and possessions – half of all he has – so that all will have enough. And in doing so, he becomes joyful and generous. He has discovered the secret to a happy life, to a life without fear and guilt: to live and to share and to love as best we can. And it will be enough!
May it be so! Amen.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
The Challenge to Holy Living
November 3, 2019
On this All Saints Day, this is the gospel lesson we have been given. Why this text that speaks of blessings and woes? Why this text that speaks of a reversal of fortunes, when today we are celebrating loved ones who have gone before us? What can this mean to us?
We heard these same words in Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, the one we call the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God; blessed are those who mourn, for the will be comforted. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Matthew has offered us a more sanitized version, one without the “woes.” Luke, however, in his text, in what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Plain, uses the same source material, but he is more literal. And consistent. The life of holiness is challenging and difficult. All this talk about the poor, and hungry, and grief-stricken: Are we poor? Or are we rich?
From the very beginning, Luke’s gospel opens with the birth narrative – and if you think I’m jumping the season, let me remind us all that we will be in the season of Advent and our tree will be lit in four weeks. And in his very first chapter, Luke tells the story of the Angel Gabriel and his visit to the young Mary in Nazareth, the virgin who is engaged to Joseph and who, even so, says “yes” to God’s claim on her life. She does this with a remarkable poem, perhaps the most revolutionary, political passage in our Bibles, that we have come to call Mary’s Song of Praise, the “Magnificat”: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Luke forces us to take seriously the voice of the oppressed from beginning to end, from the shepherds who lived on the margins of society – poor, unwashed ruffians, up in the hilltops tending sheep, a dirty job. Remember, the shepherds were the first to greet the Christ child – not the kings and nobility.
Yes, Luke is consistent. But what of our saints? If we believe that blessings are a declaration of holiness and goodness, then we also must accept the idea that curses, or woes, are an announcement of the evil and injustice in a person or thing or situation.
In our lesson this morning, Jesus is teaching the crowds that have been following him through the countryside. He surely has witnessed suffering “up close and personal” in his travels, and his heart has gone out to the “least of these.” I picture hundreds of people lined up in the third world, waiting for the hospital ship to pull into port, the villagers helping Doctors Without Borders set up temporary operating rooms after an earthquake. I imagine the crippled, feverish, mentally ill crowding around Jesus, mothers holding children too sick to smile, fathers carried in on rush blankets. And Jesus curses those whose wealth, comfort, and prestige are built upon this same suffering.
Jesus continually looks for reversals: a change of heart in the tax collector who will stop cheating, an openness of the Pharisee to a truth beyond the law, a willingness of the faithful to follow the One who has picked up the prophet Isaiah’s mantel, the One who has come “…to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.
This is the gospel lesson that is set aside for us on All Saints Day. The saints are those whose lives bear witness to suffering and real struggle and the challenge to holy living – whether one is a church-goer or not – that is grounded in the real suffering and struggle of real people who seek to be good neighbors, who work for the common good, and who want to be faithful to the old fashioned values of moderation and respect and courtesy.
Right now, is our beloved country, as we are caught in the tension between blessings and curses, between rewards and woes, let us remember that there are no easy answers – and no one answer to solve our nation’s woes – although some are more helpful than others.
Jesus calls for a reversal of fortunes, yes, but not that the poor become rich and the rich, poor, but that we overthrow social norms, and patterns, and relationships that depend on the suffering of many to support the advantages of a few.
In Jesus’ ethical code, with which he ends this lesson, we are to listen, to love, to do good, to bless, to pray, to make peace, to be generous. I lie in bed at night, thinking what I can say that will help, that will inspire, that will make a difference in our lives, and the words of Saint Francis come to me:
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”
This is the work of the saints. This is our work, saints-in-the-making all. It is in this hope that the true celebration of All Saints’ Day lies.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Saints and Sinners
October 20, 2019
There is no more important question than the one asked of Jesus by the rich young ruler in just four verses beyond this one, the one we are discussing in today’s text: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The gospel writer Luke is preparing us to hear that question with this story of the self-righteous religious leader who obeys all the rules in contrast with the repentant tax collector who has cheated people to feather his own nest, and Jesus’ talk of righteousness: “…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” In other words, we are to trust not in our own goodness but in God’s mercy to us.
When we hear this parable, we are too often quick to place ourselves in one role or the other. Am I more like a Pharisee or more like a tax collector? For those of sitting here in church this morning, it’s perhaps too easy to align ourselves with the “good guys,” and to look down our noses at those who sleep in on Sunday morning or are out on the golf course. Or with its opposite of over-contrition: God, I am such a loser, so bad, so worthless. I don’t deserve to walk into a church, to ask for your love and forgiveness.
But Jesus, in typical fashion, reminds us that appearances can be deceiving: The one called “holy” by society walks away from the temple trusting in his own self-importance and lifting up his own ego, while the one whom everyone loves to hate casts himself on God’s mercy. As usual Jesus turns the tables on the established order of things in first century Palestine, and redefines who ranks higher in God’s kingdom.
