Missed Church? Pastor’s Sermons

DID YOU MISS CHURCH?

Rev. Betsy A. Garland

Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland

SERMONS

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Prophets on the Edge

Luke 4:21-30

February 17, 2019

Two weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah in his hometown synagogue.  You will remember the words that he looks for in the scroll, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me …   to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed.”  When he finishes reading from the prophet, Jesus hands the scroll back to the attendant, sits down, and says to these village folks who have watched him grow up, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The people are amazed.  They all know him, of course, the son of Mary and Joseph. They are his family and friends and neighbors.  Their feelings must be mixed between pride at this hometown boy who has been working wonders, and envy, “Who does he think he is!”

Jesus could have left it at that, made his way home to have dinner with the family.  But no, he had to challenge their assumptions about how this scripture is being fulfilled, and so he prods them with the question they have been wanting to ask:  “Do here for us … what we have heard you did in Capernaum.”  His reputation has preceded him.  And the villagers are not too happy.  Capernaum is gentile country, populated by non-Jews.  They want some of the action.  Do it for your own people, Jesus.

In response, Jesus harkens back to two earlier prophets, Elijah and Elisha, positioning himself in a long line of Hebrew prophets who healed faithful outsiders, outsiders who were, nevertheless, models of faithfulness.  This does not go down well.  When they realize that their Jesus, one of them, an insider, has not come for them, he becomes for them like an outsider who serves a world wider than his family and his fellow Jews, and they are angry, enraged enough to toss him off a cliff.

They had been waiting for the messiah, the one who would end oppression, injustice, and exploitation, and usher in a new age – for them.  Now they have him, and it’s Jesus, of all people!  What’s so special about him?  Besides, he cares more for foreigners than for us!

Jesus realizes that his effectiveness as a prophet is compromised by his familiarity to the village people, and he says, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.”  You and I use his words to explain why our kids ignore us, our spouse doesn’t think we know anything, our colleagues at work don’t take us seriously even when the so-called expert from out-of-town tells them the same thing.

So this week – with so much hope and fear at stake in our nation – I saw this text in a different light:  not as a way to understand why we are not taken seriously but as a way to understand what God takes seriously.  And what God takes seriously is concern for the least and the lost, concern for the outsider.  That, after all, is my job as the preacher, is it not?

So I want so say a word about immigration, much in the news these days.  I don’t know where you stand on the so-called immigration crisis, all the talk about the need for a wall on our southern border, all the hype about dangerous criminals coming to harm us.  But I do know that most of them, now, seeking entry, are women and children. They are fleeing poverty and violence in their own countries; they are running for their lives.

The Wall is a symbol, not a public policy.  Everyone agrees we need immigration reform; we have needed it for a long time.  But now the issue has become a political football; the issue is really about power and control.

What is missing from the debate is the recognition that our country was founded on the principle of opportunity for all and the value of the worth of the individual.  What is missing is the acknowledgement that refugees seeking asylum are protected under international human rights law. They should not be punished.  What is missing is the awareness that the United States is a country of immigrants.  Unless you are a Native American, your ancestors came from somewhere else.  Some came willingly to escape persecution or to seek a better life for their families. And some came in chains, against their will.  We all came from somewhere, even the First Peoples.

And those who already have established themselves – the English, the Germans, the Irish, the Italians – each wave of immigrants that settle in have always thought of themselves as real Americans and see the next wave of immigration as a threat.  Those “wet backs” are dirty.  They take our jobs.  They are a burden on our welfare system, our health care system, our schools.  Why don’t they go home where they belong?  We forget that these are the people who pick our crops in California, milk our cows in Vermont, take care of our children in NY City, sweep snow off seats at Gillette stadium.  We need them.

Yet, we condone the hate speech.  We persecute anyone who looks Latino or Middle Eastern.  We conduct unwarranted traffic stops to rout out those without papers, separate parents and children through deportations, cheat domestics of their promised wages, yes, as close as East Greenwich. And in some places is this country it’s not uncommon for farmers to hire undocumented workers – and then call the cops on them after the crops are picked, to avoid paying them their wages.

Let us remember that Jesus ministered first to the outsiders and think about ways we can support immigration reform.  Like the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, we discover that the God we proclaim and worship will not be domesticated, shut in, confined by our sanctuaries, or our prejudices, or our political agendas.  In Jesus, and in us, God seeks to weave a new story of hope and justice and love that knows no boundaries of race or class or country or religion.

Let us pray that the Spirit of the Lord be upon us as a nation – just as the prophets Isaiah and Jesus require – that we may preach good news to the millions of immigrants in this country and that we may again be a place of fairness and opportunity for the refugee and the poor.

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Congregational Church, UCC

Going Deeper

Luke 5:1-11

February 10, 2019

Jesus has been creating quite a stir in the countryside.  People have heard about his healings and his teachings, and whenever they see him, they rush to come closer to see and hear for themselves.  This time there are so many crowding around him that Jesus gets in a boat and asks a fisherman to pull out a ways to put a little distance between him and the crowd so that he can speak to them.  The fishermen, Simon, soon to be called Peter, obliges.

