Sunday Sermons

REVEREND BETSY A. GARLAND

Moosup Valley Church UCC

God’s Blessings

Matthew 5:1-12

January 29, 2023

This is the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, and our lead Gospel for this year is Matthew. Matthew, as I said last week, serves as a bridge between the Old Testament and the New, and Matthew’s purpose is to show that Jesus is the Messiah they have been waiting for generations.

The passage we just heard is known as the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes. Luke tells the same story, but in Luke, it’s the Sermon on the Plain, although those Beatitudes, are blessings and woes – blessings for the poor and woes for the rich. Luke, you see, is writing for a different audience, not just Israelites but also Greeks and Romans, some of whom are people of means.

It’s significant that Matthew’s Jesus is speaking to the crowd from a mountain. He is making his case that Jesus is the longed-for Messiah, the One, the fulfillment of the OT prophecies. And the mountain is important in the story, linking Jesus in the long line of prophets, especially with Moses who went up Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Up a mountain is also a way to see the forest for the trees, to get a better view of the way things are. The Rev. Dr. MLK, in his speech the day before he was killed, I’ve been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land, a society where black people have equal rights and peace but like Moses, may die before he gets there….

In the Sermon on the mount, Matthew has softened the story a bit, and made it applicable to those who are poor in spirit, but the focus is still on the poor. Remember, Jesus is preaching to a people under persecution, longing for the Messiah and an end to the evil age.  Those who are listening to Jesus are poor, under the thumb of both the Roman Empire and the religious establishment, the temple in Jerusalem.  They are not the privileged ones, but members of the groups whom God deems worthy, not by virtue of their own achievements or status in society but because God chooses to be on the side of the weak, the forgotten, the despised, the justice seekers, the peace makers, and those persecuted for their beliefs.

To be “Blessed” is not simply to be happy but to know that we are included in God’s coming realm.  Matthew is using these teachings of Jesus as he writes his Gospel toward the end of the first century. The message is that, while life may be difficult now, the congregation can live with confidence because they know they are secure.

These Beatitudes are not direct calls to action, commands to do something.  Jesus is not calling his listeners long ago – or us – to become poor in spirit, to mourn, to become meek.   And the mourning Jesus is talking about is not sadness at the death of a loved one. The mourning Jesus is lifting up as a blessing is the mourning that the present world is far from God’s purposes, what God intended.  We might wonder: has the world ever been what God intended at creation?  We see idolatry, injustice, exploitation, and violence.  And we mourn.  The Beatitudes are promises that those who respond positively to the coming of God’s realm will receive God’s blessings.

Society has always been weighted toward the “haves” – the prosperity and entitlement of the elite and powerful, the rich and famous, those who can have anything they want – rather than to the “have-nots,” those whom the world identifies with poverty and inferiority, those who struggle to have a roof over their heads and food for their children.

The biblical tradition is always counter-cultural in spirit.  It agitates the comfortable by challenging our lifestyles and assumptions.  And, as the saying goes, it also comforts the agitated, those at the margins of life, those with their backs against the wall, or struggling with debilitating life issues.  Our scriptures claim that the “last” shall be “first” and that sacrifice is essential to reality – a countercultural message.  Jesus did not come to accumulate and exercise power for himself but to disperse it for the healing of the world, and he taught his disciples that was the mark of greatness: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be servant of all” (Mark 10:43).

Biblical greatness is not so obvious in America today, in a world in which “more” is always better than “less,” where people operate according to very different sets of facts, and make up fake news stories for personal gain which is becoming the norm on social media.  We live in a strange new world.  You and I are either “haves” or “have-nots,” and maybe both, depending on how long ago our families arrived on these shores and from what country, whether we can afford health insurance, to whom we are married if marriage equality is overturned.  Too, we are either “haves” or “have-nots” depending on if we need Planned Parenthood for cancer screening and birth control, the schools our children attend and the quality of their curriculum, whether we have to occupy our own lands to protest the construction of a leaky pipeline that may contaminate our water source.  And we may be “haves” or “have nots” if our retirement funds are sitting in a bank earning less than half of one percent interest – or invested in stocks that benefit the wealthy and corporations, one of the reasons for the growing gap between the rich and the poor. 

If we are truly the “blessed” ones, regardless of our circumstances, we know our dependence.  And we know the grace of interdependence, the receiving and giving, accepting and sacrificing.  We know we need each other.  We are not self-made, nor do we boast of our success or the rightness of our beliefs in tweets and press releases.  We realize that healthy spirituality – healthy self-affirmation – is a gift of God whose love undergirds our own efforts and achievements.  The way of sacrificial love and service may lead to persecution – or at least to misunderstanding – but it is God’s way, the pathway of unity and justice, of compassionate identification with the suffering of the world.

And Matthew’s nine “Beatitudes” are not all there are; we might add some of our own:  Blessed are those who care for their church buildings, for they make a welcoming place for people to gather. Blessed is the one who gives a friend a ride to the doctor for she will go home satisfied that she filled a need.  Blessed are those who split wood and process pork for they help a neighbor who can’t do it alone. Blessed are those who collect rice and beans for a barrel for Haiti, for they help to feed hungry children so they can learn and they teach their children to be merciful and generous. 

The prophet Micah (6:8) says it simply, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Jesus ends his teaching of these Beatitudes with “Rejoice and be glad,” because God’s righteousness – the blessings of God’s steadfast love, goodness, justice, and mercy – are at the core of our Mount Vernon Larger Parish community, because God first loved us.  These are values we can all live into as disciples.  In fact, discipleship is the only way to live for the one who is “Blessed.”

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

The Place God Calls You To

Matthew 4:12-23

January 22, 2023

The story begins in earnest now.  The Wise Men from the East have come and gone. Jesus has been baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River. He has been tempted in the wilderness by pride and ambition.  John has been arrested for speaking truth to power, and Jesus steps onto center stage. 

The Gospel of Matthew is not the first gospel to be written but it’s the first in our Bibles because he is writing primarily for a Jewish audience, and this gospel is a good bridge between the writings of Israel, called our Old Testament and our Christian writings, our New Testament. Matthew wastes no time proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah, the One for whom they had been waiting for centuries.  Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled: “…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  Jesus is the Light, the One.

And the One comes with a message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” a message of good news.  Matthew consistently references the Kingdom of Heaven.  He’s not talking about going to Heaven or escaping from this world to another one.  Jesus is telling us that God’s rule is coming to earth, to make earth heavenly. “As it is in Heaven,” we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

Jesus’ first action is to recruit disciples, to engage others to undertake this journey with him.  He comes upon two brothers – Simon and Andrew – and because they have only a net, we know they are poor. “Follow me,” Jesus says.  Immediately, they leave their nets.  Just like that? Was there no one they needed to tell?  Nobody who would wonder why they didn’t come home for supper?

Next, Jesus spots the sons of Zebedee, James and John, fishing from their boat.  They are more affluent because they have a boat and can leave the shore for deeper water for their fishing.  How will Zebedee manage without his sons’ strong arms?  Regardless, the point is that Jesus summons people from the midst of their daily lives, from their families, from their workplaces.  Jesus calls them into a new set of relationships, into a new vocation as disciples.  One commentator notes,

“God is still speaking to us in the midst of our efforts to focus on living comfortable, orderly, pleasant lives….  God calls us, each in our own setting, to repent, that is to turn in a new direction, to open our lives to a radical renewal that may upset and re-orient our neat little, hard-won patterns of comfort and familiarity, the unquestioned assumptions, perhaps the privilege we enjoy without being aware of it.”[1]

We might wonder, too, why Simon and Andrew, James and John, dropped everything and followed Jesus.  We can’t know what was in their hearts.  Were they hungry for a different life?  Fishermen only because no one had ever offered them anything else?  Is this all there is?  Are we the only society that raises that question?  Perhaps Jesus knew these men were ripe for the adventure of a lifetime, to turn away from material things and self-interest, to let go of “stuff,” boats and nets and responsibilities, re-set their lives on the things that make for love and joy, for justice and peace. 

The things that make for joy?  I’ve always had the impression that the fishermen followed Jesus because he had ordered them to do so.  They were followers out of a sense of duty – and we should follow out of our sense of duty.  But what if it’s not duty but life in its fullest?  The text goes on to say that Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching and healing and proclaiming good news. 

Life was difficult under Roman occupation, crushing poverty and oppression.  What a breath of fresh air Jesus must have been, the way he loved people, cared for people.  We can imagine him sitting around the table breaking bread, enjoying the fish cakes his hostess carried in, passing around the goblet, telling stories while neighbors gathered in the doorway – and did he sing?  I’ll bet Jesus sang his heart out!

I see two other take-aways in this scripture about Jesus’ calling the disciples:

First, that leaders need disciples.  No one can do everything that needs to be done by him or herself – not even Jesus! In the Old Testament, too, Moses is overwhelmed and tells Yahweh, “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.” So God tells him to recruit 70 elders and God will take some of the spirit that is on Moses and spread it on the 70, so Moses won’t have to bear the burden alone. (Numbers 11)

In our local churches, we count on our ministers to do the work, but ministers can’t do it by themselves. We all are called to be ministers, to help carry the work of the church. Time to think about what that means for our Larger Parish.  Beyond the work that our officers are doing, what leadership can we build in the Larger Parish for filling the pulpit, visiting the lonely, leading small groups ….

Another take-away is that our church work – whether it is in our churches or in the community – should bring us joy.  The discipleship to which we are called needs to bring us joy.  Some of you have taken my gifts discovery course, “What in God’s Name Are You Doing?” to discern your gifts.  The work you do becomes ministry only when based on what you love to do, not on the slots that needed filling.  Nobody should be roped into taking on an assignment because nobody else would do it, or because he or she owed someone a favor, or was cornered by the nominating committee. People are better served if their work is something life-giving.  We all get “should upon” too often by society. Jesus invites us to new life as disciples, to joy, not duty!

What brings you joy and fulfillment?  Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner writes,

“There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work,

and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, say,

or the super-ego, or self-interest.  By and large a good rule for finding out is this.

          The kind of work God usually calls you to is (a) the kind of work that you need most

          to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done.  The place God calls you to is

          the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Discipleship is a journey – but not a journey to drudgery, not a journey to something to which you are not suited.  Yes, discipleship may take you somewhere you had never expected to go.  Discipleship may disrupt our lives – or not.  Discipleship may take us far from home – or only help us to see home through different eyes.  Discipleship grounds us in the work we most need to do – to be true to ourselves, to be fulfilled – to find ourselves where we are most needed, to heal the world. 

Come and follow me, and I will make you fish for people.  And neighbors step up with hammers to build homes for neighbors through Habitat for Humanity.  And doctors take vacations from their comfortable practices in US hospitals to go back again and again to villages in Africa and Haiti to save children’s lives. 

In the news on Thursday, the US State Department announced a new program, the Welcome Corps to help settle Ukrainian refugees, giving private citizens (people like us) a role in providing a warm welcome to refugees – meeting them at the airport, finding them a place to live, getting the kids enrolled in school. And the government will help us do that through nonprofits who work with refugees, like Dorcas Place. As Rose says, “It takes a village.”              

There are all kinds of ways each of us and our local churches can bring in the kingdom of God in the name of Jesus. 

Come and follow me.  This is the season of Epiphany.  All the bad news in the world should not make us miss “Epiphany light” and “God’s saving reign which is continually on the move to the ends of the earth – as well as to the innermost reaches of the human heart.” 

May it be so!

Amen.


[1] Thomas Long, quoted in this week’s focus scripture on the UCC website.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Come and See

John 1:29-42

January 15, 2023

The first chapter of the gospel of John is a big stretch. It begins with the beloved words of the Prologue, “In the beginning was the Word…,” about life and light that not even darkness can overcome,     and then ends, by the end of the chapter, with the calling of the disciples and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Within the space of just a few verses, John moves from philosophical and theological reflection to the practical and strategic work of building a movement.

The text in between is John’s alluding to his baptism of Jesus, which has prompted Jerusalem to send priests out to ask John by what authority he is baptizing people, to pin him down, and to see if he, John, is the Messiah, and if not the Messiah, Elijah or Isaiah.  In reply, John utters these familiar words, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”  And with that, John sets the stage for Jesus’ appearance.