So, are you a Pharisee or a tax collector? The truth, of course, is that we are both. We are all saints – and we are all sinners who have fallen far short of the goals God has for us. We have two testaments full of prophets – the Old Testament and the New – to remind us how life should be lived and cared for and to reprimand us for falling short of God’s will for humankind.
Theologians in the past have attempted to explain wickedness. In his “Church Dogmatics,” Karl Barth, a Swiss Reformed Theologian thought to be the greatest Protestant theologian of all time, draws a distinction between the goodness of God the Creator and the sinfulness of the creature. Jesus seems to be making such a point to his audience: The Pharisee thinks he is saved by his own prideful actions, the good that he is doing by following the religious codes. The tax collector is ashamed by what he has done. Both, according to Jesus, are sinners in God’s eyes, but the first is not aware of his sin. He justifies himself by his own actions. Jesus, however, teaches that they both should put on the cloak of humility, they both should rely on God’s mercy, that both need to rely on God and not on themselves – as should we.
Before Barth, another of our spiritual ancestors, John Calvin, a French pastor and theologian in the 1500s who was a key player in the Protestant Reformation, preached about the total depravity of humankind, tracing back to Adam and Eve and their “original sin” in the garden of Eden. It is this brand of Calvinist Baptist theology that Richard Waterman wanted to see preached from the pulpits in the Larger Parish and that he funded with his bank stocks in 1838.
With all due respect and apologies to Richard Waterman, I don’t believe in the theological concept of original sin, total depravity. Those are attempts by our forebears to understand human behavior, to explain evil. When I hold a brand new baby, caress his softness and heft and marvel at her tiny toes and fingers, and look into the eyes of wonder and amazement and see them looking back at me, I find it hard to believe that we are born sinful. Maybe when we reach the Terrible Twos, the age of “me” and “mine” and “no,” perhaps, but not the newborn!
Today we know more about human development, and we don’t try to lay all behavior at eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of goodness and evil, to lay the blame at the foot of an apple tree. We have greater understanding of nature and nurture and life experience in shaping us. But the teaching does help us to grasp our mortality, our human propensity to prideful thinking, our feeble attempts to make ourselves more than God, to be God.
The psalmist, centuries ago, sees the truth that we are both saint and sinner when he writes, “Who are humans that you, God, are mindful of us,” and yet you created us “a little lower than the angels.” (Ps. 8) Another theologian, Jewish mystic Martin Buber, observed that our spiritual nature has “two pockets.” When we reach into one pocket, we pull out smallness, that is, “We are nothing but dust and ashes.” But when we reach into our other pocket, we extract greatness: “For our sake the universe was created,” and for our sake, God sent Jesus that we might have eternal life.
So perhaps we ought not think too highly of ourselves like the Pharisee, that we are God’s gift to the world, to hold too optimistic a view of ourselves and humankind, that we are perfect as we are, that nothing needs to change. Yet perhaps we ought not think too poorly of ourselves, either, that we have nothing to offer, to hold too pessimistic a view of ourselves, because that lets us off the hook of taking responsibility. I vote for balance, and not just for ourselves as individuals but also as a nation. We tend to look at scripture as pertaining to individual persons, and we look for personal meaning in the stories. What do they mean to you and me?
But Jesus is also talking to representatives of groups of people in ancient Israel, parts of the larger society. The Pharisee represents the religious establishment which was in cahoots with the ruling class, and the tax collector, a class of government workers, Jews employed by the Romans and who often cheated their own people.
We see the Pharisee today in the Religious Right’s claim that their view of the world is the only one, their reading of the Bible is the only true reading, their brand of Christian faith is the only real faith – and all others are illegitimate. We see the Pharisee today in the Religious Right’s view that government should be under their thumb, that there should be no separation of church and state, that secular government must be reformed – that only their Christian worldview should shape society. It’s worth noting that not everyone who claims to be Christian is very Christ-like!
And the tax collector, who is he in today’s worldview? Perhaps he is all of us who lose sight of our responsibility to care for each other, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Perhaps he is all of us who allow institutional racism, under-education of the poor, people to die for lack of health care, corporate greed. So we, too, need to hold up a moral mirror and look at ourselves, beat our chests, and ask for mercy.
I fear for our collective future. I repent of the dissatisfaction and fear – that have given rise to polarization and hate in our beloved country. Surely, we all bear some measure of responsibility for the fix we are in. Let us not gloat in our goodness, boast of our righteousness like the Pharisee, but cry out for mercy, admit our sin like the tax collector, that we have fallen short of our American principles and values, of our decency and respect for each other, of the Way of Jesus, and the best that we can be.
Let us renew ourselves as a nation that we may be filled with new life. Let us humble ourselves that we may be justified.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
October 13, 2019
This story is known as the parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge which is unique to the Gospel of Luke. It must have been an “outlier” story that Luke picks up, although Matthew, Mark, and John do not.
We have grown accustomed to Jesus as healer, teacher, and a man of prayer. Who knew he was also a comedian? Imagine his disciples hearing this story! They must have been elbowing each other, tears running down their cheeks as they double over with laughter. They know these people: the woman who is getting a raw deal because she has nothing – no husband, no inheritance, no social standing; the politician who cares only for himself, the smarmy guy everyone loves to hate. We know them, too. And we all love it when the underdog ends up on top! It doesn’t happen often enough!
