Sunday Sermons

REVEREND BETSY A. GARLAND

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Do Not Be Afraid, Little Flock

Luke 12:32-40

August 7, 2022

There’s a lot to be afraid of:  Terrorism on our own shores, waged by angry people with assault weapons; war between Russia and Ukraine, instability in the Middle East, an economy driving a wider wedge between rich and poor; global warming which is fueling erratic weather; the increasing scarcity of clean water to drink in our cities, hunger in Africa and Haiti.  Not to mention, disease and death. 

Hate speech and public violence have become the norm. The clergy at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the “spiritual home of the nation” where inaugurations and state funerals are held, issued a public statement several years ago, “Have We No Decency?”  They write, in part,

“We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.”  ….  “When does silence become complicity?” they ask. “What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough?  The question is less about [a politician’s] sense of decency [than] of ours.”

Yes, there is a lot to be held responsible for, a lot of work to be done to usher in the Kingdom of God, a lot to be afraid of. 

In the midst of this, the gospel echoes across the centuries: “Do not be afraid, little flock.”  It is endearing, isn’t it, to hear Jesus call us “little flock”?  Jesus is in the midst of his journey to Jerusalem to confront the authorities and to almost certain death, and yet he takes time to comfort his followers.

“Do not be afraid,” is a theme in the Gospel of Luke, beginning when the Angel Gabriel brings news to Mary that she will give birth to the Savior.  And it’s a frequent theme in this chapter that precedes today’s reading:  Are you afraid of being killed?  Remember that God is concerned with the hairs on your head.  Are you worried about having the right words to defend the gospel?  The Holy Spirit will give you words to say.  Are you worried about the future and want to accumulate possessions?  Remember that you can’t take it with you.  Are you worried about your life, about food and clothing, about starvation and nakedness, about the mortgage and your bank account?  About how you look in the eyes of the world?  Do not let it turn you away from the needs of others, the Gospel insists.

The early church had plenty to worry about.  Luke was writing late in the first century, and members of the Jesus movement were being persecuted: thrown into jail, offered to the lions, used as human torches at Roman garden parties. Worrying about these things will not make a difference, in one’s life or in one’s death, Jesus says.  Instead, trust the God of the Gospel who attends to sparrows, ravens, and lilies, a God whose concern extends to the very hairs on our heads, a God whose desire is to give us the treasure of heaven. 

Don’t hold on to what you have in order to protect against what might happen.  “Sell your possessions and give alms,” Jesus says, calling on us to place our confidence in the imperishable things of heaven, rather than the moth-eaten things in our own backyards.  God wants us to be ready to receive blessing.  Jesus wants us to adopt the perspective of eternity:  “[W]here your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  One’s heart, then, is not to be set on getting rich by accumulating human treasure but is to be set on what God ultimately treasures, which is compassion and mercy for those in need.

We are a generous congregation.  We participate in denominational offerings. My mentor Rick Taylor commented on how Moosup Valley gives more than many of the big churches. We sponsor children and fill barrels for Haiti.  We help our neighbors.  Could we stretch to do more – individually and/or as a congregation?  How about holding a yard sale to raise money to help someone with overdue bills or college tuition?  What about inviting a homeless relative or friend to live with us until they get back on their feet?  Maybe we could talk with our legislators about policy issues, like employment and minimum wage and health care.  A cool idea, if we’re driving through the city, Is to carry water, snacks, and socks for people asking for help on the street corners. Or are we afraid to meet their eyes?  To open the window?

An offering prayer, when we used to take an offering as part of the service, is “We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be; all that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.” Do we really believe that everything we have we hold in trust for God?  What if we lived like we really believed that?

Jesus tells a story about a master who returns from a wedding banquet and puts on an apron and invites his servants who have been waiting for him at the door to sit down to eat.  And he comes and serves them. This doesn’t happen in ordinary life.  I often tell you that Jesus was counter-cultural; that his followers in the early church, who were called “Followers of the Way,” were counter-cultural, which is why they were persecuted. They looked at the world through God’s eyes.

Think of the TV series Downton Abby which has been having a resurgence in theaters. When Lord Grantham and the countess return home, they do not go into the servants’ quarters and serve a meal to Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, to the maids, footmen, and cooks! No!  It’s the comfort of the master and his family that’s most important, and any serving is to benefit them. This is the way the world worked in the first century; the way it still works most of the time in most of the world, today.

This is a metaphor, an allegory about God, who acts outside of social norms.  God is like this master who loves and cares for each of us, who comes in surprising ways to offer comfort, assurance, and lasting treasure to God’s little flock.  The early church thought that Jesus would return, and some churches still wait for the “Second Coming.”  I, on the other hand, believe that Jesus is already here, in our midst.

Albert Einstein didn’t think of himself as religious, but his outlook on life captures this teaching of Jesus perfectly: “From the standpoint of daily life … there is one thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of each other.”

I believe that Jesus is already here, and a piece of him, of the divine essence, is in each one of us as we do these things in his name: (Don Apron)

Be the church. ~ Protect the environment.  ~ Care for the poor. ~ Forgive often.  ~ Reject racism. ~ Fight for the powerless.  ~ Share earthly and spiritual resources.  ~ Embrace diversity.  ~ Love God. ~ Enjoy this life.