For Simon, it’s an ordinary day.  He’s been out fishing all night with no luck. He comes home hungry, tired, and disappointed.  But he doesn’t complain that this teacher wants to sit in his boat, after all he’s busy with his nets.  And listening all the while, undoubtedly.

Then Jesus asks him to go beyond.  “Put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Why this?  Why now?  Besides, his nets are clean; if he goes out again, he’ll have to clean them all over again – for nothing!  Simon protests – but gives in.  Why?  What is it in Jesus that makes him push off from the shore and row out to deeper water?

For this act of obedience, he is rewarded beyond expectation!  When Simon and his crew cast the nets, they are so filled to overflowing, that they need to call another boat to help them.  So many fish that the boats are about to sink.  How can this be?

Not by any ordinary means, Simon thinks!  He realizes he is in the presence of a power that he doesn’t understand, and his first thought is to warn Jesus that he is a sinner, unworthy of the bounty of this miracle.  Jesus must have seen the fear in Simon, for he said to him, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

With that, Simon and his crew, James and John, on an ordinary day, in the middle of their regular routine, walked away from their boat, from the largest catch ever, at the height of their fishing careers, with no knowledge of where they were going, or what would be asked of them, without saying goodbye – and followed Jesus.  On that ordinary morning, in the midst of typical every-day tasks, they had had a religious experience, felt the pull of a higher calling, and without looking back, not knowing what would lie ahead, changed their lives.

People do that today.  Bankers decide there’s more to life than money, clean out their desks, take early retirement, and hike the Appalachian Trail.  I met one of them through my grandchildren.  Stock brokers decide to study for the priesthood, get their portfolios in order, leave their firms, and end their careers selling salvation instead of stocks. I know one of them, an Episcopal priest.  Doctors and nurses, construction workers and teachers, take vacations and put lives on hold to go to places like Haiti to make a difference.  We know people who have done just that.

Most of the time, most of us, live on the surface – too busy with work demands and family obligations, too busy earning a living and making ends meet, too busy dropping the kids at piano lessons, going to market and doing the laundry, too busy to take stock of our lives, to ask the difficult questions:  What is this life all about? or, Is this all there is? or Why, then, am I depressed?

Most of the time, most of us, live on the surface.  Jesus knew that we need to push out into deeper water to find what we’re looking for, to find sustenance for living.  We probably know that, too.  So, why don’t we?  Why don’t we go deeper into our own psyches and souls to find what we need to give us the life we are longing for?

There are probably as many reasons as there are people in this room.  I can think of at least three:  First, self-reflection takes time and intention.  We need to stop what we are doing, to think about our lives, to examine our souls.  Who said, “Stop the world; I want to get off!”  Or in the words of the old hymn, “Take time to be holy….”  But we don’t, often enough.

Perhaps you think self-reflection is something that only religious people do, and only do in convents, on their knees.  But I know people who go fishing or hiking to spend quiet time, to be in touch with the water and the sky and the mountains, who do a lot of thinking while watching their line in the water or a spectacular sunset.

Founder of the Methodist movement in England, John Wesley, used to ask his followers, simple lay people, “How is it with your soul?”  It might have been easier in simpler times to get in touch with oneself, when people spent more time out of doors than in high-rise office buildings, and without the distractions of technology.  But the need and the call are there for all of us.

So, why don’t we?  Perhaps because we have to change our habits, to give up something, to change our routine, to make the time – and that’s not easy!  Seven Habits author Stephen Covey says it takes 21 days to change a habit.  In our 24/7 world, we’re often too busy to try.

And, then, of course, looking too deeply into ourselves, may mean uncovering something we’d rather leave buried, discovering something we’d rather keep hidden, feeling something that causes pain and loss, guilt and shame.  Simon Peter is not the only one, when faced with his own inadequacy in the midst of pulling nets overflowing with fish – in the midst of a religious experience beyond his understanding – who sees himself in relation to the holy and understands his sinfulness for the first time, and he’s terrified.

Going deeper is difficult to say the least – but it is the only way we discover who we really are, and whose we are, and what God is calling us to be and do with our lives.  One more word before we leave this text.  We are used to hearing Jesus’ words, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  Or, as it is translated in Luke, “catching people.”  The metaphor suggests that Simon will be hauling in food, fish in the net, gasping for air. But this translation misses the emphasis of the original Greek where Jesus is saying to Simon Peter, “saving men and women alive,” people – you and me – living life alive!  The Gospel calls us – you and me – to live life in all its fullness, using our gifts of time, talent and treasure to serve one another and a broken-hearted world.  We are called to this discipleship.

One final thought:  Simon has been out fishing all night and he pulls his boat up on the beach, hungry, with a back broken from pulling nets, tired and discouraged.  The last thing he needs, is to be called by God now.  Why couldn’t the call come when he’s rested and had a good breakfast, and his bills are paid and the kids are settled – and he has nothing better to do than to come and follow?  That’s because discipleship comes when we least expect it, and when we think we have given everything to life that we have to give.