Luke doesn’t reveal the specifics of the widow’s complaint, only that she has been treated unjustly. An Evangelical Lutheran pastor in my October 9th Christian Century magazine suggests: “Perhaps her son has been wrongly imprisoned or her sister abruptly fired. Maybe she herself has suffered age discrimination. It might be that her brother is being detained at the border or her deceased husband’s lawyer is dragging his heels in settling the estate. Perhaps she has been driven into bankruptcy by exorbitant medical bills.” We do not know the nature of the injustice done her, but it’s clear that she is outraged and indignant and persistent in her complaining!
How can we understand this parable? What is it about? Who is the widow? Who is the judge? Is it about God, who God is and how God acts? Or about us and our call to faithful life? Or about persistent prayer? Or about all of these?
We know that our prayers are not always answered – at least not in the way we would like. We pray without ceasing at the bedside of a child who is dying of cancer. We hammer away at God’s door, for any number of things, but to no apparent avail. Sometimes we are worn out by praying. We wish we were as successful as the widow in the parable.
Yet, in verse one, as he introduces the story, Luke writes, the disciples need “to pray always and not to lose heart.” We are confused, perhaps, because we read in scripture, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). And it worked for the poor widow! But not always for us….
Perhaps we don’t understand prayer. We think it is a matter of putting in our order to God who will then, if we pray hard enough, grant us our every desire. Out of our mouths into God’s ears. We 21st century Christians think that God has unclaimed blessings to bestow upon us and that God wants us to be selfish in our prayers, that it is appropriate for us to ask for God to increase the value of our stock portfolio, to find us a new job, to cure us of diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.
That’s not what the parable is about. From the start, Jesus sets out, not to resolve the mystery of answered and unanswered prayer, but to teach his disciples the value of persistence – persistence in seeking justice, persistence in prayer for justice. And it’s hard work, keeping hope alive in our seemingly hopeless world.
The early church for whom Luke was writing, certainly prayed for many things it did not receive: safety and protection from persecution, for example. Yet it did receive what it needed most: a sense of God’s loving presence and attentiveness and the strength and resilience that it needed to survive.
The parable also teaches us that we can count on God to come down on the side of justice, to hear the ones who have no power, no influence, no voice. We can’t count on God always to grant our requests, but we can count on God to hear the persistent prayers of our hearts.
There are critical issues worthy of our persistent prayer today. On the top of my list is the need for political parties to work together to advance public policies that uplift our deepest sacred values – values of love, justice, and mercy.
French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the United States in 1831 to study our prisons and returned with a wealth of broader observations that he collected in his book, “Democracy in America,” published in 1835, one of the most influential books of the 19th century. He wrote,
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors
and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in the fertile fields and boundless
prairies, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America
and heard her pulpits, aflame with righteousness, did I understand the secret
of her genius and power. America is great because she is good,
and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.
Our country is in need of a moral revolution. Across the country, poverty and inequality are rampant; voting rights and democracy are being undermined by dark money in campaigns; millions of people still lack the health care, living wage jobs, and quality education; and racism, hatred, and bigotry are eating into our democracy.
We have a lot of work to do as a country to live up to our highest ideals. To come together as a nation for the common good. And that’s going to take a lot of persistence! Like the widow who never gave up! So how can we, here at Moosup Valley, be persistent in praying for justice? What can we do to champion the sacred values of love, justice, and mercy?
The writer Clarissa Pinkola Estés – maybe you read her book a few years ago, “Women Who Run with the Wolves,” – is a post-trauma recovery specialist, and it is comforting to read her advice:
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.
It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale… When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.
So, let us persist in bothering God, a sign that our faith is active and our hope is alive, so that we can sing, even if our voices falter, from time to time, “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.”
May it be so!
 JoAnn A. Post, “Reflections on the Lectionary,” Christian Century, October 9, 2019, p. 18.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Faith Is a Verb
October 2, 2019
Scholars have trouble with this little periscope – these verses that are clustered together for this Sunday’s gospel reading. There’s a lot more about the mustard seed in other places in Luke and in Matthew, and how does the “faith” question fit with the parable about the slaves? And why is the slave called “worthless” when he or she is being dutiful? Working day and night? Why isn’t the slave called faithful? What is Jesus point?
And, who among us, does not wish for more faith? Especially when life is most difficult! The disciples have just heard from Jesus, in the preceding verses, that discipleship is going to be more demanding than they had thought. Not only are they are accountable to each other, they have just learned that it would be better to drown in the sea than to lead a sister or brother astray. And if they are wronged, Jesus says, and the offender repents, they are to draw from a bottomless well of forgiveness. It is no wonder that they cry to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”
Jesus responds with two stories: The first has to do with a tiny mustard seed. “If only you had this much faith,” we can imagine Jesus saying, as he holds up thumb and forefinger, “you could pluck up this tree,” like Harry Potter with his wand….” We read the text thinking that Jesus is blaming them, heaping guilt upon them, and, indeed, we often read scripture thinking we have fallen short. But Jesus knows his disciples – how confused they must be from his teachings, how overwhelmed they must feel from the travel, how uncertain about where they will lay their heads that night – so perhaps he is answering them with kindness and love, with a twinkle in his eye, teasing them…. After all, they have given up everything for Jesus, uprooted their very lives to follow him; isn’t that faith enough?