Then in our text for today, Jesus enters the story.  Who is he, this man from up north in Judea?  Someone in the crowd asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  John the Baptist blows his cover:  “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Andrew and Simon Peter start to trail Jesus.  Jesus turns and notices them: “What are you looking for?” Jesus asks. Typical of Jesus to ask a question that cuts to the core of why we’re here on earth, what it’s all about, and what we’re doing that matters. The men must be caught off guard because they ask in return: “Where are you staying?” as if that has anything to do with anything.  Like many of us, they probably didn’t know what they wanted or what they were looking for. 

Jesus says to them – and to us – “Come and see.” This short and sweet phrase means, “Come as you are – with all of your warts and weariness – and see who I am.” An invitation to everyone “no matter who you are” and invites curiosity. And he took them to where he was staying, and they stayed with him for a whole day, and, as it turned out, they stayed with him for the rest of their lives.  The point is this:  Disciples are those who want to stay with Jesus, wherever that may be and wherever it may take them.

This weekend we celebrate the life of a disciple who answered Jesus’ call to “Come and see,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He could have stayed in Boston where he was studying, but instead he returned to the South to take up his ministry, his cross. When Jesus asked King to “Come and see,” he has no idea that the place Jesus wanted him to be was the inside of a Birmingham jail during the civil rights protests being staged in April of 1963.  On Good Friday afternoon, he was among 54 marchers who were arrested and thrown into jail for violating an injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.”  They were even forbidden to engage in “conduct customarily known as “kneel-ins” in churches.”

King was singled out for harsh treatment, perhaps because he was a pastor and therefore, seen as a leader against segregation.  Perhaps because he had earned a doctorate at Boston University and, therefore, who does this “uppidy” Negro think he is!  He was isolated and denied the chance to make phone calls or to talk to his lawyers.  He had no mattress or linen, and was sleeping on metal slats. 

And yet, over that Easter weekend, deep in solitary confinement, down in what was called “the hole,” sealed off from his fellow prisoners and the outside world, Martin Luther King was staying with Jesus.  It was while he was locked up that King wrote one of the most significant Christian documents of the civil rights movement:  his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Surprisingly, this letter was not addressed to Police Commissioner “Bull” Connor who had pledged to incarcerate every African American who challenged segregation.  It was not addressed to abusive police officers or to racist politicians, or to those who turned the fire hoses on women and children.

King’s letter was addressed to a group of liberal, white clergymen who were urging people to withdraw from the demonstrations, which they called “unwise and untimely.” King responded strongly to their criticism that his marches were “untimely.” He told the white clergymen that “we must use time creatively and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”  He pointed out that “it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”  He rebuked his colleagues with these words:

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers.

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.  I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice, who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.’ Who paternalistically believes that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

Back in 1963, who was really staying with Jesus?  The white moderate who was devoted to order, or the black radical who was pushing for justice?  Was it the majority who preferred a negative peace, one marked by the absence of tension? Or was it the minority who worked for a positive peace, one known by the presence of justice? The meaning of “shalom.”

It’s easy for us to look back 60 years and side with King and the Freedom Riders and the U.S. Justice Department that worked to end segregation.  It’s easy for us to look back and align ourselves with all the liberation movements, whether racial segregation or the women’s movement or child labor.  It’s easy to forget that people put themselves in danger and suffered. It’s easy to forget that students made out their wills, knowing they might die,  before boarding the Freedom Buses. It’s easy to forget that white clergy from Boston  were beaten and killed.

But I wonder what Jesus is up to today, what he invites you and me to “come and see.” More than we realize, I believe.  Right in our own backyard, several years ago, a special education teacher at Ponaganset won the Milken Educator Award for her work to break down barriers and build bridges. She is to preparing the youth of today to be leaders of tomorrow with this Inclusion Pledge, which was published in the Providence Journal: 

          “I pledge to look for the lonely, the isolated, the left out, the challenged

and the bullied.  I pledge to overcome the fear of difference

and replace it with the power of inclusion.”

On this Martin Luther King holiday weekend, we need to remember Jesus’ invitation to “Come and see.” King was a good disciple who heeded Jesus call to “Come and see” and who stayed with Jesus, not only in the Birmingham Jail, but also onto death.  So as we celebrate his life this weekend, keep in mind that tomorrow is not just a day out of work or a vacation from school, a day to catch a sale at the mall or a chance to put away the Christmas decorations.  

Keep in mind that tomorrow is a religious holiday, a day to remember one who “stayed with Jesus” until the bitter end.

May it be so! 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Possibilities Unfolding

Matthew 3:13-17

January 8, 2023

The baptism of Jesus by his cousin John is recorded in all four gospels. This is a strong indication that the early church was in agreement that this baptism really had occurred at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  It also indicates that the manner of his baptism held particular importance in the early Christian community.

We might wonder, like John wondered, why Jesus wanted to be baptized, and assuming he did, why did he come to John?  The question brings to mind the nature of baptism – and not just Jesus’ baptism but also ours.  We all hold our own ideas about baptism, and there’s probably more than one “right” understanding.  But an idea often held in the public imagination is that baptism is necessary for our salvation, to save us from original sin, to cleanse us from the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

True, water is a frequent metaphor for cleansing and purifying, in the OT as well as the New.  In Genesis, the Spirit moves over the face of the water to separate the waters from the waters and then to separate the waters from the dry land.  In the same metaphorical way, the Israel is “baptized” into Moses as they pass through the Red Sea, cleansing the people from the taint of slavery in Egypt.

For me, baptism is about welcoming a person into God’s family, inviting someone symbolically to wash away the old and to become a new person in Christ.  An adult makes that decision personally; for children, those promises are made by their parents/sponsors who will help them to grow into that new person.

But what of Jesus?  If you are one who believes that baptism is about washing away sin, and if you also believe that Jesus is without sin, then why does Jesus want to be baptized?  There would be no need, so perhaps baptism is not about salvation, at least not for Jesus.

So, what is it about then?  Why was this story so critical to the early church, so much so that all four Gospels report it (although almost as an aside in John)?  What did it teach about the nature of Jesus and his coming? And the nature of the people who gathered around him, and the nature of the church that emerged in his name? 

The text offers a clue. John protests, we can assume out of awe and respect for Jesus:  You should be baptizing me, cleansing me, not the other way around. But Jesus insists that John baptize him “to fulfill all righteousness,” that is, because this is the right way.  What is the right way?  What is Jesus teaching here?  It well may be about the nature of leadership, the nature of the true leader.   

Jesus has come not as a leader who is gathering power for himself, like a Herod who had all the baby boys killed to preserve his power and authority after the wise men come seeking and asking questions.  Jesus is not that kind of a king. Jesus has come not as a leader who will accept the wilderness temptation to turn stones into bread, to throw himself from the temple, to seize all the kingdoms of the world as his own.  Jesus is not a king who will turn the laws of the universe upside down for his own benefit. 

Jesus has not come as a king to laud it over others. He has come as a leader to change the nature of the community from within, to raise up leaders around him, to empower others rather than to be the powerful one alone, to prepare the church to serve the world. 

A number of years ago I read Robert Greenleaf’s work on “servant leadership.”  Greenleaf was an engineer, hired by AT&T in the 1920s, to see if the company could do a better job of serving both the individual and the larger society.  Greenleaf discovered that those AT&T organizations that thrived had particular kinds of leaders. They had leaders who acted more as supportive coaches than “bosses” to their employees, leaders who served the needs of employees as well as the need of the organization.  As he succinctly put it: “The organization exists for the person as much as the person exists for the organization.”          It sounds like something Jesus would have said, right?  “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Greenleaf had developed his concept of the servant-leader after reading Herman Hesse’s “Journey to the East.”  It is the story of a group of travelers who were served by Leo, who did their menial chores and lifted them with his spirit and song.  Leo was the one who unloaded the camels, pitched the tents, cooked the meals, sang around the campfire in the evening.  It was a wonderful trip, and all went well until the day when Leo disappeared. The travelers fell into disarray and could go no farther. The journey was over.  Years later, one of the travelers saw Leo again – and he discovered that Leo was the revered head of the Order that had sponsored the journey.  Leo, who had been their servant, was the titular head of the Order, a great and noble leader.

In “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf said: …this story clearly says—the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness.  Leo was actually the leader all of the time, but he was servant first because that was what he was, deep down inside. Leadership had been bestowed upon a man who was by nature a servant.  He was servant first.  The best leaders, according to Greenleaf, are the best servants.

The people to whom Jesus came were expecting a Messiah who would overthrow their enemies and restore the nation of Israel. They were expecting a military overthrow, a messianic king who would consolidate power.  They were expecting a Messiah who would do the baptizing, not the other way around. They were expecting a Messiah who would rule the earth, not someone who would serve it.  They were expecting a Messiah who would hold all the authority, not someone who would share authority with his disciples.

And so Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan sets the tone for his ministry.  It demonstrates for those on the riverbank that Jesus has come to save by saving the community from within, by building a community to carry on after his earthly ministry.  All through the gospels we see Jesus’ insistence that the power to heal the world is something that he intends to share with the church through the power of the Holy Spirit.

He sends disciples out to heal, and in the Gospel of John he tells them that they will do greater works than he himself has done (John 14:12).  In fact, Jesus also suggests in John (16:7) that he needs to depart to make room for the Holy Spirit to work through the church.  Jesus has come not to accumulate and exercise power for himself but to disperse it for the healing of the world. As he said to his disciples in the Gospel of Mark (10:42-45),

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles

lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.

Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you

must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be servant of all.

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,

and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

His baptism begins that process.  In humility, Jesus lets John push him under the waves, just as in humility, he lets Pilate raise him up on a cross.  Jesus comes as servant, the prototype of a leader pleasing to God. 

This is a good lesson for us as we move further into our experiment to work more closely together as a Larger Parish. Let us pray that we will be open to new ways of being together, of worshipping and working together in 2023.

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Epiphanies

Matthew 2:1-12

January 1, 2023

Word spread quickly throughout the town.  A large caravan was heading their way.  Those in the fields and on the road saw them coming.  Children climbed to the flat rooftops to watch their arrival.  You could taste the excitement along with the dust.  What can it mean?  Traders often passed through Bethlehem, situated about six miles South-South West of Jerusalem, near the chief North-South route. They would stop to fill their water bags and buy bread before their final push into Jerusalem.  But the size of this group was unusual. And these travelers had an exotic look about them.  Three of them looked to be important by their dress and their bearing, and they were accompanied by all manner of servants – camel handlers, baggage carriers, cooks, and others. 

Gospel writer Matthew says they are magi, from the Greek, which also can be translated “wise men” or “astrologers.” The word has nothing to do with kings; that was an idea added later to our Christmas story.  The magi are a priestly class of Persian or Babylonian experts in the occult, such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams.  They are the forerunners of those who compose our daily horoscopes in The Providence Journal – written by someone named Magi Helena, something I only noticed recently. 

Sometimes Magi offers good advice.  One for Virgo read, “There is no time like the present to offer an apology.”  And for Capricorn, “An optimistic attitude could attract new friends who will help you in the future.”  Sometimes, she leaves us wondering, like this one for Leo:  “The labels might not describe the contents.” Or for Taurus, “Not getting what you want will yield more obvious benefits.”  Huh?  I take them all with a grain of salt, but I am intrigued by them. Who is this Magi Helena?  How does she come up with these things?  By watching the stars, apparently….

These Biblical magi are pagans, students of the heavens, not Jews, and they study the skies for a sign of the birth of a new ruler.  A star has led them to Bethlehem; they have found him.  The townspeople don’t know this, of course.  They probably wonder, who are they and why are they here?  Why are these important-looking people dismounting in Bethlehem and not in Jerusalem? Stopping in front of a stable instead of a palace?  Why are they drawing up their reins in Foster and not in Providence?  Before Rice City Church instead of a downtown cathedral?

An epiphany, according to a standard dictionary, applies to any manifestation or appearance of a deity.  In Christian history, we capitalize Epiphany to refer to the manifestation of Jesus as the Christ.  But increasingly the word “epiphany” in common usage has come to refer to any insightful or dramatic moment that instills new vision or perspective.  A gathering with loved ones during the holidays might be an epiphany for how blessed we are as a family.  The illness of a loved one reminds us that money isn’t everything.  Our cataracts and joint pains and forgetfulness announce with clarity that we are getting older – much to our surprise!