Going deeper is the business of Lent.  The season will be upon us in just three weeks – the time of the year when we push away from the ordinary and cast our netsand go deeper.

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Good News

Luke 4:14-21

January 24, 2016

Jesus has been out to see his cousin.  He’s been baptized in the Jordan River along with John’s followers.  Before that, he was out in the wilderness to listen for God’s voice, to face his demons, to discern where this ministry will take him.  I wonder if he wondered, “Can I do this?”  What is God asking of me?  Suffered over the question, the way we might?

After the wilderness retreat, Jesus goes back to Nazareth, his home village – I imagine to say goodbye, to explain to his mother why he has to do this.  Perhaps to launch his ministry among friends.  And on the Sabbath, as usual, he goes to the familiar synagogue where he worshipped with his family when he was growing up.  His parents, his siblings, his aunts and uncles and dear friends are there.

Adult males have the option of participating in the service.  He speaks to the attendant who hands him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah.  Jesus unrolls it, searching for something.  What is it he is looking for?   . . . And then he finds it.

We might imagine that Jesus had been raised on the Hebrew prophets.  It’s surprising, isn’t it, then, that he had been educated, coming from a backwater like Nazareth.  But this Jesus knows his Bible, and he finds the verses he’s looking for:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor, . . .

release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, . . .

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And then Jesus hands the scroll back and sits down.  Everyone’s eyes are on him, and he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The crowd is stunned!  Isn’t this Mary and Joseph’s son?  Their wait for the Messiah, centuries long, sits like the elephant in the room.  The carpenter’s son?  They had been anticipating more fanfare, chariots maybe, and fire and swords, a hoped for overturning of Roman rule that is squeezing the life out of them.

The prophet Isaiah had railed against such a world.  He had urged his nation to keep their covenant with God.  And a “servant” – is it Israel itself or a person? – “will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).  “The spirit of the Lord . . . will bring good news….”

And now Jesus picks up Isaiah’s mantle in the midst of his troubled world.  The gospel writer Luke uses this story of Jesus choosing this ancient passage to announce his mission, his purpose, his agenda – his ministry to the poor.  But the story means more than that to us, those of us who try to be Followers of the Way, what early Christians were called.  The story is not just about what Jesus goes about doing – feeding, healing, forgiving, teaching, raising – but it is about who Jesus is.  It is not just that Jesus talks about good news or brings good news, Jesus himself is the good news, the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy.  Jesus embodies the good news!

We talk about the church as the “body of Christ.”  This means that each of us is part of Christ’s body; we “embody” Christ.  Each of us – as Christians – is to be the good news in the world.  One of the ways the church does that is by working for justice and peace through policy changes in the world, big strokes that affect millions.  But that’s not the only way.

This passage from Luke’s gospel has been a favorite of mine for years.  When Sarah was 18 months, a friend and I attended a Church Women United national assembly in St. Louis.  I brought Sarah, and my friend Clarice brought her 4-month-old son Carl.  It was quite an adventure traveling with two little ones!

There were women from all over the United States, and even the world.  But one of the activity I remember most was when we were given this scripture and sent out to wander the grounds of the conference center to reflect on how “The Spirit of the Lord was upon [each of us.]”  Clarice decided that she was called to work with the elderly and went on to run the Retired Senior Volunteer Program in Warwick for almost 30 years.  I felt called to work more intensely in the church.

Jesus had announced his ministry in his hometown – where his mother had told him stories about shepherds, stars and wise men, where his father had showed him how to measure twice and cut once, with his friends with whom he played ball and fished, to his teacher in the synagogue, and neighbors that he had known all his life.

So, let’s make our discussion of being Christ’s body more personal, more attainable, because, after all, we are not the Messiah.  Here are some suggestions….

Let’s make every stranger we meet happy to have encountered us – the clerk at Stop and Shop, the server at Dunkin’ Donuts, the kid on the bus, the cop who stops us for speeding, the telemarketer desperate for a sale.  We all have met people who “make our day” – those who, when he or she makes a purchase, enters a room, answers the phone – lifts our spirits, makes us smile, and feel better.  Why not make it a matter of spiritual practice that no one who ever comes into our presence will leave feeling worse, only better?  Well, at least half of the time…

 Find something good in everyone.  No one is perfect, but everyone has a gift.  Buddy Cianci ran Providence City Hall as a criminal enterprise, but he loved Providence and helped to launch its renaissance.  There is a lot to be said for the old maxim, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”  When you become conditioned to look for some good quality, some capacity or talent or strength, you will find it.

Bring love, joy and peace to every day.  Medical doctor Gerald Jampolsky wrote a book a few years ago called Love Is Letting Go of Fear,[1] something we need to encourage in this contentious time with so much fear in the air.  “Everything we think, say or do reacts on us like a boomerang,” he says.  “When we send out judgments in the form of criticism, fury or other attack thoughts, they come back to us.  When we … send out only love, [the love] comes back to us.”