Besides, what are they asking for, when they ask for more faith? If I were to ask each of you what “faith” is, I’d get a different answer from each one of you, and there is no correct definition. The dictionary would tell us that faith is a noun – a person, place, thing, and, if we make it into a gerund, a quality, or act – but “faith” is not any of those, is it? We can’t see it, touch it, hear it, taste it, smell it. The writer of James makes faith tangible by linking faith to behavior toward the poor when he says, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (2:18).
I suspect that we confuse “faith” with a set of “beliefs,” like a doctrine or a creed, a religious teaching we have adopted along the way, something we say we might believe – or no longer believe – and, therefore, think we are being unfaithful. Give me more faith, we might ask, along with the disciples.
Let me suggest three ideas about faith: The first is that, just as we change over our lives by becoming older and wiser, and the world around us is changing, becoming more complex politically and economically, and science unlocks the genome, advancing medicine, and everything runs on computers these days, why is it is not only okay that our faith change, but it also is a measure of our maturity that it change. Our faith needs to grow with us.
As children we might have swallowed without question particular readings of scripture – think myths and miracles and conflicting accounts of so-called history – or such religious tenets as the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection or the Atonement, but as adults we have trouble believing them in the same way and worry that we have “lost” our faith. I grew up a Methodist and learned that our faith is a matter of holding scripture, tradition, reason, and experience together. So, I propose that, as adults, our faith should change; our faith needs to grow with us to give us meaning for our lives.
Second, I suggest that each of our faiths is unique to each one of us. My faith is a unique blend of my being – my background, my development of body, mind, personality, and social setting, everything that makes me unique and different from everyone else. Just as your faith is unique to you. I don’t mean to imply that the doctrines and traditions of the many different religions and denominations are not important – they are a statement of commonly held or agreed upon ideas – but they only can be a starting point for each of us as we develop our own meaningful faith.
Ultimately, my faith must be owned by me, just as your faith must be owned by you. And we help each other grow spiritually by studying and questioning and sharing our faith with each other. This is one of the benefits of participating in a local church, where people talk with each other and learn from each other, where people are not afraid to challenge old ideas, where people are open to the Spirit in our midst. It’s not helpful to one’s faith development to worship by turning on the TV on Sunday mornings – if that’s all you do, because you miss the diversity of ideas and experience! We need to interact with each other!
And third, I propose that a more helpful way to think about “faith” is not as a noun but as a verb – or not only as a noun but also as a verb – something that is dynamic and action-oriented. The original meaning of the word “belief” in medieval English – the word is “byleue” – had to do with holding in high esteem, cherishing. “To believe” was the verb form of the noun “faith,” and it meant “to hold dear,” “to prize,” “to give allegiance,” “to be-love.” To believe, then, to have faith, is to have a feeling, not a set of ideas to which we must subscribe. It is something that we love, something that we are drawn towards, something that gives our lives meaning. We might think of these as “faithing,” a new word. Ultimately, faith is what we love, not the ideas we hold.
And the disciples want more of it! And we probably do, too, in this brokenhearted world of ours. I wonder if Jesus was laughing at his beloved disciples; how much more faith do they need? They have given him their all, and it will prove sufficient for the establishment of the Christian church.
And us, what do we believe? Or, a better question might be, What do we love? Faith has more to do with the quality of our lives than in the ideas that we hold or the creeds that we recite, with that which we ultimately trust rather than in any theological formulas. The old hymn, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” reminds us that there is no need for guilt, for fear, for distrust, for sorrow. There is only the need for love, to sense God’s love for us and to return that love, a cup full and running over with God’s grace.
My prayer is that it might be so for each of us!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
September 29, 2019
Psalm 91 is known as a “psalm of trust,” one that promises that those who abide in the shelter of God’s wings will be delivered from danger, difficulty, and disappointment. Scholars propose that it might have been a prayer of thanksgiving by someone who recovered from a long illness, or a testimony by one who found refuge from persecutors in the temple, or even a liturgy by a king going into battle. Surely, it speaks to the terrors of our lives – the terrors of war, disease, storms, sexual violence, homelessness – the feelings of fear, anxiety, pain – all the challenges of our lives.
In the midst of these, the writer of the psalm affirms God’s willingness to protect the faithful:
“The Most High will deliver us, overshadow us
with wings like a mother bird and shield us in battle.
No epidemic shall come near us;
angels will bear us up, and we will be untouched by monsters.”
So then, we have a right to ask, don’t we, where was God when a mosquito bite sends a little girl to the hospital with encephalitis, a beloved father is killed in a plane crash, a routine heath exam reveals bad news? And where is God in conflicts around the world, migrants fleeing for their lives, hurricanes devastating communities? Living is risky business – even when we eat our veggies, get enough sleep, quit smoking, move to higher ground, and stay within the posted speed limits. Why does a good God allow suffering? Can God be all powerful and all good at the same time?