When do you suppose the people of Bethlehem had their epiphany that something extraordinary was taking place in their village, just across the way, in back of the inn?  When had the birth of a child caused so much stir?  When had they felt before that their little town in the backwater of the world mattered – to anyone, let alone these strangers?  When do you suppose the innkeeper had his epiphany about this poor couple in need of shelter whom he had sent to the barn because all of his rooms were rented?  Or perhaps he had no stomach for the moans and smells of childbirth.  When do you suppose King Herod the Great had his epiphany that he was not the most important person in Jerusalem, and that, power held through violence will come back to bite him. 

When do you suppose that Mary and Joseph had their epiphany that Jesus was an extraordinary child?  Perhaps the gifts that these travelers presented as they knelt before the manger were an epiphany in themselves?  Gold and frankincense and myrrh.  These were no Fisher Price toys or Legos or computer games, but symbols of what was to come: gold fit for a majestic king, incense for his spiritual worship, myrrh for embalming, after they take his body down from the cross. 

The magi had been preparing for years to follow the star.  Now their discipline and study, their observation and action, have paid off, and they have witnessed the birth of the future.  They also are living proof, too, that perseverance in our spiritual lives pays off.  

And the epiphany for the followers of Jesus, for the early church?  Hidden in the gospel story – but placed there deliberatelyby Matthew – is the epiphany that Jesus is born not only for Israel but also for the Greek and Roman world as well.  Jesus is born not only for the Jews, who have been waiting for generations for their Messiah, but also for gentiles, like these sages from far away who have followed the star to this forlorn place.  As we remind ourselves in the United Church of Christ, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

And what of our epiphanies?  What will be made clear to us as individuals and families this year?  To us as a congregation and a Larger Parish?  What will be revealed to us?  And how can we prepare for our future on this first Sunday in January 2023? 

What stars do we follow?  And where will they lead us?

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Choosing the Good

Matthew 1:18-25

December 18, 2022

On this fourth Sunday in Advent, Joseph is center stage. Which is mildly annoying.  We’ve been waiting all these weeks for the birth – putting up with calls to repent, to keep awake, to prepare the way – and now we’d like to hear from Mary and have this baby! But no, this year the lectionary text is from Matthew’s gospel, not Luke’s, and the focus is on Joseph instead of Mary, and the writer of the Gospel of Matthew has a job to do: He has the task of giving legitimacy to Jesus as the Son of David. 

Matthew begins with a long genealogy (verses 1:1-17) to show that Jesus is descended from the ancient covenantal line, through the ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, who birthed Isaac, who married Rebecca, who birthed Jacob.  But the genealogy – 14 generations we are told, but it was surely many more – ends with a problem:  When the long list reaches Joseph, we don’t read “and Joseph fathered Jesus.”  Instead we get the awkward “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (v.16).

So our text for today (verses 18-25) is Matthew’s two-part answer to this problem.  First, he simply announces Mary’s miraculous conception as a fact without explanation: “She was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (v. 18).  But if Joseph is not his father, how can Jesus be the “son of David”?  Then, second, Matthew introduces an angel who attends Joseph in a dream, addressing Joseph as “son of David,” and tells him “you shall name him Jesus” (verse 21). Naming rights gives Joseph fatherhood status by adoption, and incorporates Jesus legally into David’s genealogy. 

So the genealogy problem is solved – but not the unwed mother problem.  Will Joseph divorce her?  How will he handle this scandal? Mary is engaged to Joseph. When she turns out to be pregnant—and not by him—it is a colossal disgrace to him and his family.  He, after all, is among the offspring of Abraham, of the house and lineage of David.

Matthew describes Joseph as a “righteous” man, and not knowing the cause of her pregnancy –  only that he has not fathered this child – Joseph can only think she has been unfaithful, guilty of adultery. The Jewish law is clear: he must divorce her. There’s no room to “forgive and forget.”

And so Joseph has a problem and a massive decision to make.  Everyone in the family would expect him to reject her.  The entire village would shame her. She would be returned to her father’s house, if her father would even take her back.  Perhaps she would be homeless, like so many of the gay and trans kids today who are thrown out with no place to go.   According to the Torah, she could be executed.

But Joseph is not only righteous, it appears, but also compassionate, and he chooses the good with the help of the angel who lets Joseph in on the divine plan. And so he takes Mary as his wife and becomes part of God’s plan “to save his people from their sins.”

I think of an episode in the BBC show Call the Midwife in which an expectant father is over the moon about his wife’s pregnancy. During her labor, however, the wife anxiously confesses to the midwives that she is terrified her husband will know the baby is not his because she had a fling with a person of color. What will he do to her? Will she and this newborn be out in the cold?           The baby is indeed born with a beautiful brown skin, and everyone holds their breath when the father enters the room. But this father doesn’t miss a beat.  He sits on the edge of the bed, takes his son into his arms, and pronounces him the most beautiful baby in all the world, and he pledges to be the best father in the world. Everyone’s relief is palpable! This father, however, didn’t have the benefit of an angel to convince him that his newborn son would be a key to the salvation of the world.  Only the spirit of generosity and love.

Joseph is rather peripheral in the grand sweep of the Christian tradition.  We rarely see him in art, and when we do, he’s not alone but with Mary and Jesus. We don’t sing about him very much – but I managed to find one lovely hymn, “Gentle Joseph, Joseph Dear.” But we should sing about Joseph! He goes beyond his culture’s norms, what is acceptable.   He pursues a course of action that is excessively good,     excessively generous, without thought to his own plans. 

He reminds me of the men in my family and the men in this congregation and the Larger Parish.  The men who drop what they are doing to build a stage or a smoking shed, renovate the church, clean up the grounds, capture the pigs, split and stack the wood, raise funds for Haiti.  Carl, John, Bob, Charlie, Jerry DeNuccio, Neil, Chris and Matt, Al Zanella – those who are in worship regularly – and those who come when something needs to be done – Tom Griffiths, Al Goodyear, Eric, Sean, Herold, and others. Those who go beyond what is required to care for their families, to help the community.

Those who are attentive to God – whether through the vehicle of a dream or the prompting of their wives – no matter; they alter the course of their lives to choose the good! And as we enter the final week of Advent, we can reflect on the Joseph story and how one person’s willingness to respond to the Spirit with generosity prepares us for the birth of Immanuel, the God who is with us.

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Are You the One?

Matthew 11:2-11

December 11, 2022

In just one week’s time, our story moves from a John the Baptist crying “Prepare the way of the Lord!” in the wilderness to a John the Baptist asking questions from prison.  John’s story, of course, encompasses many weeks, and in that time he has precipitated his arrest by criticizing Herod the Great’s son Antipas for marrying Herodias, Herod’s half-niece. According to Jewish law, such a union was prohibited.

While John has been railing against Herod, Jesus has begun his ministry in Galilee, attracting attention across the countryside.  The news reaches John in prison.  So he sends his disciples to ask of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  We are glad to hear John ask this question, because it’s our question, too, and we are afraid to ask it. 

Is Jesus the real thing?  Is our religion about something that matters, or is this business of Christmas and the Christ child only a fanciful tale – but ultimately powerless against our hopes and dreams?  We good Christians are afraid to voice our doubts, but if John –who is on his way to sainthood – can question, perhaps we can, too. So John asks, “Are you the one to come?”  What he means is are you really the one?  Are you the Messiah, or not? 

Jesus’ response may be “right on” theologically, but it can’t be much help to John. “Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  The Messiah is known through his deeds.  John gets the report, and he must think, “Lovely!” Lovely for the lame and the blind, the deaf and the temporarily dead!  “You may notice, however, Jesus, that I am still in prison.”

One reason people find Advent and Christmas depressing is that they have good reason to be depressed.  “Are you the one?” we ask from the emergency room and the court room, from the nursing home and the children’s home, from the ghetto and the refugee camp.  If you really are the one, why am I cooling my heels in these difficult places?  Why is there so much suffering in the world?

Advent and Christmas are hard for people because the culture says ‘tis the season for “tidings of comfort and joy” – yet there often is precious little comfort in too many lives and not too much to be joyful about.  Cheery youth groups traipse down lonely hallways singing “Joy to the world” and shouting Merry Christmas while people look up from beds and wheelchairs. Where is there time to hold a wrinkled hand or listen to the story of a veteran or read to someone whose sight is going?

But wait!  There’s more to this story which not only clarifies who Jesus is, but it also clarifies why Jesus has come.  The poor and the blind and the lame receive good news in Jesus’ presence.  They are healed not only of their physical complaints but also of their spiritual ones.  Jesus raises up John and his ministry in the wilderness and contrasts him with royalty who live in palaces.  In the simplicity of his life, John suggests the simplicity of Christmas.  The only rich people who show up at Bethlehem are the Magi, and they kneel down and give up their gifts. 

In the midst of a culture that celebrates consumerism – buy, buy, buy – Jesus’ celebration of John is a welcome relief.  It reminds us to “Put Christ back into Christmas” by caring for the least among us. At this time of year, the stores and the catalogues are full of people in soft robes in royal palaces – people in party dresses in decked-out-for Christmas living rooms, and Land’s End flannels and LL Bean boots at the country inn.  And we love to admire and maybe buy.  But the story about John the Baptist, God’s servant, makes the point clear enough:  It is the contrast between the miracle on 34th Street and the miracle in Bethlehem, between the benefits of Macy’s and the wonders of God’s love. 

Yes, we all love the soft robes and palaces and the extravagance and glitter of Christmas – I do, too – but the kingdom is about something else. In Matthew’s Gospel, it is about simple living, finding God in word and song and fellowship and in the quietness of the heart.  It is about the least, the little ones, the sheep of God’s fold.  It is about mothers and children. 

In God’s eyes, they are as great as John the Baptist, and they are entrusted to our care. There is still time to put Christ back into Christmas!

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church, UCC

Prepare the Way

Matthew 3:1-12

December 4, 2022

We are well into Advent.  We have lit the Christmas tree; we are singing Advent hymns; we are lighting candles for hope, peace, joy, and love.  We are buying gifts to make Christmas for families we have adopted and making plans for our Blue Christmas Service and our Annual Living Crèche.  We are arranging meals for our own families, baking cookies, and sending cards. 

And, into the midst of all this, comes John the Baptist preaching repentance. Do we really need judgment in the midst of holiday spirit?  Do we really want to be dragged away from our home fires into the wilderness as we prepare for Christmas?   John the Baptist – tough-minded, straightforward, no-nonsense preacher – attracts immediate attention in this morning’s gospel lesson as he calls up the words of Isaiah.  “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  One commentator notes, “John may have been like Alexander Whyte, noted preacher at Free St. George’s Church in Edinburgh,” in the early 20th century.  “It was said that Whyte could be so direct and penetrating that to hear him preach was to take your life in your hands.”[1]

I wonder if that’s not what we do when we come to church – regardless of what the preacher has to say.  In the midst of the wilderness and the woundedness of our lives, I wonder if we don’t come to church to reflect on the tough questions, to give room for grief and pain and suffering, to take the meaning of our lives in our hands.  When we stay on the surface, when we rush about from shopping, to parties, to concerts, when we gush over light displays on lawns and Santas on rooftops, when we fuss over just the right gift to impress, I wonder if we miss the meaning of Advent.  And then, when we get beyond the holidays, and have taken down the decorations and swept up the needles, we realize that we missed Christmas.  Wouldn’t it be a tragedy to get to January and realize that we missed the coming of God into our lives, that we missed caring for those whom God cares about, or that we missed opportunities to share God’s story with those who are lost and lonely?