Yes, there is a lot to be afraid of in this world of ours.  But we are not alone.  God knows what we really need – and what the world really needs.  And God is working in and through us to give us the kingdom.

May it be so! 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Teach Us to Pray

Luke 11:1-13

August 4, 2019

It’s surprising that these disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray.  These disciples are men of prayer, Jews who carry out their religious obligations.  They’ve been praying all their lives according to their customs. But they have watched their teacher go off by himself, climb the mountain, walk away from the crowds, set off in a boat to pray, and they want to experience the blessings of prayer that they see in Jesus.

What shall we say about prayer? What is the point of prayer, even?  What are we doing when we pray, and how might we do it better?  If God knows what we need before we ask, why do we need to ask? Perhaps the common perception of prayer as a petition – a knock on God’s door that opens to my needs and wants – is too narrow an understanding of prayer.  Yes, we do offer prayers of petition for ourselves and prayers of intersession for others, like we have been for Billy Dexter these many weeks.

But, do we really think prayer changes the mind of God?  Or does it change us?  Pat calls us Moosup Valley folks the “Prayer Warriors.” Do our prayers make things happen?  Or do they change our perceptions of what “is” already, the way we infuse energy into a situation, the way we accompany each other in troubled times? 

It’s unfortunate that Jesus’ parable of the friend who comes at midnight to ask for help is so often interpreted as a guarantee that when we ask, and for whatever we ask – if we have the magic formula, the keys to the Kingdom – it shall be given unto us.  As if God were a vending machine dispensing favors and blessings.

We cannot possibly know the mind of God, so we attribute to God the roles we see in our human families. “Mom, can I have a cookie?  Please? Please?”  And we ask again and again until we wear her down, “Oh, all right, have your cookie, but don’t let it spoil your supper!”  Or maybe it’s “Please can I get the puppy?  I’ll take care of it. You won’t have to do a thing!”  And then it’s “Please, dad, can I take the car? Please!”  As adults, it’s “Help me find a job.” Or “Please, God, help her get well!” Then, if we have persisted in prayer, and we have not seen the outcomes we’ve longed for, we think our prayers are deficient, or, worse, that we are deficient.  We must not have prayed hard enough, long enough, were not worthy enough.  And then we’re twice disappointed, shamed even.  It can be all too difficult to perceive what is happening with our petitions, if God is listening or not, if God is responding or not.  Remember, even Jesus cried out in anguish on the cross, “Why have you abandoned me?”

A better translation of “persistence” in the parable, given the culture of first century Palestine, would be “shamelessness.”  Not to receive a guest with grace and tend to his or her needs, would have been a shameless scandal.  Hospitality was highly prized in the ancient world, and a sleepy friend who would not get up and tend to the urgent needs of hospitality was no friend indeed!  What might this say about God as the sleepy friend, then?  Luke presents the idea that God’s way of giving – because God rises and tends to the one who knocks, even more so than our human friends could or would – is to give all who ask the gift of the Holy Spirit. So every prayer is answered by the indwelling of the divine. 

We Christians are an incarnational people.  We believe that God is with us, even within us, drawing us to Godself.  Mystic Thomas Merton speaks of prayer as our communion with God. 

So, I have come to think of prayer as steady communion, as being in a loving, ongoing relationship with God, not simply as a set of words, although I may use words at times, but not all the time, or even most of the time. I have come to think of prayer as a relationship with God, and I treat this relationship like a relationship with an earthly loved one – like that with a loving spouse, a dear friend, a faithful pet, a cherished colleague, a connection with the fullness of nature.  (Reformation reformer Martin Luther said we can find God in the trees and flowers, probably making the point to his critics that the institutional church does not have a monopoly on God.)

In a relationship we use words, yes.  We have conversations, we talk things over, we ask for guidance, we argue, we ask for forgiveness, we plead for what we need. Sometimes we get answers “in so many words,” and sometimes we don’t. That’s one kind of prayer. Sometimes those words are accompanied by an outpouring of feelings – love, joy, anguish, anger, fear, despair, hope, resignation.  Sometimes the feelings alone are enough.  No words needed.  God knows.  That’s another kind of prayer.

I imagine God would like us to be quiet more often, not wait until we are prepared with just the right words (that is, words well put), in the right place (in church), at the right time (on the Sabbath).  God is accessible night and day, 24/7, with or without words, at work or at play, any time, all the time.  Wherever we are, there God is.  I imagine God wants us “to come as we are” to prayer. “Unless you come to me as a little child.”

We know relationships don’t always need words.  How often have you traveled miles in the car in companionable silence?  Or sat at the kitchen table with a friend, nursing a morning cup of coffee?  Or rocked side by side on the porch, taking in the sunset?  We don’t need words with God.  We could listen more, talk less.  We might be more open to discovering the presence of the Spirit within us.  Perhaps the only words we need are tears in the mystery of it all! 

Too, God can be experienced in the warmth of the sun, in the touch of the wind, in the smell of a newly mown lawn.  God can be experienced in the feel of cool water on your skin, in the weight of a baby in your arms, in the healing loss of self in meditation.  These, too, are prayers. “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavily laden, and I will give you rest.”