In the ancient world, misfortune was thought to be a sign that one had sinned. Job’s friends accuse him of such in spite of his protests. Why do bad things happen to good people? People wiser than I have struggled with this question for thousands of years. Theologians have tied themselves up in knots, developed dogmas and doctrines, postulated God’s will in all kinds of ways to answer that question.
We want answers where there are none. We want explanations, and so we develop clichés: “Everything happens for a reason,” we hear. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” we tell the grieving. “Only the good die young,” Billy Joel sings. If one doesn’t believe in God, he or she can lay the cause of evil on the immoral nature of the universe, but if one does believe in God, where is the comfort?
Historically, Christians claim that God is Sovereign of the Universe, the Ruler of all things. Is God, then, responsible for everything that happens? Take the Holocaust, for example. Did God stand by and watch the murder of six million Jews? The lead poisoning of children in Flint? Fires in California? Why does God let suffering and evil happen? The will of God? How can we possibly know? Yet, when we read the gospel, we know what the will of God is: health and wholeness, peace and justice, love and goodwill. Jesus tells us, over and over. All we have to do is read our Bibles.
So, then, why do bad things happen to good people? If God doesn’t cause tragedy, who does? Why does God allow it? We have to blame somebody, don’t we? Perhaps we are to blame. God has given us free will, and therein lies the rub. We’re to blame, or so we think. Yes, and sometimes we are. Bad choices. Recklessness. Greed. Selfishness. We are moral creatures, aren’t we? But that doesn’t explain why the innocent suffer.
I’m often reminded of an old cartoon in which Pontius Puddle shakes his fist at God. “Why do you allow war and hunger and destruction?” And a deep voice from the cloud responds, “I was going to ask you the same thing!” And when there is suffering, where will God be? The psalmist writes:
14 Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. 15When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honour them. 16 With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
Are these false promises? When we read our English word “love,” we have the impression that, if God loves me, God will protect me from harm. We read the psalm as if we have a deal with God: I will be a good girl and you will keep me safe. I will be rewarded if I love God. Only good will happen to me. It’s a fair trade, isn’t it? So why does tragedy strike the faithful? Why do bad things happen to good people? To innocent children? To worshippers in synagogues, mosques, and churches?
A close look at the text may be helpful: “The Hebrew verb, which has been translated ‘
“love” in English, but more accurately in the Hebrew conveys not love but a sense of ‘being connected with’ God intimately.” It’s not about making a “deal” with God (love for protection); it’s about a relationship with God. The Hebrew word translated “love” suggests that “relationship with God is deliverance – it is life.” Our relationship with God is what matters most; God is with us in the tragedy.
It further suggests that “the point of seeking God is not to avoid suffering or hardship; rather, it is to know that God is constantly available, sustaining those who will discern God’s presence.” God is with us in the suffering, doubled over by the nerve gas, sitting beside the hospital bed, binding up wounds on the battlefield, hovering over the son on the cross. “Those who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,” writes the psalmist, “will say … ‘My refuge and fortress; my God in whom I trust.’” God is with us no matter what happens to us, and that’s what counts.
Over the centuries, people have imagined God in different ways – God up there, God out there, God in here – but one theologian, Matthew Fox, offers an image that is helpful to me. He suggests that God is like the ocean, and we are the fish that are swimming in the ocean. God is all around us and in us and through us, the One in whom we are immersed. Imagine yourself at the ocean, how the salt water holds you up, how the water flows over you, lifts you up and down with the swells. Image that this is God – all around you, over you, and under you. And, because our bodies are mostly water – we are, on average, 60 percent salt water – in you. Imagine that you are immersed in God – not up there or out there – but surrounding us and holding us up, the One, as the Apostle Paul says in the Book of Acts (17:18), “in whom we live and move and have our being.” Think “abiding” in….
Psalm 91 invites us to “abide” with God in this way, to feel God sustaining us, holding us up as all the waves of life – the tragedy of our lives – the suffering and the broken-heartedness, crash in around us.
Out of the suffering of her life, Maxine Kumin, U.S. Poet Laureate and author of 25 books for children, wrote Morning Swim:
Into my empty head there come / a cotton beach, a dock wherefrom
I set out, oily and nude / through mist, in chilly solitude.
There was no line, no roof or floor / to tell the water from the air.
Night fog thick as terry cloth / closed me in its fuzzy growth.
I hung my bathrobe on two pegs. / I took the lake between my legs.
Invaded and invader, I / went overhand on that flat sky.
Fish twitched beneath me, quick and tame. / In their green zone they sang my name
and in the rhythm of the swim / I hummed a two-four-time slow hymn.
I hummed “Abide With Me.” The beat / rose in the fine thrash of my feet,
rose in the bubbles I put out / slantwise, trailing through my mouth.
My bones drank water; water fell / through all my doors. I was the well
that fed the lake that met my sea / in which I sang “Abide With Me.”
May it be so!