Look for the image of Christ in all of creation.  Church father Ignatius once observed:  “Consider how Christ works and labors for me in all creatures upon the face of the earth.”  If Christ labors in all creatures, then Jesus can be found in every aspect of creation:  The family cat or dog who awakens us in the morning; the birds who sing on the fence; the flowers that spread their fragrance over the garden; the rain forest of South America and the mountains of Colorado; the child playing in the schoolyard; the homeless man fumbling for aluminum cans – all sharing in the image of Christ, and therefore, both our responsibility and our joy.

The body of Christ is brought into focus for this world one person, one situation at a time. We “love and serve the Lord” through everything we say and do each day.  In us, as the meditation suggests, the world sees a picture of Christ.  What picture of Christ do you and I paint?

To be a Christian means to be alert to the Spirit’s hovering, to be sensitive to the times and the social conditions around us, yes, but also to be responsive to God’s anointing, to be sensitive to the way God works through us, day in and day out, in our relationships with others, to bring good news to a brokenhearted world.

How is the Spirit empowering us right now to be agents of God’s justice and mercy, to be God’s good news, one person at a time?

May it be so!

Amen.

[1] (Berkeley, Calif.: Celestial Arts, 1979)

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Everyday Miracles

John 2:1-11; I Corinthians 12:1-11

January 20, 2019 (Postponed to 27th)

 Once upon a time, a bride and groom were celebrating their marriage with a seven-day feast at the groom’s home in Cana, a city less than 10 miles north of Nazareth.  Jesus’ mother, Mary, is there, and Jesus, too, with his disciples.

But there’s a problem:  The wine has run out.  For the couple, a source of embarrassment and shame.  For the guests, a source of disappointment.  What to do?  Jesus’ mother steps sees and acts.  Mary does what mothers have done for millennia:  She turns to her son to solve the problem.  What made Mary think Jesus could turn water into wine?  We are not privy to the backstory, but Mary trusts in divine intervention.  For his part, as John tells the story, Jesus resists, what sons have done for millennia.  Not now, Mother.  Not yet.

Mary won’t take “no” for an answer and turns to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  So Jesus turns to the large stone water jars, six in all, a place for washing hands and cups and pots and vegetables from the marketplace.  And he tells the servants, “Fill the jars with water.”

It sounds like a simple command for a simple miracle, but remember there are no faucets, no hoses.  The servants – probably many of them women – had to walk to the nearest well, lower their buckets and haul them up, then walk back to the house and empty their load.  Again and again, until six jars, each of which holds 20-30 gallons, are filled to the brim.  Transforming water into wine is Jesus’ first sign in the Gospel of John.  This first miracle seems lighthearted, simple, maybe even frivolous.  Until we think about it from the servants’ perspective.  Miracles can be hard work!

As one commentator noted, “Miracles may be inspired and holy and wonderful, but they are not easy!”[1]  And not just for the person performing the miracle, but for anyone who gets drafted into service.  And miracles don’t happen in a vacuum; they happen in the midst of everyday life.  In the midst of our lives, just plain folks like you and me.  In fact, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, makes the point that they don’t happen without us.  They require our participation:

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Miracles depend on the work of everyday people like you and me to make them happen – whether it’s listening to a friend in tears, driving an elderly person to the doctor, collecting food for the hungry, building an addition on the church, solving a community problem, lobbying for change – or any number of everyday miracles in which we all engage.

Miracles are not, then, something out of the past, or something out of our hands.  Miracles are what happens when we recognize that the Spirit of God is alive in the world.  Miracles are what happens when we are open to the Spirit’s power coming into us and working though us.  Miracles are what happens when we work with God to bring love and joy into the world.

So how, you might ask, do we work miracles?  In his letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul proposes that the Spirit is in us and works through us according to the gifts we have been given – gifts of wisdom, gifts of prophecy, gifts of healing, of knowledge, of faith. I look out and see gifts hovering around your heads.

So again, how do we work miracles?  The answer is as simple as to use our gifts, and as relational as to help each other discover and use our gifts in the world.  We work everyday miracles when we do what we love, and love what we do!

As we enter this new year, let us find joy in the gifts resting here in this congregation, gifts to work the miracles within our reach, gifts given for the good of everyone, gifts which overflow within the church.

Jesus asked the servants to fill up the water pots and they did, “up to the brim.” We are told in the gospel story that the six stone water-jars certainly hold enough water to purify 200,000 people before the meal – certainly more people than could be expected to show up at a wedding in Cana. There is an abundance.

So when the miracle occurs, it is not a miracle to make ends meet, to help the couple manage.  It is a miracle of abundance.  Gallons and gallons of good wine, wine that impresses the steward.  Wine that reveals the glory of God.

So let us be as “good wine” here in Moosup Valley, this year and every year, a place of “everyday miracles” revealing the glory of God.

May it be so!

Amen.

[1] Joanna Harader, Christian Century, December 19, 2018.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Beloved!

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

January 13, 2019

Whether you’re from the Western branch of the Church, like Protestants and Catholics, or from the Eastern branch, like the Greek or Russian Orthodox, whether you were baptized as a child, a decision of your parents, or as an adult – which is called “believer’s baptism” – when you make up your own mind to follow Jesus, baptism is the one sacrament that unites us all.  Water, of course, is an essential element of baptism.  We take our practice from Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River.