Our human minds cannot possibly know the height, and depth, and breadth of God, but we can catch a glimpse of Godself in the life of Jesus.  He teaches us The Lord’s Prayer, a very human, accessible prayer, a prayer we can pray without ceasing as our hearts reach out to God’s heart – give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us.  Prayer means appealing to the very heart of God in response to the very heart of God appealing to us, a relationship with the very essence of life itself, of mutuality of need and trust and love.

Prayer means reaching out to the One who comes looking for us when we are lost, dines with us when others have cast us out, welcomes us home when we have wasted our lives, accompanies us on the journey called life.

Lord, teach us to pray! 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Practicing Hospitality

Luke 10:38-42

July 17, 2022

Today we have another well-known story from the Gospel of Luke, one which often rings a bell with people who seldom come to church.  Like so many of these stories and parables, we can interpret it in a variety of ways. 

First, for example, we can understand this familiar Mary-Martha story as Jesus’ affirming Mary’s choice to sit at Jesus’ feet – the place of a male disciple – rather than helping in the kitchen, a woman’s place.  Men were free to sit at the village gates or in the public square, talking politics, while women tended to the home, drawing water, cooking, cleaning, caring for children.  By acknowledging that Mary “has chosen the better part,” Jesus supports Mary’s right to explore her full personality and to consider the larger issues of the day, to consider the meaning of her life and purpose beyond housework.

Also, second, we might understand this story as an extreme depiction of two kinds of people – busy bees and quiet reflective types, activists and philosophers, the do-ers and the be-ers.  We ask each other, “Are you are Mary or a Martha?”  And it’s true, some of us are better at feeding the homeless while others are better at prayer, although most of us fall somewhere in the middle between these two extremes.  It’s tempting to box churches into categories, too.  One church might be labeled a social-justice church, and still another a Bible-toting church, as we try to sort out those who “do” in the larger world and those who are simply “present” to the Spirit. 

So, we need not think poorly of either Mary or Martha.  Jesus does not chastise Busy Martha but Worried and Distracted Martha.  In the same way, churches can be busy caring for the world while still remembering that they are doing it in Jesus’ name, taking time to listen to the Spirit in their midst. 

But there is another way, a third way, to understand this story, aside from women’s roles:  that of hospitality, extended and received.  Last week we reflected on the parable of the Good Samaritan – the Merciful Samaritan, we more appropriately named him, who became a compassionate neighbor to one who was in need, who offered hospitality to a stranger.  The parable taught us that “neighbor” has nothing to do with geography, citizenship, or race.  Wherever and whenever people need us, that is where we are called tobe neighbors and, like Jesus, to show mercy.  This is the essence of hospitality.

If you google “hospitality,” you will find this wonderful definition: “the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.”  This is what we provide when we entertain each other in our homes, when we serve the community at Rice City suppers, when we welcome the public at our Concert in the Valley, even how we greet new people on Sundays and help them to feel at home. 

However, churches often think of themselves as offering hospitality simply when they have nametags for everyone, put out a good spread at coffee hour, and encourage people to mingle with visitors.  Hospitality in these churches becomes a committee project – replacing lost nametags, assigning baking, developing a system to identify visitors. But hospitality is more than saying “Good Morning,” being cordial and friendly.  Real hospitality has to do with being in relationship, being present to and engaged with another person. 

The Bible pushes this deeper meaning of hospitality.  In the Old Testament, we read, “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born.  Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt” (Lev. 9:33-34).  

In the New Testament, the Greek word which is translated “hospitality” literally means “love of strangers.” Travelers depended heavily on the hospitality of strangers as traveling could be dangerous and there were very few inns, which poor people could not afford, anyway.  So, hospitality was a highly regarded virtue in ancient times.  During his public ministry, Jesus and his disciples depended entirely on the hospitality of others as they ministered from town to town.  

This is what brought him to dinner at Mary and Martha’s home, where we find Martha in the kitchen slicing and dicing, kneading and baking, and Mary, listening to Jesus.  Jesus defends her, says that Mary has chosen “the better part,” which in Greek is translated as “good.”  Mary has chosen the “good” part, meaning she has chosen “the connection to God who is good, the ground and energy of effective action.” 

According to one Christian scholar, the story does not reinforce a Martha-Mary dichotomy but calls for a recognition that God is both inside and outside [the church], everywhere, sustaining us while summoning us to work and, through our service, to bring about a world of justice, mercy, and peace. It is not an either/or message but a both/and message.”[1]

I think about hospitality with all the media attention on refugees who are fleeing violence, hunger, fires and rising sea levels across the world. And I think about hospitality when I hear the stories about the number of homeless in our cities, people who may work full time, even several jobs, but who cannot afford rising rents.  We have a huge problem on the Cape with the lack of housing. It affects businesses who can’t find workers because they can’t afford to live on the Cape. And yet, second homes are empty much of the year, and developers buy up anything they can find to sell at exorbitant prices.

And I think about hospitality when I read about young Jewish men and women who rise up to protest our government’s treatment of young refugees, because they have heard the stories of the Holocaust from their grandparents, and they fear something like that could happen here. We are fortunate in Rhode Island that the RI State Council of Churches and the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, and the Muslim Imams reach out to support each other whenever there is a shooting or an act of vandalism at a house of worship.  We stand together across the boundaries of faith and class and race and neighborhood. Together we pray for a world free of hate and violence and commit to the purpose of peace in our communities – a world where hospitality is practiced. 