Yes, I love this season, too.  And Advent gives us a chance to stop and listen, to be still and to see the hand of God around us, and to be God’s face to those who need to see a reflection of hope and peace.  Yes, John the Baptizer brings us to the wilderness and reminds us that all is not merry and bright and sweetness and light.  John gives us the space and the permission to think through our lives and to wonder about all that is unknown and frightening and to cause us to double- and triple-check our holds on what is reassuring. No matter how beautiful the wreaths and poinsettias, we sit on hard deacons’ benches in this wilderness of our own making with our fears and worries and responsibilities and face the howling winds, thorny brambles, and lonely emptinesses of our lives.   All this is the stuff of life.[2] 

John calls through the centuries for justice and repentance on which any lasting peace will be built.  “Prepare,” John cries out!  But he’s not suggesting we update our Christmas card list, or make out the grocery list, or check off our gift list.  No, John urges us to prepare for the One for whom we wait, for the Child who will be born among us: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  John points beyond himself to God, to Jesus who is coming and who is already here, to the One who lives in us and through us.

No one of us – least of all, me – is the Messiah.  That position has already been filled.  The church community – not this congregation or our Larger Parish or the Foster Churches Association, or the church universal – is the gospel, the Good News by itself.  The community of faith, and all of our liturgies and hymns, and all of the trappings of our denominations, no matter how beautiful in this season, are not the Savior.

John points us to the Child Jesus, the Messiah, the One for whom we wait – and he prepares to get out of the way, to decrease, so that Jesus can increase.  John suggests that, the more we love God, the less we will need to assert ourselves, to impose ourselves, to exhaust ourselves with anxiety about what will become of us.  John is our model if we’re learning that life was meant to be lived beyond the boundary of ourselves, for the sake of others.[3]  Perhaps this is something we need to hear on this Second Sunday in Advent.  We need to decrease so that God can increase.

When I thought of John the Baptist these past several days, I thought of Nelson Mandela – a symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation.  In his statement to the court during his trial in 1964 he said, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”[4]  When he was released after 27 brutal years in prison, Mandela, a seeker of peace, built a government of all South Africa that inspired the world.  He was able to forgive and to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

And then another story from South Africa: This week, I ran across a reflection on the future of Christianity: Episcopal priest Nontombi Naomi Tutu, Bishop Desmond Tutu’s daughter, a priest in the Episcopal Cathedral in Ashville, NC, who, when she traveled back to her home country,

 visited a poor congregation where the rector told her, “We do not do outreach. Everything we do is worship.” And he described how this congregation fed lunch to children in the neighborhood school, bought school books, shoes, and uniforms for children in the community; stood as guardians for families of child-headed households; and made sure that those dying of AIDS had their homes cleaned, were eating healthy foods, and knew they were loved. There was no fancy church sanctuary, no glamorous life for the rector, just worship of God that showed, through their caring, what Christianity is all about ….[5]

And what of us, this Second Sunday in Advent?  I close with a prayer poem by UCC minister Maren Tirabassi:

O preparing God,

Send me this day, a messenger / to prepare a way for you in me.

Send me, this day, an angel / for the covenant you expect me to honor.

Send me, this day, a voice / calling me to repentance. 

Send me, this day, a friend / to love me with the breath of your passion.

Call me out from self-justifying barriers. 

Call me down from self-promoting pedestals.

Call me up from self-defeating prostrations.

Call me into your wilderness / where I may find your forgiveness.

Return me to my center where you live. 

Set my senses firmly on your truth / which is written on my heart

and yet needs another to / cry it out to me. 

Ready my expectations that you will come—

come to the meal of my wild honey,

come to the bathing of my dark river,

come to the harvest of threshed words

with fork and fire and Spirit—

when I trust you to prepare my impossibilities

to receive you as living flesh. 

Amen.[6]


[1] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word:  Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1, p. 45.

[2] Op cit.  Some of the wording is taken from the comments by Mark E. Yurs, p. 49.

[3] Adapted from May Luti’s Stillspeaking  Devotional on December 1.

[4] Providence Journal, Friday,, December 6, 2013, p. A14.

[5] From Richard Rohr Daily Meditation: The Prophetic Future.  Wednesday, November 30, 2022.

[6] Maren C. Tirabassi, An Improbable Gift of Blessing, p. 7.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Advent’s Wakeup Call

Isaiah 2:1-5

November 27, 2022

“The curtain rises. A prophet walks onto a darkened stage in a circle of light.  He begins to sing – of a mountain and of nations streaming to it, willing to hear holy instruction and to be judged by it, willing also to make peace with each other.  As the song is ending, another sound rises, the ringing sound of hammers striking metal.  It fills the room.  That sound is the first in the church’s new year.”[1]  It was a time not unlike our own when war and violence loomed over the people.  Tiglath-pileser III had become king of the Assyrian empire in the eighth century BCE, and he began his push to conquer lands to the west, including the Northern Kingdom, Israel, named after its most important tribe, and the Southern Kingdom, Judah, named after its most important tribe. 

To strengthen their hand, the kings of Israel and Damascus tried to force Ahaz, the king of Judah, to join them, and when he would not, they tried to take over Judah to put a king more favorable to their strategy on the throne in Jerusalem.  But instead, Ahaz turned to Assyria for help – which worked, but he paid a heavy price – he was now indebted to Tiglath-Pileser and Assyria.  So Ahaz turns to the Prophet Isaiah for advice.

The Book of Isaiah – actually three books about three different periods – serves as a theological reflection upon Jerusalem’s experience of threat, exile, and restoration.  It takes up fundamental questions of divine involvement in human history.  Christian interpreters look to Isaiah to understand when the Lord would reveal the Messiah.  This is why an ancient text in the Hebrew Bible becomes an important text in our Advent scriptures.  “In the days to come,” Isaiah sees a different future, one where the instruments of cwar – swords and spears – shall be turned into instruments of community – plows and pruning hooks.  The God of Jacob will teach us the ways of peace and show us the paths on which we should walk.  And we shall be held accountable.

Advent captures the theme of disruption.  In the Gospel lesson for today from Matthew, Jesus talks about End Times in which people are judged for settling too comfortably into business as usual. He urges his listeners to stay awake, to be ready, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  Advent shakes us out of the lethargy of believing that nothing will change, at least not soon, like the first blast of north winds that reminds us that winter is coming.

Advent wakes us from our public resignation to accept politics as a dirty game and lies as truth, to be complacent in the face of injustice, to recklessly blame victims and outsiders for all manner of evils.  Advent wakes us from complacency in the killing of police and men of color; in the hardening to the slaughter of school children in Uvalde, Texas; families enjoying a drag show in Colorado Springs; co-workers in a Virginia Walmart; in the brutality of war in Ukraine and in the misery of refugees.  

According to Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson, this past week brought seven mass shootings in the U.S. Twenty-two people killed; 44 wounded. That’s a lot of empty chairs around Thanksgiving tables in just a few days.  We barely notice!

Now, it is important to remember, when we read these texts, that Jesus has already come.  While we treat Advent as a season of preparation for the birth of Jesus, the scriptures challenge us to expect and to prepare for a second coming, the return of Jesus.  And he will not be pleased with the state of affairs.  Isaiah’s prophecy is shockingly bold:  “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”  We should be shocked by how far humankind has strayed from the vision that Isaiah sees, the vision that God calls us to over the centuries. 

Advent is a time to wake up, to reset our moral compass, to be jolted out of complacency with what has become the new “normal,” the rhetoric of hate infiltrating our communities, the anger that divides us from each other.  “Advent signals the hope and possibility of a fresh start, a resetting of our default mode,” argues Calvin Chinn writing in the Christian Century magazine.  Unanswered questions hang over us.  We don’t know how many killings there will be, where homegrown terrorists will strike next, what traffic stops will lead to an untimely death, which of our loved ones will suffer illness and die, and who will be born in our midst.  We don’t know who will lose their jobs and who will welcome a new opportunity; which nations will find peace and which will engage in new conflicts; what environmental disasters will befall us due to climate change. 

Yet, Advent is about the transformation of our hearts for the way we live our ordinary, everyday lives.  Preachers today are preaching a dream, a vision of how God meant the world to be at its creation.  In Advent, we long for this new creation – for a recreation – for hope, and peace, and joy, and love.  Theologian Paul Simpson Duke urges us to picture “A new community…being gathered to the Holy, a multicultural, multiracial, multilingual convergence [in which] God will not only speak but will listen to the grievances, disputes, and concerns of the nations…”[2] and will arbitrate.  The old assertion is true:  There can be no peace without justice, the true meaning of Shalom.

We long for this Shalom, don’t we, what Jesus meant by “the reign of God”?  This is our hope, an invitation to “walk in the light of the Lord!”  Each one of us moves into God’s future by making our choices about how we love each other, how we live with our neighbors, how we govern our communities and our nation.  At the darkest time of the year, Advent draws us into this light to pray and to live.  We begin today.

May it be so! 

Amen.


[1] Paul Simpson Duke in “Feasting on the Word:  Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary,” Year A, Volume 1, pp.3.

[2] Ibid.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

God’s Worldview

Colossians 1:11-20

November 20, 2022

Today is “Reign of Christ” or “Christ the King,” Sunday, the last Sunday in the Season after Pentecost. We are celebrating a full year since Jesus’ birth in that stable in Bethlehem. We have been traveling with him through Galilee, witnessing his ministry, standing at the foot of the cross.  Next Sunday we start a new year in the church calendar, the first Sunday in Advent, and we look forward to the birth of the Christ Child.  But today, we celebrate the full cycle of God-with-us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  So this Sunday is like a New Year’s Eve when we look back at the past year and look ahead with hope to the future.

I have chosen to reflect on one of the Apostle Paul’s letters, written by him or a disciple, a letter to the little fledging Colossian church in the Roman province of Asia, in which Paul proclaims that Jesus Christ is the “real deal.”  These Colossians are new to Christianity, torn between their old beliefs and this new faith.  Paul urges them to put aside the worship of other gods and to see this new Jesus as Truth personified, the One in whom the Holy resides.  This prayer poem by Paul is considered “high Christology” by the scholars, sophisticated theological ideas that declare that Jesus is Godself  in contrast to the more homey stories in the gospels that I usually focus on.  

And I think Paul, in his zeal to recruit non-Jews, Greeks and Romans, to follow Jesus, takes the faith where Jesus would not.  However, I agree with Paul’s primary goal here: That, for those of us who call ourselves Christians and proclaim that “Jesus is Lord,” the Way of Jesus must come first in our lives.  Instead of fitting Jesus in when we have some time and where we can make some room, perhaps on a Sunday morning, Paul insists that it needs to be the other way around:  Jesus is the center – the worldview – around which we see everything and fit everything. 

So we have to ask, what is a worldview?  We all have one, whether we know it or not.  It is our set of beliefs about the fundamental aspects of reality that ground and influence our thinking, the lens through which we view everything, our understanding of how the world “works.”  It might be referred to as our philosophy of life, our mindset, our ideology or religion, our values and priorities, a combination of all we believe to be true, often deep-seated ideas we’re not even aware of.  A world view is often unconscious.

Some worldviews are helpful; others, not so much.  For example: “By and large, you can trust people.” as opposed to believing “People are not to be trusted,” Or we might think, in a sweeping way, that all “People on welfare are lazy.” “Black people are inferior.”   “Politicians are liars.”  “Immigrants are criminals.” “Muslims are terrorists.” “Blonds are dumb.”

And, of course, our rational minds knows that none of these are true.

Or, about ourselves, we believe “I am lovable and capable,” versus “I can’t do anything right, I’m no good, not worthy.”            This is dangerous because fear and hatred often rise from self-loathing. So often the stories of the young men who commit our mass shootings are loners, misfits, who have never been really loved and cared for, and an assault rifle can make them feel powerful.  That’s what the ads are designed to do, and they believe them.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul is urging the congregation to make Jesus their worldview.  What does it mean to do that?  I understand this as making the Way of Jesus – that is, how Jesus lived and cared for others – the way we live and care for others, our way, our worldview. 

So, then, how does Jesus live and care for others?  What is Jesus’ worldview?  Three things stand out in my mind:

First of all, people are precious.  Remember all we have beenlearning about Jesus this year through Luke’s gospel:  How he cared for people, healed people, fed people, encouraged people, held children on his lap. And remember how they responded to him:  the crowds who wanted to be near him, to see his face, to hear his words, to touch him.  To Jesus, everyone was precious!