 Maxine Kumin Selected Poems: 1960-1990, © 1997.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
God’s Nature Is Love
September 22, 2019
The writer of the Gospel of Luke is fond of “lost and found” allegories, stories that tell us what God’s love is like. In this chapter alone, we have three familiar ones – the parable about the shepherd who has 99 sheep safely in the pen and goes to find the one who is lost; the parable about the woman who sweeps her house until she finds the lost coin; and the parable about the prodigal son. Our lectionary text for this morning deals only with the first two.
You and I know about losing and looking. Perhaps not about sheep, but we know about losing our keys, our eyeglasses, our checkbooks, the word on the tip of our tongues, and the relief and rejoicing when they are found! And we know about losing a beloved pet who slipped out when the door was ajar, and the relief and rejoicing when someone calls and reports that he is safe. Yes, we know about losing and looking – and rejoicing.
In these first two stories it’s clear what is lost and what is found – a sheep and a coin. Both have to do with economics and value: Even the loss of one sheep affects the bottom line, so a shepherd will go looking in all the places where a lamb might be hiding, too fearful to make a bleat to help the shepherd find her in the thicket or the ditch. God treasures every sheep.
Jesus tells these stories to remind the religious leaders who are criticizing him for eating with “sinners” – those they consider unwashed and unworthy (like tax collectors and prostitutes, and drunkards), all those who live on the fringes of society, who don’t belong anywhere – that no one is lost to God, that everyone has value and is worth saving.
So this is a Sunday School lesson about whom God loves – and that is everyone, everyone, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey. Whether we are “insiders” in the church or in the larger society, or those who don’t think they are welcome anywhere, especially in the church, “outsiders,” God loves us one and all.
But I believe the commentators who analyze these tests – who picked them apart to figure out who wrote them and for whom they are intended and what they meant to the people who first heard them – miss something important. These lost and found stories are more than about business matters – the monetary value of every lamb and the necessary coin to feed a hungry family. The scholars miss the intimacy; they miss the love!
Imagine you are the shepherd. You have counted the sheep a couple of times to make sure. Somebody’s missing. Who is it? And then you realize it’s the little one, the one who likes to prance through the flowers in the field. The one who comes running when you call. Where is she? Has she nibbled herself lost, following her nose from clover to clover, over the hill and out of sight of the flock? You can’t have her out there by herself, not with the wolves howling like they did last night.
And so you strike out in the direction you last saw her. There was that ravine you passed earlier. Maybe she lost her footing and …. Who knows? She must be afraid, lonely, stuck. And then, you see her. Yes, she’s tangled in some bushes and grown tired from the struggle to get loose. You sense her relief when you pick her up and put her across your shoulders. And now there’s a spring in your step as you head back to camp. You can feel the lamb’s warmth on your back, the sweet smell of grass in her wool, her muzzle in your neck, in your ear. Yes, this is an intimate moment, shepherd and sheep.
Tuesday, I took my beloved cat, Kamikazi, to the vet for surgery, and as they carried him away, tears welled up in my eyes, and when I brought him home at the end of the day, I lifted him up to my face and nuzzled my nose in his fur, listening for his purr. Yes, I know he’s only a cat. But you know, because you, too, have loved and lost, then knew the joy of finding – or the grief of not finding.
And sometimes it’s death that takes them away. My son’s Golden Retriever was dying of cancer, and I drove to Hew Hampshire, even when I had cancer, and lay down on the floor with him and stroked his paws, and told him what a great dog he had been and how I would miss him.
Jesus, who loves everyone, saints and sinners alike, tells us this “good shepherd” story to tell us what God is like. And God loves us like we love, at least as much as we love. And not only us, but also all of creation, the docile animals that share our homes and the wild ones that forage in our woods and fields.
God is not only an intellectual idea or an experience of the mystery of the cosmos, but God is also a feeling. And our beloved pets with their unconditional love teach us how God loves. And to this love we are called, to bless and to be blessed, now and forever more!
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
September 8, 2019
When I read a text like this, I’m glad I’m not a biblical literalist. I am not one to say that God reached down from heaven and wrote this passage with his finger like Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I don’t believe that God whispered it into the ear of a faithful scribe and then edited the translations of the monks over the centuries. Biblical material is a product of its time. It reflects the truth of the community in the 1st century which gave these stories their life and meaning. But it is the task of each generation to discover that truth for itself. So what then, might this text mean for you and me in the 21st century?
The cost of discipleship is a difficult one for contemporary audiences like us. It confronts us with hard choices and jars any notion that being a Christian is easy. While there are texts that comfort the afflicted, this one afflicts the comfortable. Luke has constructed this passage very carefully. He starts with Jesus’ introductory verse to the crowds followed by three statements about the nature of discipleship. These are: First, whoever does not hate mother and father, spouse and children – and even life itself – cannot be a disciple. Second, one who does not carry the cross, cannot be my disciple, and Third, none of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
And in between, there are two analogies, two comparisons to help us understand about discipleship, (building a tower and waging a war). These raise the question of whether would-be disciples can follow through on their initial commitments. In other words, don’t start something you can’t finish.