Now, I know all of us may not be “into” the problem of refugees or concerned about the plight of homeless people, many of whom are mentally ill, or veterans with PTSD, or unable to earn enough to afford an apartment, no matter how hard they work.  You may be more of a quiet Mary than an activist Martha.

My old friend Betty would tell me about how she and her husband would spot an “outsider,” a man, for example, who was stiff and boring, a seeming know-it-all, someone who didn’t seem to have friends, and reach out to include him for dinner or a concert in Boston, getting to know him.  More often than not, they would grow to appreciate his intelligence or his sense of humor and bring him into their circle of friends.  We all can be alert for the person who needs a kind word or be-friending. And they are all around us if we but take the time to pay attention – the lonely, the unwell, the afraid, the poor, the one who leads a life of quiet desperation making ends meet. 

We only need to notice, offer a smile or a simple word, a “How are you today?” – as if we really cared – to the teller at the bank, the clerk at the grocery, the mail carrier.  Perhaps a phone call to someone grieving, an offer to pick up groceries for a neighbor, or a “thinking of you” note.  All acts of hospitality don’t have to be dramatic; they only need to be offered with sincerity and care.  One or two unexpected acts of kindness a week from each of us can go a long way toward building a better world.

Clearly, this morning’s text is a call to practice hospitality.  The gospel encourages us to sit at Jesus’ feet like Mary to better prepare us to serve like Martha.  No doubt, when dinner was finally served at Mary and Martha’s house, the true nature of their guest was revealed and Jesus himself, the One who teaches us how life is to be lived and cared for, was made known in the breaking of the bread, to be their humble, hospitable host. 

May it be so for each of us! Amen.


[1] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, quoted by James A. Wallace in Feasting on the Word:  Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, pp. 265.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Neighbors

Luke 10:25-37

July 10, 2022

What can one possibly say about today’s story of the Good Samaritan that we don’t already know?  It’s the most familiar of all Jesus’ parables, and even people who don’t know their Bible have heard about Good Samaritans – strangers who stop to help someone in an accident, volunteers who serve on a suicide hotline, the person who finds your wallet and calls.  But like all parables, this parable sets our minds to racing in different directions and seeking a variety of interpretations.  Jesus wants us to think about complex situations and strive to live “beyond the letter of the law.”

First, what about the priest and the Levite?  Why did they pass by without lending a hand to one of their own?  Before we cast them as the “bad guys,” hard-hearted and calloused or too prissy to get their hands dirty, we need to know that their purity laws forbid them from touching a dead person; doing so would have made them ritually unclean.  They would be unable to lead worship.  The crowd listening to Jesus’ story would not have expected representatives of the religious establishment to help. Besides, we all pass by, from time to time.  The accident on the highway?  Someone else will stop.  We’re on our way to a meeting; we don’t have time.  The homeless person on the corner with the “Please Help” sign.  Why doesn’t he get a job?  The drug deal on the corner.  We turn a blind eye.  Yes, we all pass by most of the time, probably less so in rural Foster than in the city, however.

Second, why does Jesus choose a Samaritan for the story?  They were a despised people.  The adjective “good” is not a description in the parable, and it dilutes the element of racial tension that gives the story its force.  To the lawyer, to the Jews in Jesus’ audience, to Luke’s readers, there was no misunderstanding about Samaritans.  They were half-breeds, unclean people from the north, who had refused to participate in the restoration of Jerusalem and who had aided the Syrian leaders in their war against the Jews.  They were the ultimate “outsiders.”  When Jesus put a Samaritan in the role of helper, he must have stunned the crowd. Who, in our time, is the ultimate “outsider”?

Third, what about the lawyer who asks the question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  He knows the official answer before he asks the question.  Love God (Deut. 6:5) and neighbor (Lev. 19:18), and Jesus agrees, two Jewish men who know their scriptures.  But the lawyer is looking for something more.  What is it?  “Who is my neighbor?”  And Jesus tells a story, a story about an enemy helping someone in need, salvation through service to those in need, not personal piety.  It’s easy to skip over the dialogue between Jesus and the lawyer in our rush to get to the parable, as if the lawyer is in the story only there to ask the question, a “plant” to goad Jesus. 

But the exchange between the two men is not especially confrontational. Perhaps the lawyer is intrigued and inspired by Jesus to go deeper than the legal answer.  He had assumed the commandments were internal to the Jewish community itself, not to foreigners – for example, the 10 commandments – and Jesus, by inserting the Samaritan in the story, takes him where he never expected to go. 

And us?  Jesus calls us to dialogue, to sit down with those who think differently, to go where we never expected to go as well.  Our 21st century has become one of sound bites, confrontation, and name calling.  The only way to create understanding, to seek out truth, to reduce the level of fear, to build consensus, is through dialogue.  Jesus calls us to make the time, to provide the space, and to assure the safe environment to talk with each other. 