Everyone is welcome, everyone is worthy.  Remember that many in the crowd were social outcasts:  prostitutes, tax collectors, the poor, the sick or the disabled.  Or they were otherwise powerless:  widows and orphans.  Or they were of another socioeconomic or ethnic group, Samaritans, for example.  One of the key biblical principles running all through the Hebrew Bible is that we are to welcome the stranger.  “…for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  And in Matt. 25: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

The good life is a righteous life.  Righteous means “right living,” having the right relationships between people, relationships based on mutual support, respect, and sharing of resources.  The biblical prophets were constantly railing against those who took advantage of others, who cheated others.  What is the first commandment? They asked Jesus.  Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength (from Deut. 6:5).  And the second is like it:  Love your neighbor as yourself (from Lev. 19:18).  This is the heart of the Bible.

So, to make Jesus our worldview, to proclaim that Jesus is Lord over our lives, is to strive for these things:  to be kind to people, loving toward others; to include those who may be different from us, strangers to us; to organize society in such a way that everyone is considered, everyone’s needs are addressed, everyone has opportunities to thrive and have fullness of life.

We celebrate this Reign of Christ Sunday 2022 when our political climate has unleashed hate and vindictiveness, when our nation is awash in fear and anxiety.  Now more than ever, we need to adopt Jesus’ worldview, to strive to live in the Way of Jesus.  There are many ways we do that. Each of us may do so differently, depending on where we live and work, and what feels authentic to us. 

One UCC minister, Rev. Molly Baskette, has made it clear publically that she is a “safe” person to talk to.  “God does not promise us safety,” she notes. “What God does is invite us into the safety of each other,…”  And she is promising these things: “If you wear a hijab, I’ll sit with you on the train.  If you’re trans, I’ll go to the bathroom with you.  If you’re a person of color, I‘ll stand with you if the cops stop you.  If you’re a person with disabilities, I’ll speak up for you.  If you’re an immigrant, I’ll help you find resources.  If you’re a survivor, I’ll believe you.  If you’re a refugee, I’ll make sure you’re welcome. If you’re a veteran, I’ll take up your fight.  If you’re LGBTQ, I’ll remind you that you are beautiful and beloved, just as God made you.  If you’re a woman, I’ll make sure you get home okay.  If you’re tired, me too.  If you need a hug, I’ve got an infinite supply.  If you need me, I’ll be with you.  All I ask is that you be with me, too.”

These are Jesus-like ways of being in the world.  You and I are already acting in these ways, I know.  And they make a difference, whether we know it or not. We can all be points of light in a dark world.  And sometimes those points of light come together and burn brightly in the community, overcoming darkness.  This is what we – members of the UCC — have been doing all across the country for several years when we raise funds to buy up medical debt that has been weighing people down, kept them from losing their homes.  We helped with this, raised a lot of money.  The UCC partners with a nonprofit in NY that buys up medical debt for pennies on the dollar and wipes out medical debt for the poorest of the poor.  This is one way that you and I, through our national church, have put Jesus at the center of our lives, one way we live out of a Jesus-Is-the-Way worldview. 

Paul says that God has “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption… in whom is made peace.” If we could see the world the way Jesus sees it, if people of faith and goodwill all over this land of ours could reorient their lives to make Jesus Way their way – one doesn’t need to be a Christian to follow Jesus’ Way – then perhaps we could make peace. It could start with you and me. 

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

The Challenge to Holy Living

Luke 6:20-31

November 6, 2022

On this All Saints Day, this is the gospel lesson we have been given.  Why this text that speaks of blessings and woes?  Why this text that speaks of a reversal of fortunes, when today we are celebrating loved ones who have gone before us?  What can this mean to us?

We heard these same words in Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, the one we call the Beatitudes:  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God; blessed are those who mourn, for the will be comforted.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Matthew has offered us a more sanitized version, one without the “woes.”  Luke, however, in his text, in what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Plain, uses the same source material, but he is more literal.  And consistent.  The life of holiness is challenging and difficult.  All this talk about the poor, and hungry, and grief-stricken:  Are we poor?  Or are we rich?

From the very beginning, Luke’s gospel opens with the birth narrative – and if you think I’m jumping the season, let me remind us all that we will be in the season of Advent and our tree will be lit in less than three weeks.  And in his very first chapter, Luke tells the story of the Angel Gabriel and his visit to the young Mary in Nazareth, the virgin who is engaged to Joseph and who, even so, says “yes” to God’s claim on her life.  She does this with a remarkable poem, perhaps the most revolutionary, political passage in our Bibles, that we have come to call Mary’s Song of Praise, the “Magnificat”: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Luke forces us to take seriously the voice of the oppressed from beginning to end, from the shepherds who lived on the margins of society – poor, unwashed ruffians, up in the hilltops tending sheep, a dirty job.  Remember, the shepherds were the first to greet the Christ child – not the kings and nobility. 

Yes, Luke is consistent.  But what of our saints?  If we believe that blessings are a declaration of holiness and goodness, then we also must accept the idea that curses, or woes, are an announcement of the evil and injustice in a person or thing or situation.  In our lesson this morning, Jesus is teaching the crowds that have been following him through the countryside.  He surely has witnessed suffering “up close and personal” in his travels, and his heart has gone out to the “least of these.” 

I picture hundreds of people lined up in the third world, waiting for the hospital ship to pull into port, the villagers helping Doctors Without Borders set up temporary operating rooms after an earthquake.  I picture our families in Haiti opening up a barrel of food and supplies that we have sent. I imagine the crippled, feverish, mentally ill crowding around Jesus, mothers holding children too sick to smile, fathers carried in on rush blankets. And Jesus curses those whose wealth, comfort, and prestige are built upon this same suffering.     

Jesus continually looks for reversals:  a change of heart in the tax collector who will stop cheating, an openness of the Pharisee to a truth beyond the law, a willingness of the faithful to follow the One who has picked up the prophet Isaiah’s mantel, the One who has come “…to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.

This is the gospel lesson that is set aside for us on All Saints Day. The saints are those whose lives bear witness to suffering and real struggle and the challenge to holy living – whether one is a church-goer or not – that is grounded in the real suffering and struggle of real people who seek to be good neighbors, who work for the common good, and who want to be faithful to the old fashioned values of moderation and respect and courtesy.

On the eve of our election, as we are caught in the tension between blessings and curses, between rewards and woes, let us remember that there are no easy answers – and no one answer to solve our nation’s woes – although some are more helpful than others.  Jesus calls for a reversal of fortunes, yes, but not that the poor become rich and the rich, poor, but that we overthrow societies, and patterns, and relationships that depend on the suffering of many to support the advantages of a few.

In Jesus’ ethical code, with which he ends this lesson, we are to listen, to love, to do good, to bless, to pray, to make peace, to be generous.  I lie in bed at night, thinking what I can say that will help, that will inspire, that will make a difference in our lives, and the words of Saint Francis come to me:

          “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love;

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”

This is the work of the saints.  This is our work, saints-in-the-making all.  It is in this hope that the true celebration of All Saints’ Day lies.

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church, UCC

Prophetic Witness

Luke 19:1-10

October 30, 2016

I’ve always loved this charming little story about Zacchaeus up a tree, eager to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he passes by.  It’s a great one for kids in a Sunday School class, but what does it mean for adults on Reformation Sunday?  Would you and I climb to the top of a tree to see Jesus, a test of our commitment?  Is it about welcoming Jesus into our home and hearts?  Spiritual awakening?  Redemption?  And why did the scholars assign it to this special day in church history? And then I realized that Martin Luther, back in the 16th century, also had read these stories and, this authentic, immediate, and joyful encounter between these two men, Jesus and Zacchaeus, must surely have influenced him, caused him to evaluate the faith he was teaching, a salvation based on worldly values, money and obedience.    

Luther was the first to take a stand, but many others followed. They risked their lives and splintered Europe by challenging the Holy Roman Empire – Government and Church ruling the continent together.  It’s a dangerous mix!  We see it today in Iran where the religious leaders control the government – it’s called a theocracy – and we see eagerness for this in the U.S. where conservative Christians want to make decisions for the country.  It’s called Christian Nationalism.        

The Reformers were considered heretics and often put to death when they threatened the institutions and challenged those in power.  We are here in our Protestant churches this morning because of them. We have come a long way since then.  With the 2nd Vatican Council in the 1970s, we had some healing and reconciliation, and now under Pope Francis’ leadership, we have a great reaching out to all branches of Christianity. When he visited Sweden in 2016 to celebrate the 500 years since Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, Francis told reporters, “The church [in Luther’s day] was not a role model, there was corruption, there was worldliness, there was greed, and lust for power.  [Luther] protested against this. And he was an intelligent man.”

What was it all about?  The Reformers raised three key principles: The first, Sola Scriptura, that is, “Scripture Alone,” is the only authority for the Christian in matters of faith, life and conduct. The teachings and traditions of the church are subordinate to scripture, said the Reformers, while the Catholic Church argued that Tradition was just as important.

Second, Justification by Faith Alone, that is, we are saved by faith and not by anything we might do, or that the church might do, such as forgiving sins for a financial contribution to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Salvation is a gift of God’s grace (as the Apostle Paul had said), not a commodity to be purchased. And the third great principle, the Priesthood of All Believers, which proclaims that we all are priests before God through Jesus, that we all have direct access to God, and there is no need of a priest to be our mediator.    

Now imagine that you are Martin Luther, a man of the church, a student of the scriptures,     a scholar at the university, an important person in the church hierarchy. And you read this simple little story of Zacchaeus, despised and called a sinner by his fellow Jews because he was a tax collector (and tax collectors had a reputation of cheating people).  And maybe he had cheated because he was wealthy!  But he’s heard that Jesus is in town, and he wants to see him. So he climbs a tree to get a look over the heads of the crowd.  Jesus finds him and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home for dinner and the night.

And so Zacchaeus has an authentic encounter with the living Christ, one that doesn’t depend on institutions and traditions and ordained priests.  He is in relationship with the One who knows when we are up a tree or out on a limb. The One who doesn’t wait to be invited, the One who finds us even when we hide, the One who lavishes us with extravagant love. Jesus is the “real deal,” and Zacchaeus knows it. Immediately, he becomes part of Jesus’ mission to distribute his money and possessions – half of all he has – so that all will have enough.  And in doing so, he becomes joyful and generous.  He has discovered the secret to a happy life:  to live and to love. 

Authentic, immediate, and joyful.  With the help of these Gospel stories of Jesus and the writings of the early church, the Reformers had a vision of a purer faith than the one built over 16 centuries by the Roman church. The Catholic Church realized this, too, eventually, and began to reform itself. Martin Luther led the way.  He put his life on the line for leading us back to scripture as the foundation of our faith, for freeing our faith from institutional burdens, for encouraging us to reach out to God who is reaching out to us. 

And so this morning, we celebrate the anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. But it’s not enough to witness to this history; we need to learn from it. Luther was a prophetic witness to a different truth from the one taught by the church and the world in his day, just as Jesus witnessed to a different truth in his day, a truth found in the stories we read in the scriptures.  I saw a quote by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker this week that I think hits the nail on the head:

Our times ask us to exercise our capacity for prophetic witness.

By prophetic witness I mean our capacity to see what is happening,

to say what is happening and to act in accordance with what we know.

Prophetic witness is the ability to name those places where we resist

knowing what needs to be known.

So may we develop an appreciation of our history and the struggles that have brought us to this time and place and take up the call to be vigilant and courageous in our time.

May it be so! 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Saints and Sinners

Luke 18:9-14

October 23, 2022

If we grew up in the church, we know the story of the rich young ruler who ran and knelt at Jesus’ feet, and asked: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  That’s the question for many of us, is it not?  It appears just four verses after the one we are discussing today.  The gospel writer Luke is preparing us – setting us up – to hear that question with this story of the self-righteous religious leader who obeys all the rules in contrast with the repentant tax collector who has cheated people to feather his own nest.  And Jesus talks of righteousness:  “…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  In other words, we are to trust not in our own goodness but in God’s mercy to us.

When we hear this parable, we are too often quick to place ourselves in one role or the other.  Am I more like a Pharisee or more like a tax collector?   For those of sitting here in church this morning, it’s perhaps too easy to align ourselves with the “good guys,” and to look down our noses at those who sleep in on Sunday morning or are out on the golf course.  Or with its opposite of over-contrition:  God, I am such a loser, so bad, so worthless. I don’t deserve to walk into a church, to ask for your love and forgiveness.