But Jesus’ baptism was a little different from ours in that there was no Church to be baptized into. But his baptism is similar in that John’s baptism is for repentance for the forgiveness of sins, like our promise to resist the powers of evil in our baptismal service.  Which raises the thorny theological question: If Jesus was without sin, why did he go to John – whose baptism is so closely tied to judgment and repentance – to be baptized in the first place?   What did Jesus need to repent for?  One commentator suggests it’s because

“Jesus was born from as well as into a world of systemic sin, and his baptism is a

signal that he understood the full implications of the incarnation.  He was not merely

identifying with or showing solidarity with the human world, he was fully

acknowledging its tragic structure.  There are no innocent, no perfect, no

unambiguous, no controllable, indeed no sinless, choices in this world.  All choice

must be made within a context of a system that precedes and impinges upon them.”[1]

In other words, Jesus recognizes that the world is complicated and often unfair, that society is prone to being sinful and violent, that social structures may well be corrupt, benefiting the powerful and the greedy and taking advantage of the poor and the vulnerable.  And yet, Jesus chooses to live with us in this tragic system, to help us navigate this sinful world, even to transform this world.  Like our world today, those were troubled times – but also, hopeful ones for those who waited.  The Hebrews expected a Messiah to come and to save them, to lead the nation into a new political and religious future.

John the Baptist has been preaching and teaching and gathering disciples.  The people assume, then, that John is the Messiah, the one they have been waiting for.  But his cousin Jesus, apparently, is in the wings, and he also is preaching and teaching. Are you for John or Jesus? I imagine people asked each other. Both men, these cousins, had extraordinary births surrounded with unexpected angels, impossible events, mysterious circumstances.

And since all four gospels deal with the relationship between John and Jesus, there must be a leadership crisis in the background somewhere.  We can imagine the swirl of intrigue and controversy, people taking sides for one candidate or the other.  Just as we long for clarity in today’s leadership. Will the real Messiah please stand up!

Jesus must be there, somewhere, on the bank of the Jordan, perhaps on the edge of the crowd, perhaps waiting in line for his turn, perhaps wading in the shallows.  John sees him and puts an end to the leadership crisis:  “I baptize you with water; but one more powerful than I is coming; … .  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  And then Jesus steps into the water.

Luke’s description provides an important perspective:  “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized….”  The order of events is important:  Jesus brings up the end; his is an ordinary baptism, like the others.  Jesus begins his ministry in the midst of humanity, in solidarity with the common folks, all the broken, damaged, and sin-sick people who need God:  that’s where we find Jesus.  His baptism is when we first get a glimpse that Jesus identifies with the poor, the downtrodden, the homeless, those on the margins of society, the people camped along the river, not lounging in their palaces.

In addition, there is something else important we might note in this text:  Immediately after being baptized, Jesus prays.  So, not only does he align himself with humanity, he also aligns himself with God.  He will not step out onto the public platform that John has just yielded to him, stepping back to make room for Jesus to take the lead, without “taking it to the Lord in prayer,”  as the old hymn says.  Jesus will not, can not, take on the mantel of public leadership without the connection to God and the power of the Holy Spirit for the spiritual stamina to go into the world and make a difference in people’s lives.

This week, the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty held its 11th Annual Vigil at the State House to advocate for the poor:  for a safe, affordable place to call home, high quality education, starting as early as possible, reliable, affordable transportation, dependable health care, adequate and nutritious food, and work with decent wages.  Fifty religious leaders, many of us UCC and American Baptist pastors, people you know, stepped up to the microphone to read the names of elected officials and to ask them “to govern with wisdom, care and compassion.”

Yes, it’s good to bring groceries for the food pantry and buy Christmas gifts for children each year. And it’s good to provide rides to appointments as Claire and Beverly do. And it’s good to help Tina get to the ski slopes in Colorado and young musicians gain confidence with our concerts.  These are important activities, ministries even, that we need to continue. At the same time, we also need to reform the systems that trap people in poverty, no matter how hard they work.

Jesus comes up out of the waters of baptism, identifying with sinners like you and me      and recognizing the troubled world in which we live.  And the first thing he does is reach for God in prayer.  And when these two things happen, Jesus will now – and only now – be claimed God’s “Beloved.”  As Clarence Jordan renders it in “The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts,” “The sky split, the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove came down upon him, and a voice came from the sky saying, ‘You are my dear Son; I’m proud of you.”

When Jesus heard those words, they changed his life forever.  We, too, need to hear this affirmation from God, and we need to hear it from each other (perhaps that’s how we hear it from God most of the time…):  “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey,” you are God’s beloved child in whom God is well pleased.  Let us be the little country church that shares this affirmation with our children, our spouses, our neighbors, our church members, and, as Jesus promised, even our enemies.