It may take hours of listening and debate, even decades, to find common ground – between faith groups with different ideas about religious freedom, political parties who are more focused on winning than governing, between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, between black men and the police in our country – let alone in our own families which have issues to be resolved.  So, we cannot overlook the importance of dialogue and merciful conversation to bring about understanding and collaboration.

And, finally, what about the man in the ditch?  Beaten and robbed, left for dead, how did he feel about the Samaritan?  Would he rather be left to die than be helped by this enemy of his people?  Professor Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish feminist who teaches at a Protestant divinity school, insists, “We should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch and then ask, ‘Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, “She offered help” or “He showed compassion”? 

Also, consider this.  Is there any group whose members might rather die than help one of us?  If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent for the Samaritan.  The impact of the Samaritan’s assistance would be like the Grand Dragon of the KKK giving a hand out of the ditch to a black man, or the other way around, or the Grand Marshal of the Gay Pride Parade donating blood for Bishop Tobin, or a Mexican showing mercy to border control agents in Texas. 

If you were in the ditch, is there someone you hate so much that you’d rather die than be helped by that person?  How about the bully on the playground when you were a kid?  Or the boss who made your life miserable at work?  Or maybe your ex?  Or, to put the shoe on the other foot, is there someone in the ditch that you could not help?  Someone who molested your child, maybe?  Someone who shot and killed your best friend?  Someone you could not think of as “neighbor”?

Who is my neighbor?  Not necessarily the one close to you, in your circle of friends, someone of your ethnic group or class, someone down the road or in the next town over.  If only some people are neighbors, then some are not neighbors.  Jesus’ answer has to do with becoming neighbors through knowing each other, through acts of compassion.

Yes, this parable, often used to encourage us to aid a traveler whose car has broken down on a dark and stormy night, is really a parable about redemption and mercy, about breaking down walls of hostility between people, about forgiveness and hospitality.  This story is really about mercy, a “merciful” Samaritan, a story about undeserved compassion, pardon, strength, rescue, generosity. 

A story about calling down mercy on ourselves and on each other in all of our hard lives, with sins and regrets, in need of strength and blessing and rescue at the hands of robbers – and on us, when we are the robbers.  All of us on the road needing wine and oil poured on our wounds.  All of us made neighbors in Jesus Christ.[1]

May it be so! 

Amen.


[1] The last three sentences are based on a poem of homiletics professor Jennifer Lord, taken from Christian Century in July 2013.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Thoughts on the Fourth of July

Psalm 66:1-9

July 3, 2022

Our Pilgrim ancestors of the Congregational faith came to this land to seek a new life, to find freedom to worship at they choose, to pursue the Biblical vision of a City Set on a Hill.  They brought with them values from Europe and cultivated them here.

But in many ways, the model that the Puritans brought with them to the Massachusetts Bay colony was as oppressive as the one they were escaping.  Roger Williams’ thinking was revolutionary and caused him to be driven out of the commonwealth in the dead of winter, in the middle of the night, in a snowstorm.  He founded Providence “to hold forth a lively experiment that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with full liberty in religious concernments.”

These emerging values shaped the emerging nation and formed the basis of the Declaration of Independence that was signed 246 years ago this week. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We love these words, but let us remember that when Jefferson wrote “men,” he meant men, not women, and not all men, but only white men. Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness has come true for those of us who have a job and sufficient income for a decent place to live, a health care plan when a family member is sick, a quality education and citizenship in the best country in the world.

But life in America is not perfect for everyone – we have unfinished business:  unfinished business in health care and housing and civil rights.  It helps to remember, when they adopted the Declaration, that they had unfinished business in 1776, too:  Women were not equal, slaves were not free, happiness was realized by relatively few. And we still fail to ratify the “Equal Rights Amendment.” Well, we’ve made progress, of course.  We have a middle class that, by and large, in the last 50 years, has found life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – although gains made in the 20th century are slipping in the 21st century … with our new global economy,          a tax code benefiting corporations and the super wealthy, rising cost of health care, severity of the weather due to rising sea temperatures, computerization of almost every aspect of American life, robots who are taking away more and more jobs from workers, and dark money in politics.  

Plus, we have not made gains everywhere:  racism, homophobia, and poverty still dog us as a country. We’re not the land of the free for everyone….     Perhaps the founders knew that their words did not describe the current reality – but that the Declaration described the end result to be pursued, the beginning of the work to create the “City Set on a Hill.”  Frederick Douglas wrote, “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.”  And William Faulkner reminds us, “We must be free not because we claim freedom but because we practice it.”

Yes, we have challenges, and today’s issues are more complex than ever.  How shall we deal with immigration, gun violence, tax reform, drug overdoses?  Yes, we have misdeeds – too many decision-makers act in self-interest, not the public interest.  Congress is split along party lines, held hostage by lobbyists. Rhode Island’s General Assembly is notorious for making decisions in the middle of the night. Yes, we have hate speech in campaigns, on the internet, in print and in the broadcast media which stifles dialogue and polarizes people.  I still chuckle over one of Rabbi Leslie Gutterman’s guest editorials in The Providence Journal a few years ago in which he told this story:

          A man was walking along the beach and found a bottle. A genie appeared.  