But Jesus, in typical fashion, reminds us that appearances can be deceiving:  The one called “holy” by society walks away from the temple trusting in his own self-importance and lifting up his own ego, while the one whom everyone loves to hate casts himself on God’s mercy.  As usual Jesus turns the tables on the established order of things in first century Palestine, and redefines who ranks higher in God’s kingdom.  

So, are you a Pharisee or a tax collector?  The truth, of course, is that we are both.  We are all saints – and we are all sinners who have fallen far short of the goals God has for us.  We have two testaments full of prophets – the Old Testament and the New – to remind us how life should be lived and cared for and to reprimand us for falling short of God’s will for humankind.

Theologians in the past have attempted to explain wickedness.  In his “Church Dogmatics,” Karl Barth, a Swiss Reformed Theologian thought to be the greatest Protestant theologian of all time, draws a distinction between the goodness of God the Creator and the sinfulness of the creature.  

Jesus seems to be making such a point to his audience:  The Pharisee thinks he is saved by his own prideful actions, the good that he is doing by following the religious codes. The tax collector is ashamed by what he has done.  Both, according to Jesus, are sinners in God’s eyes, but the first is not aware of his sin.  He justifies himself by his own actions.  Jesus, however, teaches that they both should put on the cloak of humility, they both should rely on God’s mercy, that both need to rely on God and not on themselves – as should we.

Before Barth, another of our spiritual ancestors, John Calvin, a French pastor and theologian in the 1500s who was a key player in the Protestant Reformation, preached about the total depravity of humankind, tracing back to Adam and Eve and their “original sin” in the garden of Eden.  It is this brand of Calvinist Baptist theology that Richard Waterman wanted to see preached from the pulpits in the Larger Parish and that he funded with his bank stocks in 1838. 

With all due respect and apologies to Richard Waterman, I don’t believe in the theological concept of original sin, total depravity.  Those are attempts by our forebears to understand human behavior, to explain evil. When I hold a brand new baby, caress his softness and heft and marvel at her tiny toes and fingers, and look into the eyes of wonder and amazement and see them looking back at me, I find it hard to believe that we are born sinful.  Maybe when we reach the Terrible Twos, the age of “me” and “mine” and “no,” perhaps, but not the newborn!

Today we know more about human development, and we don’t try to lay all behavior at eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of goodness and evil, to lay the blame at the foot of an apple tree.  We have greater understanding of nature and nurture and life experience in shaping us. But the teaching does help us to grasp our mortality, our human propensity to prideful thinking, our feeble attempts to make ourselves more than God, to beGod.

The psalmist, centuries ago, sees the truth that we are both saint and sinner when he writes, “Who are humans that you, God, are mindful of us,” and yet you created us “a little lower than the angels.” (Ps. 8) Another theologian, Jewish mystic Martin Buber, observed that our spiritual nature has “two pockets.”  When we reach into one pocket, we pull out smallness, that is, “We are nothing but dust and ashes.”  But when we reach into our other pocket, we extract greatness: “For our sake the universe was created,” and for our sake, God sent Jesus that we might have eternal life.

So perhaps we ought not think too highly of ourselves like the Pharisee, that we are God’s gift to the world, to hold too optimistic a view of ourselves and humankind, that we are perfect as we are, that nothing needs to change.  Yet perhaps we ought not think too poorly of ourselves, either, that we have nothing to offer, to hold too pessimistic a view of ourselves, because that lets us off the hook of taking responsibility.  I vote for balance, and not just for ourselves as individuals but also as a nation. We tend to look at scripture as pertaining to individual persons, and we look for personal meaning in the stories. What do they mean to you and me? 

But Jesus is also talking to representatives of groups of people in ancient Israel, parts of the larger society.  The Pharisee represents the religious establishment which was in cahoots with the ruling class, and the tax collector, a class of government workers, Jews employed by the Romans and who often cheated their own people. We see the Pharisee today in the Religious Right’s claim that their view of the world is the only one, their reading of the Bible is the only true reading, their brand of Christian faith is the only real faith – and all others are illegitimate.  We see the Pharisee today in the Religious Right’s view that government should be under their thumb, that there should be no separation of church and state, that secular government must be reformed – that only their Christian worldview should shape society.  It’s worth noting that not everyone who claims to be Christian is very Christ-like!

And the tax collector, who is he in today’s worldview?  Perhaps he is all of us who lose sight of our responsibility to care for each other, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Perhaps he is all of us who allow institutional racism, under-education of the poor,       people to die for lack of health care, corporate greed.  So we, too, need to hold up a moral mirror and look at ourselves, beat our chests, and ask for mercy.

I fear for our collective future.  I repent of the dissatisfaction and fear – that have given rise to polarization and hate in our beloved country.  Surely, we all bear some measure of responsibility for the fix we are in.  Let us not gloat in our goodness, boast of our righteousness like the Pharisee, but cry out for mercy, admit our sin like the tax collector, that we have fallen short of our American principles and values, of our decency and respect for each other, of the Way of Jesus, and the best that we can be.  

Let us renew ourselves as a nation that we may be filled with new life.  Let us humble ourselves that we may be justified. 

May it be so! 

Amen. 

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Persisting

Luke 18:1-8

October 16, 2022

This story is known as the parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge which is unique to the Gospel of Luke.  It must have been an “outlier” story that Luke picks up, although Matthew, Mark, and John do not.  We have grown accustomed to Jesus as healer, teacher, and a man of prayer.  Who knew he was also a comedian?  Imagine his disciples hearing this story!  They must have been elbowing each other, tears running down their cheeks   as they double over with laughter. 

They know these people:  the woman who is getting a raw deal because she has nothing – no husband, no inheritance, no social standing; the politician who cares only for himself, the smarmy guy everyone loves to hate.  We know them, too.  And we all love it when the underdog ends up on top!  It doesn’t happen often enough!

Luke doesn’t reveal the specifics of the widow’s complaint, only that she has been treated unjustly.  Perhaps her son has been wrongly imprisoned or her sister abruptly fired.  Maybe she herself has suffered age discrimination.  It might be that her brother is being detained at the border or her deceased husband’s lawyer is dragging his heels in settling the estate.  Perhaps she has been driven into bankruptcy by exorbitant medical bills, like so many people we know.  We do not know the nature of the injustice done her, but it’s clear that she is outraged and indignant and persistent in her complaining!

How can we understand this parable?  What is it about?  Who is the widow?  Who is the judge?  Is it about God, who God is and how God acts?  Or about us and our call to faithful life?          Or about persistent prayer?  Or about all of these?

We know that our prayers are not always answered – at least not in the way we would like.  We pray without ceasing at the bedside of a child who is dying of cancer.  We hammer away at God’s door, for any number of things, but to no apparent avail.  Sometimes we are worn out by praying.  We wish we were as successful as the widow in the parable. 

Yet, in verse one, as he introduces the story, Luke writes, the disciples need “to pray always and not to lose heart.”  We are confused, perhaps, because we read in scripture, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). And it worked for the poor widow!  But not always for us….

Perhaps we don’t understand prayer.  We think it is a matter of putting in our order to God who will then, if we pray hard enough, grant us our every desire.  Out of our mouths into God’s ears. 

We 21st century Christians think that God has unclaimed blessings to bestow upon us and that God wants us to be selfish in our prayers, that it is appropriate for us to ask for God to increase the value of our stock portfolio, to find us a new job, to cure us of diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. 

That’s not what the parable is about.  From the start, Jesus sets out, not to resolve the mystery of answered and unanswered prayer, but to teach his disciples the value of persistence – persistence in seeking justice, persistence in prayer for justice.  And it’s hard work, keeping hope alive in our seemingly hopeless world.

The early church for whom Luke was writing, certainly prayed for many things it did not receive:  safety and protection from persecution, for example.  Yet it did receive what it needed most: a sense of God’s loving presence and attentiveness and the strength and resilience that it needed to survive. 

The parable also teaches us that we can count on God to come down on the side of justice, to hear the ones who have no power, no influence, no voice.  We can’t count on God always to grant our requests, but we can count on God to hear the persistent prayers of our hearts.

There are critical issues worthy of our persistent prayer today.  On the top of my list is the need for political parties to work together to advance public policies that uplift our deepest sacred values – values of love, justice, and mercy.

French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the United States in 1831 to study our prisons and returned with a wealth of broader observations that he collected in his book, “Democracy in America,” published in1835, one of the most influential books of the 19th century. He wrote,

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her

ample rivers, and it was not there; in the fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was

not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits, aflame

with righteousness, did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great

because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be

great.

Our country is in need of a moral revolution.  Across the country, poverty and inequality are rampant; voting rights and democracy are being undermined by dark money in campaigns; millions of people still lack the health care, living wage jobs, and quality education; and racism, hatred, and bigotry are eating into our democracy.  We have a lot of work to do as a country to live up to our highest ideals.  To come together as a nation for the common good. And that’s going to take a lot of persistence!            Like the widow who never gave up!  So how can we, here in the Mt. Vernon Larger Parish, be persistent in praying for justice?  What can we do to champion the sacred values of love, justice, and mercy? 

The writer Clarissa Pinkola Estés – maybe you read her book a few years ago, “Women Who Run with the Wolves,” – is a post-trauma recovery specialist, and it is comforting to read her advice:

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.

We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace,

but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale… 

When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

So, let us persist in bothering God, a sign that our faith is active and our hope is alive, so that we can sing, even if our voices falter, from time to time, “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.”        

May it be so!

Amen.    

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Living with Gratitude

Luke 17:11-19

October 9, 2022

How do you feel about the nine lepers who did not return? Would you, too, have been in too much in a hurry to start your new life – like most of us most of the time – to stop to say thanks?  Or would you be the only one who did?  This story of the cleansing of ten lepers by Jesus appears only in the Gospel of Luke and it follows immediately teachings about faith, having as much as a tiny grain of mustard seed that grows up to be a big bush.  And the disciples want more faith. We know they are going to need it – although they don’t realize that yet. 

But Jesus does.  He is on his way to Jerusalem for the last time and to almost certain death at the hands of the Roman authorities, if he continues on this road. And this road is taking Jesus and his disciples through a village on the outskirts of Samaria, when ten lepers see him coming, and they seize the day.

We don’t understand the risk they are taking, their courage!  They are Samaritans who don’t mix with Jews. And they are infected with leprosy.  So they are social outcasts on two counts. It’s difficult to exaggerate how isolated they are.  They have to live outside the village with no human contact, banished from their homes and families; there’s no loving touch by spouse or children; villagers would not even to cross their shadow for fear of infection. Those who were isolated without human contact during Covid might have some idea.

Sometimes those infected would band together, like this group of ten, to become a small company of misery, and there’s courage in numbers to approach Jesus.  They have nothing to lose and everything to gain – and they do! Just being in his presence changes something for them.

Jesus is always “tuned in” to those who are suffering, and he instructs them to show themselves to the priests. They are the ones in charge of the purity laws, those with the authority to declare the men clean and able to reenter society. They can go home, reclaim their lives! They are not only healed – but saved.

When Jesus tells the one who is kneeling at his feet, “get up,”           the word he uses is same as the Greek word used for “resurrection.”  And, indeed, it must have been nothing less than being raised from the dead for this man.  He has his life back!

There are at least three important lessons from this scripture. First, notice that Jesus is forever acting with mercy toward outsiders and respecting outsiders – a favorite theme of the Gospel writer Luke: the Good Samaritan, the woman at the well, tax collectors, lepers….   Jesus is always crossing boundaries. This is important for us to remember as we think about crossing boundaries between our three churches in the Larger Parish – sharing worship together, developing a common calendar, studying and praying together. And if Jesus can cross boundaries, why can’t we?

Second, we learn something about the relationship between faith and health. “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus tells the one who returned. This verse from scripture has done as much harm as good. People get caught in the trap of thinking if we have faith, if we pray for something hard enough, we will get it, we will be healed, the war end, the Patriots will win. And we might be healed and the war might end! And if it doesn’t?  Faith doesn’t always make us well, does it? If we or a loved one recovers, we chalk it up to prayer, but what if we don’t recover?  Was there something wrong with our prayer?  Are we not deserving? Not worthy? Or perhaps the problem is with our understanding of faith.