Luke uses very few words to describe the baptism of Jesus.  But those few words are very telling:  Another commentator wrote:

“To identify with all people, to depend upon God in prayer for strength to live and

love, and to hear the affirmation of [our] God as the source of [our] shared calling

and purpose, are the most enduring joys of life.”[i]

These are just some of the blessings of our life together as the Moosup Valley Church

as we move into this new year.

May it be so!

Amen.

[1] Carol Lakey Hess writing in “Feasting on the Word:  Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary,” Year C, Volume 1, p. 240.

[i] Robert M. Brearley, “Feasting on the Word,” Year C, Volume 1, page 240.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Epiphanies

Isaiah 60:1-3, 6b; Matthew 2:1-12

January 6, 2019

And so we hear again the story of the Magi coming from the East. They have left their families and communities, invested all of their resources,       and have undertaken an arduous and dangerous journey. The account is told only in the Gospel of Matthew.  There are no birth narratives in Mark at all.  John’s story is of a more philosophical nature.  Luke includes those stories we love about the angel Gabriel, Mary and Joseph, and the journey to Bethlehem – but not the story of the wise men.

That Matthew includes the story of these kings, these astrologers is a surprise, perhaps an epiphany in itself, because Matthew is writing for a Jewish audience – and these men are gentiles, not Jews.  Yet he includes the story of the arrival of these Wise Men from afar – who see the star, seek the child, find the manger, and kneel before him with their gifts – to make the point that Jesus the Light has come into the world for everyone, Gentiles as well as Jews.

What does “epiphany” mean?  It’s a manifestation, a revealing, a moment when one suddenly feels that he or she understands, or suddenly becomes conscious of something,

a moment when one “sees the light” (think of a cartoon with the “light bulb” to indicate that a character has just had an idea).

It’s no accident that light from the Star is an important part of the birth narratives: The world in which Jesus was born was cloaked in the darkness of Roman rule and oppression and the world’s people longed for peace.  So the light of the star as a metaphor translates into salvation and into rescue from danger. Light brings order to a chaotic world, just as in the creation story when God created light.

And it’s no accident that the people longed for an epiphany – a manifestation – of a different kind of king from King Herod the Great, who was appointed King of the Jews by the Romans, a king who terrorized the nation.  The people longed for a Messiah, a true king of the Jews

Three wise men.  You do know what would have happened if it had been three wise WOMEN instead of men, don’t you?  They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought diapers as gifts!  But, no, they are men, and they bring the standard gifts for a king:      Gold – precious metal – representing Jesus’ kingship; Frankincense – perfume or incense – representing Jesus’ priestly role; Myrrh – anointing/embalming oil – foretelling Jesus’ death.  So, Epiphany is both a celebration of Jesus’ divine nature and an acknowledgement of Jesus’ coming to the Gentiles, as well as to the Jewish community.  Two epiphanies right there.

Are epiphanies a thing of the past, introduced by “once upon a time”?  Or do such manifestations happen even now?  Where do we look for God today?        How is the Word made flesh in your life, in the church’s life, or in the lives of those you love?

There are a variety of ways to ask ourselves that question, as individuals and as a church. We could ask “What are we leaving behind at the end of 2018?”  What are we grateful for?  What do we invite into our life in 2019?  The question could be framed in religious language in terms of light:  In what ordinary and extraordinary ways has the light of Christ appeared to us and those we love this year?  How will we reflect that light in 2019?

Last Sunday I heard an interview with author Alan Lightman, a scientist who teaches at MIT, about an epiphany he had off the coast of Maine.  He was alone in his boat in the wee hours, coming back to the island where he and his wife have summered for years.  No moon, no light pollution from the mainland, no wind, just a sky filled with stars, and he cut his engine and drifted.  This is what he said about that experience in his book, “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine,” just published last year:

I lay down in the boat and looked up.  A very dark night sky seen from the ocean

is a mystical experience.  After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into that

star-littered sky.  The boat disappeared.  My body disappeared.  And I found

myself falling into infinity.  A feeling came over me I’d not experienced before.

Perhaps a sensation experienced by the ancients ….  I felt an overwhelming

connection to the stars, as if I were part of them.  And the vast expanse of time—

extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far

distant future long after I will die—seemed compressed to a dot.  I felt connected

not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos.  I felt a merging

with something far greater than myself; a grand and eternal unity a hint of

something absolute.  After a time, I sat up and started the engine again.  I had no

idea how long I’d been lying there looking up.

Lightman is not a “believer” in any particular religion, just a searcher of truth wherever it can be found, trying to make sense of the world and his place in it, but truth verified through science, not expecting to have his life changed by the stars.  But in those minutes, alone and adrift on the sea, he experienced something beyond himself, something eternal, something ordered and timeless, a connection with all of creation,

something divine beyond his Jewish roots, something divine beyond his study of Buddhism.

In my Christian understanding, I would say Lightman experienced God, God that cannot be defined by our limited imagination or any one faith.  He discovered God who creates, beginning with the stars.  God’s first words in Genesis, “Let there be light.”