          The genie said, ‘I am so grateful to get out of that bottle, I’ll grant you one

          wish.’  ‘I have always wanted to go to Hawaii,’ the man replied. ‘I’ve

          never been able to go because I am scared of flying and become

          claustrophobic on a boat.  My wish is for a road to be built from here to

          Hawaii.’ “The genie replied, ‘No, I can’t do that. Just imagine all the pilings and concrete

          involved.’ The man then told the genie, ‘Okay. There is another possibility.  

          I want to know why [our current political climate] is so mean-spirited.’

          The genie considered and then said, ‘So do you want two lanes or four?’

Yes, although we have unfinished businessand we know we have work to do – we’re still a country to be proud of:  The way citizens like us form nonprofit organizations when we see a need to better people’s lives and rise up with contributions of time and money to help in a disaster.  The way we abide by the law, most of the time, and can trust our public officials, most of the time.  The way we can hold vigils and rallies, and say what we need to say, without fearing repercussions.  

The insurrection at the Capitol a year ago was an aberration for us, organized by the extreme right and Christian nationalists who thought Jesus was on their side and who hadn’t been to Bible Study. The way we can count on a full night’s sleep without being dragged out of bed and arrested for some vague crime or stopped by the police for a “broken tail light”– at least most of us, most of the time – although it happens to some of us in police raids and traffic stops gone awry. The way we celebrate the values of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness – even when we don’t always practice them.  

Yes, God has blessed America!  And we’re blessed to live here and to raise our families here.  But scripture reminds us:  the greater the blessings, the greater the responsibility.  God’s blessings are meant to be shared.  We have work to do.

Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder reminds us of this truth when we become nostalgic about our country’s history: 

The work of God is the calling of a people, whether in the Old Covenant or

the New.  The church is then not simply the bearer of the message of reconciliation, in the way a newspaper or a telephone company can bear any message with which it is entrusted.  Nor is the church simply the result of a message, as an alumni association is the product of a school or the crowds in a theater are the product of the reputation of the film.  That men and women are called together to a new social wholeness is itself the work of God, which gives meaning to history.

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – for all – that’s the business we’re in.  Today, we remember when it all started, and so join me in saying “Happy birthday, America!  

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church

Tragedy and Compassion

Luke 7:11-17

June 26, 2022

Tragedy has struck.  The widow’s only son has died.  Now she has no one to care for her, no male relative – no father, husband or son – a recipe for destitution and death in her culture.  And if the son had sisters, they, too, were vulnerable unless they could be married off.  We don’t know any more about that situation – except that a widow’s plight is a common theme in the Bible.  Think of Ruth and Naomi, both widows, and how Naomi tries to send Ruth back to her father’s house, to a place of safety, but Ruth insists on accompanying her mother-in-law, “Where you go, I will go.”  We also have witnessed a prophet’s compassion on a widow before.  In I Kings, in the Old Testament, we find a companion story about Elijah raising a widow’s son in Zarephath.  So Luke is drawing on that tradition, grounding Jesus’ compassion in the long line of prophets.

These Biblical miracle stories make a life of faith difficult for us.  Why are some people healed and others are not?  Why are some people brought back to life and others are not?  We ask, what did I do to deserve this?  Did I not pray hard enough?  Was I not worthy enough?  Unfortunately, our early religious training often sets us up for these questions. 

And the Bible, too, can raise expectations: “Ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you,” we read in both Matthew and Luke’s gospels.  “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed,” you can move mountains.  Or with faith, we can command a sycamore tree to be uprooted and planted in the ocean, these gospels promise us.  It’s no wonder that we blame ourselves and our “little faith” when tragedy strikes.  We can be saddled with guilt and shame as well as grief.

But perhaps that’s not the point of these miracle stories.  Yes, I believe in miracles – but not the “magic trick” kind.  I believe in the compassion kind of miracle. A professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts[1] suggests that we all hold certain core assumptions about the world, and when tragedy strikes, aside from the physical and emotional harm, they are our undoing: 

First, we believe the world is benevolent, that is, bad things will not happen; second, that the world is meaningful, things should make sense; and third, that we are worthy, that events correspond to whether we are good or bad. We want our world to be trustworthy.  We want to have some measure of control over events.  We want to believe that goodness makes a difference.  Well, of course, it does, but the world is still unpredictable.

Even though, in our rational moments, we know that life is not fair, when our world comes crashing down around us with an accident or the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job, or a shooter in the school, very often our first thought is how could this happen?  Why did this happen to me?  What did I do to deserve this? 

We can image that the widow might have wondered these things as her son was being carried out of the city for burial.  And then Jesus hears her sobbing, sees her inconsolable tears, knows her heart is split with grief, and he walks in through the gap. I was asked, at my Ecclesiastical Council, “What was Jesus’ greatest gift?”  I hadn’t thought about it before and frantically grasped for a reasonable answer.  “Compassion,” I said. 

Jesus reaches out and touches the stretcher on which the son lies and life seizes him.  “Rise up,” Jesus orders, and he does.  Perhaps he wasn’t really dead, or he thought he had nothing to live for, or had no will to give up what was killing him.

But as Christians, our question need not be, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  But rather, where is God in the chaos?  When all attempts to make sense of a tragedy come up empty, we turn to God to find meaning.  Miracles are the “proof positive” that God’s compassion will bring our world back into alignment.