This discipleship talk is tough stuff. Jesus is speaking to a large crowd. Is he trying to sort out who is really serious about following him? Is he trying to winnow – cut down on – the circle of people who have become attached to him and his cause, warning away those who cannot bear the heat?
Now, I don’t believe that Jesus wants us to leave our families. Everything Jesus stands for is about relationships: caring for children, letting them come to him, blessing them. And caring for elderly and widowed women and orphans. He would not want us to abandon them. Nor do I believe Jesus wants us to give away everything we have. Then we would add to the ranks of the poor, and we know Jesus cares about the poor. At the same time, I don’t believe Jesus wants us to turn our back on our neighbors and the needy, or turn a blind eye to social injustice or environmental degradation, even if it might mean “carrying a cross.”
So what do we make of this Gospel lesson? Today’s passage is in the travel section of Luke’s gospel. Jesus already has turned his face toward Jerusalem to confront the authorities and to speak truth to power. So his call to discipleship may be a call to follow him into the city and to face the danger to be found there, to separate the curious from the committed.
As I studied the passage, I wondered, too, if Jesus is reflecting on the choices he is making: First, leaving family must have been painful. Remember on the cross, he provides for his mother in the care of a disciple. And he knows he will be carrying a cross, the Roman’s method of executing criminals. And the two analogies about building the tower and waging war? Jesus is finishing what he has started, standing up for what he believes, giving up all that he has, even onto death. Jesus is a man of principle.
And to us? Perhaps the call is to follow Jesus’ way – the way of self-offering love, the way of mercy, the way of compassion. Following Jesus means to be Christ-like, to live a principled life – that is, a moral, ethical, honest, righteous life in keeping with Jesus Way – no matter the cost.
Lest we think that such a life is beyond us, let’s look at some of the ways we are already doing this. This summer, some of us spent time with children and grandchildren, building memories during vacations. Families and friends are important and deserve our time and attention. And sometimes we create new families, weaving together lonely and isolated strangers who become as family to each other. Kim’s friend Robin did this when she fostered two severely abused little girls for two years. One of them, who is now being adopted, still has a picture of Robin on her dresser.
Some of us move beyond our comfort zone and advocate for our neighbors. A Foster resident spoke up for a person on food stamps last week when she overheard the clerk at the grocery store ask loudly to the customer ahead of her in line, “Is that an EBT card you’re using?” The Electronic Benefits Transfer cards are designed to look like ordinary debit cards to protect a poor person’s privacy. Instead the clerk called her out and embarrassed this shopper. And the advocate, someone you know, who could have been you or me, spoke up and vowed to take it all the way to management. Jesus never belittled people because they were poor!
Sometimes people take bold public stands, like those who “take the knee” during the National Anthem, to raise attention to injustice and oppression. Even if it causes them harm in some way, they know they have done what is right, regardless of the cost.
Corporations, too, are called to principled living. I think of CVS who decided no longer to sell cigarettes, a known cause of cancer, because they could not justify doing so as a health care provider. And recently, businesses like Walmart have decided not to sell some kinds of guns and ammunition to take a principled stand on the proliferation of guns. Last year, the RI Conference UCC took a principled stand to require all clergy to take White Privilege training to keep our credentials, our “standing” as a UCC minister.
We have all have stood on principle from time to time. We have taken time to care for an elderly parent or a disabled child ourselves rather than putting them into an institution. We have turned down a great job because we didn’t want to move our family. We have stood up for someone who was being bullied and gotten pushed around. We have given up our time and used our skills to rebuild a community after a disaster. We have raised questions about church teachings and risked being called a sinner – or challenged our school system’s policies or our employer’s business practices and been called a trouble-maker.
Today’s text is about “principled living,” having beliefs and acting on them, making the most loving choices. Principled living means facing suffering with courage, standing up to injustice, and balancing our own needs with the needs of others. Discipleship is costly, but those who live principled lives and live to tell their stories, tell us that standing on principle, being clear about values and acting on them, has transformed their lives.
This is the life that Jesus of Nazareth invites us to pursue, a life where priorities are examined and decisions made, a life in tune with love and mercy and peace. You and I are called to choose this life, this leader, these principles.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
God’s Dinner Party
Luke 14:1, 7-14
September 1, 2019
When I was a little girl, my father took up photography. More often than not, his pictures were of family picnics with someone flipping burgers, an uncle carving the Turkey at thanksgiving, or my mother proudly carrying a cake with blazing candles to the table. Food, it seems, was at the center of our lives.
And so it is in the Gospel of Luke. There are more references to eating in Luke than in any of the other gospels. In fact, Luke’s Jesus is certainly more preoccupied with banquets, tables, and reclining at tables than are Matthew, Mark or John. In today’s lesson, Jesus has been invited to the home of a Pharisee for a wedding banquet, a surprising move since he was under surveillance by the Pharisees who were threatened by his constant reinterpretation of their rules. However, this host is intrigued by Jesus and invites him home for dinner.