So what is our second lesson here? Jesus is teaching his disciples about the nature of faith – and it’s not about getting what we pray for but about gratitude. To “have faith” is to live with gratitude, regardless of our physical condition.  This is the grateful sort of faith that has made this man from Samaria truly and deeply well – not just cleansed from his leprosy.

So we see that “faith” and “gratitude,” then, are actually two words for the same thing; to practice gratitude is to practice faith. That makes faith not something we have, but something we do, the way we live our lives: trusting in God – whether we are healed or sick, delivered or still bound by tragedy. Because God, the “Giver of all good gifts,” holds all our lives in holy hands, no matter what, and that is cause for rejoicing.

There is evidence that Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about with his, “Your faith has made you well.” Medical science tells us that grateful people have a permanent health edge.  Gratitude reduces stress, makes us more hopeful, and enhances our immune system. Practicing gratitude changes our lives as individuals, and it changes a congregation’s life.

Is there a thirdlesson? Perhaps it’s simply that there are many ways to live with gratitude: Coming to church to sing praises to God is one. Giving to the church – or the Red Cross or the Hurricane Fund or Haiti or Doctors Without Borders is also as an act of gratitude. Our mission and our volunteer work become not a duty but the work of grateful hearts and hands.

Appreciating God’s creation is another way to say thanks; how can we not as the leaves begin to turn? And we are living with gratitude when we say thank you to each other! When was the last time you wrote a thank you note to someone? Or left a gift on their front porch?

The demands of a Christian life are great – as the disciples will soon find out – and we may not think we are up to the task, but Jesus reminds us that, as we go on our way with gratitude, giving thanks in all things, that we discover that God, indeed, is there in all things.

Writer Anne Lamott says her two favorite prayers are, in the morning, “help me. Help me. Help me,” and at bedtime, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

So then, we learn from this lesson that we are called to live not only holy lives but also live with gratitude, and in doing so, we find we are saved, even perhaps even resurrected.

May it be so for each of us.

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Faith Is a Verb

Luke 17:5-10

October 2, 2022

Scholars have trouble with this little periscope – these verses that are clustered together for this Sunday’s gospel reading.  There’s a lot more about the mustard seed in other places in Luke and in Matthew, and how does the “faith” question fit with the parable about the slaves?  And why is the slave called “worthless” when he or she is being dutiful?  Working day and night?  Why isn’t the slave called faithful?  What is Jesus’ point? 

And, who among us, does not wish for more faith?  Especially when life is most difficult!  The disciples have just heard from Jesus, in the preceding verses, that discipleship is going to be more demanding than they had thought.  Not only are they are accountable to each other, they have just learned that it would be better to drown in the sea than to lead a sister or brother astray. 

And if they are wronged, Jesus says, and the offender repents, they are to draw from a bottomless well of forgiveness.  It is no wonder that they cry to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”

Jesus responds with two stories:  The first has to do with a tiny mustard seed.  “If only you had this much faith,” we can imagine Jesus saying, as he holds up thumb and forefinger, “you could pluck up this tree,” like Harry Potter with his wand….”  We read the text thinking that Jesus is blaming them, heaping guilt upon them, and, indeed, we often read scripture thinking we have fallen short.  But Jesus knows his disciples – how confused they must be from his teachings, how overwhelmed they must feel from the travel, how uncertain about where they will lay their heads that night – so perhaps he is answering them with kindness and love, with a twinkle in his eye, teasing them….  After all, they have given up everything for Jesus, uprooted their very lives to follow him; isn’t that faith enough?

Besides, what are they asking for, when they ask for more faith?  If I were to ask each of you what “faith” is, I’d get a different answer from each one of you, and there is no correct definition.  The dictionary would tell us that faith is a noun – a person, place, thing, and, if we make it into a gerund, a quality, or act – but “faith” is not any of those, is it?  We can’t see it, touch it, hear it, taste it, smell it.  The writer of James makes faith tangible by linking faith to behavior toward the poor when he says, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (2:18).

I suspect that we confuse “faith” with a set of “beliefs,” like a doctrine or a creed, a religious teaching we have adopted along the way, something we say we might believe – or no longer believe – and, therefore, think we are being unfaithful.  Give me more faith, we might ask, along with the disciples.

Let me suggest three ideas about faith:  The first is that, just as we change over our lives by becoming older and wiser, and the world around us is changing, becoming more complex politically and economically, and science unlocks the genome, advancing medicine, and everything runs on computers these days, why is it is not only okay that our faith change, but it also is a measure of our maturity that it change.  Our faith needs to grow with us.

As children we might have swallowed without question particular readings of scripture – think myths and miracles and conflicting accounts of so-called history – or such religious tenets as the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection or the Atonement, but as adults we have trouble believing them in the same way and worry that we have “lost” our faith.  I grew up a Methodist and learned that our faith is a matter of holding scripture, tradition, reason, and experience together.  So, I propose that, as adults, our faith should change; our faith needs to grow with us to give us meaning for our lives.

Second, I suggest that each of our faiths is unique to each one of us.  My faith is a unique blend of my being – my background, my development of body, mind, personality, and social setting, everything that makes me unique and different from everyone else.  Just as your faith is unique to you.  I don’t mean to imply that the doctrines and traditions of the many different religions and denominations are not important – they are a statement of commonly held or agreed upon ideas – but they only can be a starting point for each of us as we develop our own meaningful faith.  Ultimately, my faith must be owned by me, just as your faith must be owned by you. And we help each other grow spiritually by studying and questioning and sharing our faith with each other. 

This is one of the benefits of participating in a local church, where people talk with each other and learn from each other, where people are not afraid to challenge old ideas, where people are open to the Spirit in our midst.  It’s not helpful to one’s faith development to worship by turning on the TV on Sundays – if that’s all you do, because you miss the diversity of ideas and experience!  We need to interact with each other!

And third, I propose that a more helpful way to think about “faith” is not as a noun but as a verb – or not only as a noun but also as a verb – something that is dynamic and action-oriented.  The original meaning of the word “belief” in medieval English – the word is “byleue” – had to do with holding in high esteem, cherishing.  “To believe” was the verb form of the noun “faith,” and it meant “to hold dear,” “to prize,” “to give allegiance,” “to be-love.”  To believe, then, to have faith, is to have a feeling, not a set of ideas to which we must subscribe. It is something that we love, something that we are drawn towards, something that gives our lives meaning.  We might think of these as “faithing,” a new word.  Ultimately, faith is what we love, not the ideas we hold.

And the disciples want more of it!  And we probably do, too, in this brokenhearted world of ours.  I wonder if Jesus was laughing at his beloved disciples; how much more faith do they need?  They have given him their all, and it will prove sufficient for the establishment of the Christian church.

And us, what do we believe?  Or, a better question might be, What do we love?  Faith has more to do with the quality of our lives than in the ideas that we hold or the creeds that we recite, with that which we ultimately trust rather than in any theological formulas.  The old hymn, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” reminds us that there is no need for guilt, for fear, for distrust, for sorrow. There is only the need for love, to sense God’s love for us and to return that love, a cup full and running over with God’s grace.

My prayer is that it might be so for each of us!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Abiding

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

September 25, 2022

Psalm 91 is known as a “psalm of trust,” one that promises that those who abide in the shelter of God’s wings will be delivered from danger, difficulty, and disappointment.  Scholars propose that it might have been a prayer of thanksgiving by someone who recovered from a long illness, or a testimony by one who found refuge from persecutors in the temple, or even a liturgy by a king going into battle.  Surely, it speaks to the terrors of our lives – the terrors of war, disease, storms, sexual violence, homelessness – the feelings of fear, anxiety, pain – all the challenges of our lives.

In the midst of these, the writer of the psalm affirms God’s willingness to protect the faithful: 

“The Most High will deliver us, overshadow us

with wings like a mother bird and shield us in battle. 

No epidemic shall come near us;

angels will bear us up, and we will be untouched by monsters.” 

So then, we have a right to ask, don’t we, where was God when a mosquito bite sends a little girl to the hospital with encephalitis, a beloved father is killed in a plane crash, a routine heath exam reveals bad news?  And where is God in conflicts around the world, migrants fleeing for their lives, hurricanes devastating communities?  Living is risky business – even when we eat our veggies, get enough sleep, quit smoking, move to higher ground, and stay within the posted speed limits.  Why does a good God allow suffering?  Can God be all powerful and all good at the same time? 

In the ancient world, misfortune was thought to be a sign that one had sinned. Job’s friends accuse him of such in spite of his protests.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  People wiser than I have struggled with this question for thousands of years.  Theologians have tied themselves up in knots, developed dogmas and doctrines, postulated God’s will in all kinds of ways to answer that question. 

We want answers where there are none.  We want explanations, and so we develop clichés:  “Everything happens for a reason,” we hear.  “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” we tell the grieving.       “Only the good die young,” Billy Joel sings. If one doesn’t believe in God, he or she can lay the cause of evil on the immoral nature of the universe, but if one does believe in God, where is the comfort?

Historically, Christians claim that God is Sovereign of the Universe, the Ruler of all things.  Is God, then, responsible for everything that happens?  Take the Holocaust, for example.  Did God stand by and watch the murder of six million Jews?  The lead poisoning of children in Flint?  Fires in California?  Why does God let suffering and evil happen?  The will of God? 

How can we possibly know?  Yet, when we read the gospel, we know what the will of God is:  health and wholeness, peace and justice, love and goodwill.  Jesus tells us, over and over.  All we have to do is read our Bibles.   So, then, why do bad things happen to good people?  If God doesn’t cause tragedy, who does?  Why does God allow it?  We have to blame somebody, don’t we?  Perhaps we are to blame.  God has given us free will, and therein lies the rub.

We’re to blame, or so we think.  Yes, and sometimes we are.  Bad choices.  Recklessness.  Greed.  Selfishness.  We are moral creatures, aren’t we?  But that doesn’t explain why the innocent suffer.  I’m often reminded of an old cartoon in which Pontius Puddle shakes his fist at God.  “Why do you allow war and hunger and destruction?”  And a deep voice from the cloud responds, “I was going to ask you the same thing!”  And when there is suffering, where will God be?  The psalmist writes:

14 Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. 15When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honour them. 16 With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.

Are these false promises?  When we read our English word “love,” we have the impression that, if God loves me, God will protect me from harm.  We read the psalm as if we have a deal with God:  I will be a good girl and you will keep me safe.  I will be rewarded if I love God.  Only good will happen to me.  It’s a fair trade, isn’t it?  So why does tragedy strike the faithful?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  To innocent children?  To worshippers in synagogues, mosques, and churches?

A close look at the text may be helpful:  “The Hebrew verb, which has been translated “love” in English, but more accurately in the Hebrew conveys not love but a sense of ‘being connected with’ God intimately.”  It’s not about making a “deal” with God (love for protection); it’s about a relationship with God.  The Hebrew word translated “love” suggests that “relationship with God is deliverance – it is life.”  Our relationship with God is what matters most; God is with us in the tragedy. 

It further suggests that “the point of seeking God is not to avoid suffering or hardship; rather, it is to know that God is constantly available, sustaining those who will discern God’s presence.” God is with us in the suffering, doubled over by the nerve gas, sitting beside the hospital bed, binding up wounds on the battlefield, hovering over the son on the cross.  “Those who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,” writes the psalmist, “will say … ‘My refuge and fortress; my God in whom I trust.’” God is with us no matter what happens to us, and that’s what counts.

Over the centuries, people have imagined God in different ways – God up there, God out there, God in here – but one theologian, Matthew Fox, offers an image that is helpful to me.  He suggests that God is like the ocean, and we are the fish that are swimming in the ocean.  God is all around us and in us and through us, the One in whom we are immersed.  Imagine yourself at the ocean, how the salt water holds you up, how the water flows over you, lifts you up and down with the swells.  Image that this is God – all around you, over you, and under you.  And, because our bodies are mostly water – we are, on average, 60 percent salt water – in you.  Imagine that you are immersed in God – not up there or out there – but surrounding us and holding us up, the One, as the Apostle Paul says in the Book of Acts (17:18), “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  Think “abiding” in….