Sometimes, we get the grand miracle for which we all pray:  The father’s operation is a success; the mother beats the odds and survives cancer; the wayward daughter graduates from high school; the child is found safe and unharmed. And sometimes we don’t:  The son who just got his license is killed by a drunk driver; the job that feeds the family is moved overseas; the fire, the tornado, the hurricane, the earthquake (take your pick) uproots too many neighbors.

And where is God then?  Probably right where we need God to be, if we only would notice:  In the friends that reach out to touch our pain; in the community that helps us to rebuild; in the comfort that finally comes in the majesty of a night sky full of stars or the industry of bees in a summer garden.

Yes, life is unpredictable and full of the unexpected, at best, and full of sorrow and despair at the worst.  And, yes, we are surrounded by tragedy.  In reality, our lives are filled with messy edges, not the nice tidy ending that the widow in today’s gospel experiences. But, if we open our eyes to the love around us and to the presence of the Spirit in our midst, reaching into our grieving hearts and deepest crevices of our greatest pain – just as Jesus reached into the place of death on the funeral bier – we perhaps will find meaning in the midst of our shattered world and peace in the most desolate suffering.

May it be so!

Amen.


[1][1] Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma (New York: The Free Press, 1992). Referenced in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3, p. 118.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Demons

Luke 8:26-39

June 19, 2022

Today, our story is about Jesus’ encounter with the “Gerasene Demonic,” a story also told in Matthew and Mark, which indicates its importance in the early church. This is the first and only place in Luke where Jesus deliberately leaves home and goes into Gentile country – the significance of stepping out of the boat “opposite Galilee.”  This is a “crossing over” story – not only crossing over into a foreign territory and into a foreign religious group but also foreshadowing when Jesus’ disciples will “cross over” to the ends of the earth, to Greeks and Romans, non-Jews, to found their new church.  The story reminds us – and early Christians – that God’s love is for everyone, not just for insiders.

The first person to greet Jesus is naked, tormented, and outcast by members of his own community. He lives on the margins of society, among the dead, and he is sometimes so wild that he has to be restrained to keep him from injuring himself and others.  Whether his demons are actually personifications of evil, as some might argue, or whether a mental illness, like schizophrenia, as others might suspect, doesn’t need to affect our interpretations of the story.  For whatever reason, his life is out of control, just like ours often are out of control – a diagnosis of cancer, a lost job and the end of benefits, a loved one back from war with PTSD, an accident, a murder … or a lot of murders. 

The Gerasene has lost his identity. When Jesus asks him his name, he doesn’t know, one of the more heartbreaking verses in Scripture.  He is possessed by too many demons to count; he is lost in the legion of voices clamoring for his attention.

These days I feel as if our nation is possessed by demons, a legion of demons.  We could make a long list together! Violence every time we turn around because of our country’s love affair with guns. Another shooting in a church, this time in St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Alabama, near Birmingham. Three dead at the potluck supper. The proliferation of lies played out on the national stage and a refusal to agree on the truth. A crisis in mental health and drug abuse. A growing gap between the unimaginably wealthy and the growing number of poor. A dysfunctional government. The people in Congress more concerned about their own future than the country’s future. How far we have come from Patriot Nathan Hale who said in 1776, just before he was hanged, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

The underlying demons? Hate, fear, power, greed?  Of not having enough? Of not being enough? And all the while, the earth warms and disaster lurks in rising tides and temperatures, burning forests and failing crops. Hungry children. I worry about what will become of us in our rapidly changing world.  And you do, too!

What does it mean to us, we who call ourselves Christians, that Jesus stepped out of the boat on the “opposite side?”  To stand with love in the face of demons. To be baptized is to commit to going to the opposite side with Jesus, to “renounce the powers of evil.”  Every month in our communion service, we take into ourselves the very power of Jesus with the bread and cup.  To receive communion is to say “yes” to God’s missional call to bring salvation to the world, to go to the “opposite side.”

But that’s easier said than done.  Like the Gerasene Demonic, I am tormented by all these demons.  There are more prayers of lament in the Bible than there are prayers of praise. “My tears have been my food day and night,” says the psalmist (42).  To lament is to know that something is wrong.  Something is not right.  Something is breaking our hearts.  And so I lament….  And we’re not the only ones.  Jesus lamented, remember?  Over his friend Lazarus who had died; over the lost and the least; over the corrupt city of Jerusalem, would that he could gather in the sinners like a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings.

So today, Father’s Day, I remind us of the importance of fathers, and “father figures,” to raise children, because I suspect that it’s through our children that God will save the world. In the Providence Journal yesterday, the feature article was about a boy who came to the United States five years ago from Bolivia and who just graduated from Mt. Pleasant High School as valedictorian of his class. He worked at T’s Restaurant as a cook, and the Tomaselli family closed the restaurant and threw a party for him, raising $12,000 for his expenses at URI. Everyone said what a hardworking, caring young man he was.

In the Cape Cod Times this week, there was an article about how children in our schools – even in Middle School – are researching and making presentations about such community problems as safety for LGBT kids, racism, human rights, and lack of affordable housing. Pat’s granddaughter Kaitlin is going to Leadership School in South Carolina next week, exploring new ideas and her gifts to make this a better world.  These are “crossing over” stories, and we need to encourage them.  Perhaps it will be through our children that the awesome power of God will transform lives, will turn our world from terror to wholeness. 