At Palestinian wedding feasts, it was common for guests to recline on couches around the room, with the center couch being the place of honor for those with the most wealth, power, or office. If a more prominent man arrives fashionably late, a guest who had assumed the center couch, might be asked to move to a less prestigious location. How humbling and embarrassing!
Jesus was never one to miss a teachable moment. He watches as guests crowd in and head for the best seats, and then he offers some practical advice for such social occasions: “…sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.” And as if Jesus were Miss Manners, he offers the principle – based on the Wise Saying of Solomon in Proverbs (25:6-7) about how to live the good life, lessons passed from generation to generation – “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Over and over again, we hear Jesus saying that humility is a virtue, that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
And then Jesus takes his teaching to the next level by likening the banquet to the Kingdom of God. When you throw a dinner party, he says, don’t invite your family and friends and others of your social status who will then be obligated to return the favor…. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed,…”
Status was an issue in Jesus’ day just as it is in ours. We move to gated communities to keep the rabble out. We hang with friends who are of the same social and racial groups. We are most comfortable with people who are like us. With this lesson, Jesus is asking us to mix it up! But not everyone is willing to broaden their circle of friends and acquaintances. At a fancy fundraiser dinner party a couple of years ago – this is a true story – 200 wealthy people were invited to the home of the president of the board of a nonprofit.
A conversation was overheard between two of these moneyed people. An older man was complaining about the difficulty he and his wife were having when they traveled to their million dollar summer home on the coast of Maine because they had to travel by ferry to get to their private island. A wealthy woman responded, “But don’t you think you can suffer a little inconvenience in order to separate yourself from the masses?”
Separate yourself from the masses? The gospel today reminds us that the masses are invited to God’s dinner party. God cares as much for the poor as God does for the wealthy. God cares as much for the homeless person on the corner holding a sign, “Please help!” as God does for the woman in the new car who drives by without making eye contact. God cares as much for the immigrants who have fled to this country to make a better life for their children, even to save their lives, as God cares about the corporate executive who counts on their low-cost labor. God cares as much about the young black men who fill our prisons at a disproportionate rate as God cares about law enforcement officers who stop and frisk people of color indiscriminately – and maybe even more so.
In Bible Study we are reading Diana Butler Bass’ book, A People’s History of Christianity. On Tuesday, we started the chapter on “Ethics: The Love of Neighbor,” and in just a few pages, we found the missing link connecting the early Jesus Movement with us today.
How did we get from there to here? How did the followers of Jesus, the son of a carpenter, a rabbi from a backwater village in Galilee, lay the groundwork for this new faith, Christianity, to blossom into the official religion of the Roman Empire?
We might think it was because our ancestors were willing to die for their beliefs, willing to be thrown into jail, sacrificed to the lions, that people were drawn to this new cult. But that wasn’t it. It wasn’t Jesus’ teachings, the philosophical ideas in themselves, that caused people to convert to Christianity. It was the living of Jesus’ teachings, the practicing of hospitality that attracted the Romans.
Remember Jesus’ teaching in the gospel of Matthew that lays out the practice of welcoming the “least of these” into the heart of the community?
I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.
The early Christians did these things.
In the second century, a plague struck which gave the Christians a chance to showcase these teachings. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the streets. The pagan religions had no answer. Ordinary Romans fled from the cities. Christians, however, who didn’t fear death, stayed behind and tended to the sick and the suffering with acts of mercy regardless of class, tribe, or religion. They did “risky, compelling, and good things that helped people,” on the basis of Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and to love one’s neighbor.
Today, the talk across the Christian community seems to be about sexual morality, but this is a relatively new conversation. Biblical morality in both the Old and New Testaments had to do with hospitality, welcoming the stranger, caring for the common good. So “[f]rom what historians can gather, hospitality—not martyrdom—served as the main motivator for conversions,” to Christianity.
This country has a long history of rejecting immigrants. Benjamin Franklyn wanted to shut out German refugees because their customs were different from “ours,” that is, the English. Our grandparents remember signs, “Irish need not apply.” Roosevelt’s administration turned back ships with Jewish children to their death under Hitler. Today, it’s Central Americans and Mexicans.
Perhaps, remembering our Biblical roots and the ethic of hospitality can be a foundation for pressing for Immigration Reform in the years ahead. How else can we call ourselves Christians? How else can we represent what church is all about to our children and grandchildren? How else can we guide our nation?
We make judgments about people, about classes of people, without knowing them, without walking in their shoes, without hearing their stories. We isolate ourselves from those who are different. Jesus wants to educate us. God’s dinner party must include “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” And not just because it’s good for them – but because it’s good for us. Jesus is not recommending the practice of charity as much as he is recommending that we grow more Christ-like, more understanding, more loving, more just.
And at Moosup Valley Church we want this, too! Two years ago we adopted this new mission:
Gathered in 1868, Moosup Valley Church is a community growing in our knowledge of Jesus. Led by the Spirit, we reach out to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. We are a country church welcoming EVERYONE, respecting individual personal beliefs, and spreading peace in our world.
At God’s table, all are welcome; no seat is more honorable than another. And it is in passing the potato salad and pouring the lemonade that we become humble and develop the capacity to love, liberate, and empower each other.
May it be so!