Psalm 91 invites us to “abide” with God in this way, to feel God sustaining us, holding us up as all the waves of life – the tragedy of our lives – the suffering and the broken-heartedness, crash in around us.  Out of the suffering of her life, Maxine Kumin, U.S. Poet Laureate and author of 25 books for children, wrote Morning Swim:

Into my empty head there come / a cotton beach, a dock wherefrom

I set out, oily and nude / through mist, in chilly solitude.

There was no line, no roof or floor / to tell the water from the air.

Night fog thick as terry cloth / closed me in its fuzzy growth.

I hung my bathrobe on two pegs. / I took the lake between my legs.

Invaded and invader, I / went overhand on that flat sky.

Fish twitched beneath me, quick and tame. / In their green zone they sang my name

and in the rhythm of the swim / I hummed a two-four-time slow hymn.

I hummed “Abide With Me.” The beat / rose in the fine thrash of my feet,

rose in the bubbles I put out / slantwise, trailing through my mouth.

My bones drank water; water fell / through all my doors. I was the well

that fed the lake that met my sea / in which I sang “Abide With Me.”[1]

May it be so!

Amen.


[1] Maxine Kumin Selected Poems: 1960-1990, © 1997.

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Moosup Valley Congregational Church UCC

Lost and Found

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

September 11, 2022

The writer of the Gospel of Luke is fond of “lost and found” allegories. In this chapter alone, we have three familiar stories – the parable about the shepherd who has 99 sheep safely in the pen and goes to find the one who is lost; the parable about the woman who sweeps her house until she finds the lost coin; and the parable about the prodigal son.  The lectionary text for this morning deals with the first two.

We know about losing and looking. Perhaps not about sheep, but we know about losing our keys, our eyeglasses, our checkbooks, and the relief and rejoicing when they are found! 

We also know about being lost and not having a clue about where we are in a strange city or on a country road.  We know about feeling lost in a classroom discussion over our heads or in a social situation where we feel awkward and out-of-place. 

We know about the dance with a soul mate when we’re not sure whether we are the lost or the found, the seeker of the loved one – or the one who is hoping to be found. Yes, we know the game of “lost and found,” even if we’ve not thought of it in terms of God’s search for us – or is it our search for God?

In these first two stories it’s clear what is lost and what is found – a sheep and a coin.  Both have to do with economics and value:  Even the loss of one sheep affects the bottom line, so a shepherd will go looking in all the places where a lamb might be hiding, too fearful to make a bleat to help the shepherd find her in the thicket or the ditch.  God treasures every sheep.  And God is like a woman who turns her house upside down to find the coin.  Did it fall between the cracks?  Slip down in the jar of meal?  She needs to feed her family!  (Imagine, Jesus uses the allegory of God as a woman, a non-person in that society. No wonder they crucified him!) 

Jesus tells these stories in the context of a lot of grumbling by the Pharisees and scribes who are keeping an eye on this maverick from Nazareth.  Jesus is spending way too much time with sinners – the unwashed and unworthy – for these keepers of the purity laws of Israel.  Why do the rabble listen to him?  We know that people often are judged by the company they keep, so what is this rabbi doing in the pub?  Or at Shady Acres?  Or at the pizza joint just over the line in Connecticut?  Or enjoying the bluegrass bands at Moosup Valley or the antique car show at Mt. Vernon? 

Jesus loved a party – whether at a wedding where he turned water into wine or at a dinner with his friends Mary and Martha.  The crowds press in to hear what he has to say:  the disciples for instruction, the Pharisees and scribes to see what heresy he is promoting now, and all the people who live on the fringes of society who don’t belong anywhere – the ones society would say are “lost.”

Jesus tells three parables.  Who needs to hear them?  The sinners at his table?  Right now, they don’t feel lost; they are sitting at the welcome table with the one who is turning the world upside down. If we listen closely, over the laughter around the table with Jesus, we can hear the comments from the religious leaders who are looking in the windows, watching Jesus:         Who invited them?  Does he not know that this one is a prostitute?  That one a tax collector?  And the one over there, he drinks too much; and him, he never goes to temple on the Holy days.  The religious leaders are offended that Jesus welcomes the least and the lost!

So, to whom is Jesus preaching?  Who is lost in this scenario?  And who is found?  Could it be that Jesus really is preaching to the religious leaders of his day and maybe to us in our day who don’t do enough to reach out?  We generally think that the parable is about redeeming the “lost,” but perhaps it is the “already found” that the parable is meant to challenge.

Who are the real sinners in this story?  Not the poor and homeless, the addicts, the immigrants, the people who live on the margins of society.  They are already found and saved by God’s love in the presence of Jesus.  No.  Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and scribes and the religious insiders in all of us – all of us in this room – and asking us to change our minds about who is “in” and who is “out” in God’s household.  Religious insiders like us can be threatened by people who don’t “belong” or who don’t share the same beliefs or who come from another part of town.

In one of the commentaries I found a story about a church that was not gay friendly. So one Sunday, people who wanted to indicate their solidarity       with LGBT people came to church wearing rainbow sashes. When people came forward for communion, those who were wearing rainbow sashes were refused.  So someone who was offered communion, took his wafer and began to break it into pieces for those who were denied and deemed unworthy because of their support for their gay friends.  And the church officials, the religious insiders, called the police. 

That’s what the Pharisees were like.  Churches can be like that, too!  I find myself these days agreeing with the Pope who said soon after his election, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.  The Church’s mission is mercy, not doctrine.”  Francis knows who is lost and who is found.  God’s nature is love, and perhaps only when we know we are lost can we be found by the One that seeks to forgive and restore. We humans have a tendency to “dumb” God down to our own narrow-mindedness and selfishness.  In the hymn, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” one stanzas is left out of our hymnal: 

          But we make his love too narrow

By false limits of our own;

And we magnify His strictness

With a zeal He will not own.

Jesus’ parable presents the truth of a God who loves us – lost and sinners all – and, in truth, we are both, aren’t we? – God is a shepherd who searches for us through the dark until he finds us, crawling through the brambles, wading into the ditch, lifting us cold and shaken onto his shoulders to take us home; and God is a housewife who sweeps herself frantic until she finds us, and when she does, she runs to tell her friends and neighbors, and asks them to rejoice with her.

Jesus comes to tell us that everyone is welcome and to invite us – religious insiders – to reach out to all those who are outside of the community of love, those standing on the margins, feeling unworthy, and to bring all God’s people home. Whoever we are and wherever we are on life’s journey – Pharisees, scribes, tax collectors, farmers, innkeepers, brick-makers, soldiers, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters – God is calling us home.    

May it be so!

Amen. 

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Principled Living

Luke 14:25-33

September 4, 2022

When I read a text like this, I’m glad I’m not a biblical literalist.  I am not one to say that God reached down from heaven and wrote this passage with his finger like Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  I don’t believe that God whispered it into the ear of a faithful scribe and then edited the translations of the monks over the centuries.  Biblical material is a product of its time. It reflects the truth of the community in the 1st century which gave these stories their life and meaning.  But it is the task of each generation to discover that truth for itself.  So what then, might this text mean for you and me in the 21st century? 

The cost of discipleship is a difficult one for contemporary audiences like us.  It confronts us with hard choices and jars any notion that being a Christian is easy.  While there are texts that comfort the afflicted, this one afflicts the comfortable.  Luke has constructed this passage very carefully.  He starts with Jesus’ introductory verse to the crowds followed by three statements about the nature of discipleship. These are:  First, whoever does not hate mother and father, spouse and children – and even life itself – cannot be a disciple.  Second, one who does not carry the cross, cannot be my disciple, and Third, none of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. 

And in between, there are two analogies, two comparisons to help us understand about discipleship – building a tower and waging a war.  These raise the question of whether would-be disciples can follow through on their initial commitments.  In other words, don’t start something you can’t finish.  This discipleship talk is tough stuff.  Jesus is speaking to a large crowd.  Is he trying to sort out who is really serious about following him?  Is he trying to winnow – cut down on – the circle of people who have become attached to him and his cause, warning away those who cannot bear the heat? 

Now, I don’t believe that Jesus wants us to leave our families.  Everything Jesus stands for is about relationships:  caring for children, letting them come to him, blessing them.  And caring for elderly and widowed women and orphans.  He would not want us to abandon them.  Nor do I believe Jesus wants us to give away everything we have.  Then we would add to the ranks of the poor, and we know Jesus cares about the poor.  At the same time, I don’t believe Jesus wants us to turn our back on our neighbors and the needy, or turn a blind eye to social injustice or environmental degradation, even if it might mean “carrying a cross.”

So what do we make of this Gospel lesson?  Today’s passage is in the travel section of Luke’s gospel.  Jesus already has turned his face toward Jerusalem to confront the authorities and to speak truth to power.  So his call to discipleship may be a call to follow him into the city and to face the danger to be found there, to separate the curious from the committed.

As I studied the passage, I wondered, too, if Jesus is reflecting on the choices he is making:  First, leaving family must have been painful.  Remember on the cross, he provides for his mother in the care of a disciple.  And he knows he will be carrying a cross, the Roman’s method of executing criminals.  And the two analogies about building the tower and waging war?  Jesus is finishing what he has started, standing up for what he believes, giving up all that he has, even onto death.  Jesus is a man of principle.

And to us?  Perhaps the call is to follow Jesus’ way – the way of self-offering love, the way of mercy, the way of compassion.  Following Jesus means to be Christ-like, to live a principled life – that is, a moral, ethical, honest, righteous life in keeping with Jesus Way – no matter the cost.

Lest we think that such a life is beyond us,  let’s look at some of the ways we are already doing this.  This summer, some of us spent time with children and grandchildren, building memories during vacations.  Families and friends are important and deserve our time and attention.  And sometimes we create new families, weaving together lonely and isolated strangers who become as family to each other.  Kim’s friend Robin on the Cape did this when she fostered two severely abused little girls for two years.  One of them, who has been adopted, still has a picture of Robin on her dresser. 

Some of us move beyond our comfort zone and advocate for our neighbors.     A Foster resident spoke up for a person on food stamps when she overheard the clerk at the grocery store ask loudly to the customer ahead of her in line, “Is that an EBT card you’re using?”  The Electronic Benefits Transfer cards are designed to look like ordinary debit cards to protect a poor person’s privacy.  Instead the clerk called her out and embarrassed this shopper.  And the advocate, someone you know, who could have been you or me, spoke up and vowed to take it all the way to management. Jesus never belittled people because they were poor!  Right now, the same issue shows up around school lunches that were free for everyone during Covid.  But now that benefit is over, and some middle class families around the country can’t afford the cost of $20+ /week /child if they have several children in school.  These kids, in some systems, go though a different line, sit at different tables.  Embarrassing for them!

Sometimes people take bold public stands, like those who “take the knee” during the National Anthem, to raise attention to injustice and oppression.  Even if it causes them harm in some way, they know they have done what is right, regardless of the cost.  Corporations, too, are called to principled living.  I think of CVS who decided no longer to sell cigarettes,  a known cause of cancer, because they could not justify doing so as a health care provider.  Walmart has taken a principled stand on the sale of guns and ammunition across the country in response to mass shootings. 

I am required to take training in White Privilege at least every three years to keep my standing as a UCC minister.  I’m up-to-date on boundary training, but not on racism, and I’ve been notified.  I was there when the Conference voted on that policy, and I voted “aye”!

We have all have stood on principle from time to time.  We have taken time to care for an elderly parent or spouse or a disabled child ourselves rather than putting them into an institution. We have turned down a great job because we didn’t want to move our family.  We have stood up for someone who was being bullied and gotten pushed around.  We have given up our time and used our skills to rebuild a community after a disaster. 

We have raised questions about church teachings and risked being called a sinner or a heretic – or challenged our school system’s policies or our employer’s business practices and been called a trouble-maker and lost our jobs.  Today’s text is about “principled living,” having beliefs and acting on them, making the most loving choices.  Principled living means facing suffering with courage, standing up to injustice, and balancing our own needs with the needs of others. 

Discipleship is costly, but those who live principled lives and live to tell their stories, tell us that standing on principle, being clear about values and acting on them, has transformed their lives.

This is the life that Jesus of Nazareth invites us to pursue, a life where priorities are examined and decisions made, a life in tune with love and mercy and peace. 

You and I are called to choose this life, this leader, these principles.  

May it be so!