It is a star, of course – God’s light – that leads the wise men to the baby Jesus….  The light shines on all of us, and those of us who receive the light, are to become a light.  And we have the responsibility to act according to the light we have received.  In other words, we, too, are to shine the light in dark places.

Dr. Howard Thurman, the first African American dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, wrote years ago,

When the song of angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are departed,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To rebuild peace among brothers [and sisters]
To make music for all to hear.

 

Christmas may be over.  But God’s light is with us still, and God’s work through us – to shine God’s light into the darkness – is just beginning.

 

With God’s help, let there be light in 2019!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Who Is This Child?

Luke 2:41-52

December 30, 2018

It’s been a long time coming.  For centuries, prophets foretold the birth of the Messiah.  And then, in the least likely of times, times of terrible oppression and hardship, and to the least likely of persons, an unmarried teenager and her fiancé, and in the least likely of circumstances, a poor family in the back country of Judea, a child is born, a child destined to turn the world upside down.

This is a Jewish baby, a descendant of King David, the shepherd boy who defeated the Philistine Goliath with nothing but a slingshot, the boy who rose to become king of his people.  This is a baby born of uncertain parentage in ways that even his mother Mary said, “How can this be?”  This is a baby over whom the shepherds and the angels marveled and for whom wise men from the East traveled.  This is a baby whose birth threatened the powers-that-be, and whose parents became refugees to save his life.  This is a baby who was born into a family like our families, a family with its particular traditions and inherited customs, a family with its particular circumstances and struggles, a family making sense of the question, “Who is this child?”

We can imagine – although scripture says nothing about his early childhood – that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, hearing stories as Mary stirred porridge over the fire. “Tell me again about where I was born” stories – in a barn with the cow and the goat, puffing plumes of steam in the cool night, laid in their feeding trough next to the hay.  And picking up scraps of wood in Joseph’s carpenter shop to make of them some little boy’s toys, “Tell me again about the shepherds” stories, about those who came to see me, those scruffy, homeless keepers of sheep, living on the edges of society.  And at bedtime, “Tell me again” stories about the men who came on camels and brought gifts.   Where are the gold, frankincense, and myrrh now, and what did it all mean? he might wonder as he drifted off to sleep.

Yes, Jesus must have wondered about his life, what he would become when he grew up, like all children wonder about what they want to be, about the possibilities.  Did is parents wonder, too?  Or had Mary and Joseph forgotten in the busyness of their lives, raising children, observing the Torah, making a life for the family.

Time flies.  Jesus is 12, beginning the move from childhood to adulthood.  Perhaps this year, for the first time, his family’s annual Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem meant more than playing with his friends in the caravan, picnics along the way, and the busy bustle of the city.  Perhaps the long climb up eastern approach to the magnificent temple, singing psalms with each step, touched him in a way it had not before.  Perhaps he is ready to ask the questions that have interrupted his sleep on the rooftop on hot Nazareth nights.

Perhaps he sees the opportunity to remain behind when the pilgrim crowds leave and the temple quiets, and in youthful idealism, loses track of time.  Who is this precocious child? the teachers ask each other.  But where is he?  his frantic parents wonder, searching up and down the caravan and then in Jerusalem for three days.  “But did you not know where I would be?” Jesus says to them, with a reply parents of teenagers would recognize in an instant, making his mother’s worried rebuke her problem, not his. Luke is the only gospel writer who includes this story about Jesus and his human development and growing awareness, a story about the importance of the temple and his relationship with God.

Jesus’ life is not unlike ours.  He has parents who care for him; a religious community of family and friends that surround him; he matures and grows; he listens, learns and teaches; time passes from one stage to the next.  In all this, his humanity is described and affirmed.

Yet, he is not truly like us; he is unique in his relationship with God.  And this story provides a transitional marker between the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke – with their angels and shepherds, innkeepers and wise men – and Jesus’ growing self-knowledge and his need to be in his Father’s house.  He will return to that house during what we now call Holy Week during the Passover, riding in on a donkey at the end of his ministry.  Then, a fully mature Jesus will teach the crowds, and drive out the money changers, and promise, “I go to prepare a place for you … and will take you to myself,…”

But for now, we ask, Who is this child?”  He is, surely, Mary’s child, the boy who was filled with wisdom as a child and who will increase in wisdom as he grows.

And for us, who seek to follow in the Way of Jesus, who is this child and what can we learn from this story?  Surely that God can be found even in difficult family circumstances, moments fraught with fear and division and differences.  It teaches that God’s wisdom is available to the young as well as to the old and that we must make room for God to surprise us with unexpected revelations given by unusual messengers.  And finally, we have a glimpse of the divine, the indwelling of God in human life, in our lives, the mystery of the incarnation present with us – if we but notice.

May it be so!  Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

What Should We Do?

Luke 3:7-18

December 16, 2018

Is it Christmas yet?  No, we’re still waiting and making ready.  There’s no getting to Bethlehem and the sweet baby Jesus without a call to repentance.  But if you’re like me, you’re getting a little tired of these John the Baptist wild angry-man-in-the-wilderness lectionary lessons.  We’d prefer to sing “Joy to the World” instead of “The Baptist Shouts on Jordan’s Shore.”  We’d rather not be chastised by John when we’re preparing for Christmas.  We’d like to have this baby!  But the time has not yet come.  God is at work to prepare us to open ourselves to love, to clear away anything in the way.

A man on a mission, John is creating quite a stir.  People seek him out, wondering if he is the One they have been waiting for – the Messiah – to deliver them from oppression.  The people’s lives are almost impossible under the Roman rule.  Messianic hopes are prevalent.  Everyone is looking for signs.  Maybe John is the answer.

But, instead, he lambastes them, threatens them, calls them a “brood of vipers,” tells them not to count on their being good Jews who follow the law (good Christian folks who make it to church); they can be replaced with stones, for goodness sake!  So the people ask John this pertinent question, “What then should we do?”

John begins with the practical, ethical issues:  If you have two coats or enough to eat, share from your excess with those who have none.  Be fair in business; don’t cheat or collect undue bonuses for yourself.  Don’t use your position to take advantage of anyone; be satisfied with what you have.  This sounds like a prequel to the ministry of Jesus, doesn’t it?  Which, of course, it is.

Their question, “What then should we do?” reminds me of the rich young ruler, who is missing something in his life, so he asks Jesus, “What can I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, and he replies he has done so since he was a child.  And then Jesus gives him the ultimate challenge, “Sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and come and follow me.”

But John doesn’t ask that of his followers:  only that they be ethical and honest and fair – whether you are just a member of the crowd, or a tax collector, or a soldier.  It seems that this is not enough, however. The people still ponder questions, hope for something more, hunger for something deeper.  Don’t we all?  We, too, ask the question, “What should we do?”

What should we do this Christmas about the rift in the family?  What should we do about the violence all around us?  What should we do about the refugees desperate for safety?  What should we do about the fear and anxiety invading this country?   What should we do when the baby is finally born and keeps us up all night?   Or has a life-threatening fever or a disability?  Or has such major behavior issues that we can’t keep him at home?  What should we do when the baby grows up to be a teenager and keeps with a wild crowd?  Or wants to stay out until 2 a.m.?  Or wants to sleep with her boyfriend?

What should we do – when we’ve just lost our job or have no health insurance?  Or our parents are aging and need more care?  Or our friends are losing their home to foreclosure?  Perhaps we don’t have to change the whole world – only our part of it, and when we’ve done our part, and everyone else has done their part, the world is different.

What should we do?  Well, I can’t tell you how to live your life.  I have enough trouble living my own – figuring out how much I really need – and how much is superfluous stuff.  I have enough trouble living my own life – deciding how much to give away and how much to spend on my own bills and pursuits.  I have enough trouble analyzing how I spend my time to see if things on my to-do list advance my goals – or are a waste of my energy.

Each of us must sort all this out for ourselves:  to clarify our values, to share, to be fair, to be satisfied, as John the Baptist teaches.  Each of us is responsible for the integrity of our own actions.  Each of us is challenged to go to a deeper level of self-reflection and repentance.

You’re thinking, I suspect, that this sounds like a sermon for Lent, not Advent.  But no, it’s in the time of Advent that we need to consider such things, when we are pregnant with possibility.  When we are ready for a coming, an appearance, the arrival of something new, something unexpected.  John the Baptist calls us to make a mental and spiritual U turn, away from self-absorption, fear, and the like, and toward a recommitment to lives focused on love of God and care of neighbor.

Is it Christmas yet? No!  But hear this:  The cows are making room in the stable.  The shepherds are scanning the skies.  The angels are practicing their glorias.  And the wise men are resting their camels for the final push.  The babe waits to be born in our midst.

What should we do?  And who will deliver us?

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Make Ready

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

December 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ordinary people like you and I…

May it be so!

Amen.

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

[2] Ibid, page 49.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

The Days Are Surely Coming

Jeremiah 33:14-16

December 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.

Amen.

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

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

What Is Truth?

John 18:33-37

November 25, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moosup Valley Church, UCC

Asking for It

I Samuel 1:4-20

November 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Clean Hands, Pure Heart

Psalm 24

November 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so!

Amen.

 

 

 

 

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

How to Be Great

Mark 10:35-45

October 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through God’s grace, may it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Take Heart!

Mark 10:46-52

October 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

What Defines Us?

Mark 10:17-31

October 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s not keep him waiting!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Courage for Community

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

September 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

May it be so!

Amen.

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

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Whoever Welcomes One . . . Welcomes Me

Mark 9:30-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

May it be so!

Amen.

Moosup Valley Church UCC

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

May it be so!

Amen.

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Whoever Welcomes One . . . Welcomes Me

Mark 9:30-37

September 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

May it be so!

Amen.

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

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Who Are You, Jesus?

Mark 8:27-38

September 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so!

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your thoughts?

May it be so!
Amen.

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Mossup Valley Church UCC

Doers of the Word

James 1:17-27

September 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Let the Children Laugh

Mark 10:13-16

August 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so!

Amen.

 

 

 

 

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