In today’s lesson, Jesus demonstrates that God, the Father, has absolute dominion over evil – but God needs human hearts and hands as partners to make it so, fathers and mothers, grandparents and children. God has unparalleled compassion for those who seem lost, something the early church followers depended on to make their way in the world, but God can’t do it without us. 

The demons feared that power to save, the possessed man was saved by it, and the neighbors did not know what to make of it!

So, too, God in Jesus has the power to restore our lives and our community’s common life, to break the chains of evil that hold us, and to work within us and among us to drive out the demons.

May it be so!  Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

God in Three Persons?

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

June 12, 2022

Today is Trinity Sunday, always the first Sunday after Pentecost, which was last Sunday, the coming of the Holy Spirit, completing the circle.  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” we sing in the old hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

One does not find the word “Trinity” in the Bible.  It’s a later teaching – a doctrine – of the Christian Church, that God is “three in one,” an idea that evolved as the Church was developing, one that many authorities would say one must believe to be a true believer. 

In around 500 CE, the prophet Mohammed pulled away from a corrupt Christian Church and the core Christian belief in the Trinity with a different understanding, and today, Muslims recite, “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.”

And while we might think that all Christians believe in the Trinity, church history says otherwise.  Two hundred years ago, in the first half of the 19th century, the Congregational Church split over the Trinity:  Is God one person or is God three persons?  In Cambridge, Trinitarians marched out of Harvard Divinity School and founded Andover Newton Theological School. And while Harvard is non-denominational now, it has the largest collection of Unitarian materials in the world. And in Providence, Joseph Snow marched out of First Congregational Church (now First Unitarian Church) on Benefit Street and crossed the river to found Beneficent Congregational Church.  

Our own Moosup Valley Church, indeed all of the churches in the Larger Parish, (Foster Center Baptist and Clayville, too, I believe) are or were Christian Churches – one of the four denominational streams that comprise the UCC – Christian churches that held to the founding principles that “The Holy Bible is a sufficient rule of faith and practice,” and “The right of private judgment and the liberty of conscience are rights and privileges for all.”  To be considered a member of a Christian Church one did not have to believe in the Trinity. 

We don’t find the word “Trinity” in the Bible, but we can find the seeds of the idea of the Trinity in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. “In the beginning God,” the ancient writer wrote, establishing in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, that God is, declaring the foundation of our faith – and not just of the Christian faith but also of Judaism and Islam.  We are all “People of the Book.”  

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” creation out of nothing. The psalm for today, Psalm 8, a Psalm of David, celebrates both divine majesty and human dignity in creation, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

And so, God the Father grounds the idea of the Trinity, the first person.

As Christians we celebrate the coming of the Messiah, the one for whom the Jewish nation waited for centuries. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is that Messiah, come to save us – although not with a sword and the hoped-for mighty arm to destroy Israel’s enemies. In our UCC Statement of Faith,we affirm God the Son, the second person in the Trinity, “who is made known to us in Jesus our brother, and to whose deeds we testify.”  God the Son who teaches us what God-in-the-flesh is like – loving, forgiving, supporting, freeing: “When did we see you hungry and give you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  When was it we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  When was it we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

God the Son teaches us, demonstrates to us, how life is to be lived and cared for in God’s kingdom.

And the Holy Spirit?  We celebrated her coming last Sunday on the Day of Pentecost. But, of course, the Holy Spirit was already here, loose in the world.  We read in the Book of Exodus that she led the Israelites out of Egypt as a fire by night and a cloud by day, and in the Prophet Ezekiel, that she, the Glory of the Lord, streamed out of the Temple, accompanying the Exiles into Babylon, and here, in today’s text, as Dame Wisdom, with God since the beginning of time.

Her role in the Trinity is to send us out into the world as instruments of God’s reconciling love.  In our UCC Statement of Faith, we declare that the Holy Spirit is bestowed upon us, to create and renew the Church and to bind us together.  

In his book, Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World, our UCC President and General Minister, John Dorhauer, reminds us that the business of the Church is Mission. “The Spirit will invest herself in those places where there is a clear mission,” he writes.  He highlights a UCC church in southern Arizona that is clear about its mission:  “We are a church on the border, called to serve the immigrant.”  Their members take water out into the desert, negotiate between immigrants and border patrols, sit in courtrooms, and run workshops.  Their mission is grounded in Jesus’ mission.

Our Moosup Valley mission statement that we adopted back in 2017 integrates the idea of the Trinity, although in a way that it makes sense. It could be said that we were ahead of our time.

“Gathered in 1868, Moosup Valley Church is a community growing in our knowledge of JesusLed by the Spirit, we reach out to love God and our neighbors as ourselves.  We are a country church welcoming EVERYONE, respecting individual personal beliefs, and spreading peace in our world.”

And so we have “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of us all,” I recite in our baptismal service.  How can this be?  Why the importance of three persons?

The mystics say that all we need is three of something. If we have only two of something, we have polarity – this or that, yes or no, either / or. Computers work on this principle, don’t they?  But if we have three (or more than three), we have something that speaks of depth, complexity, the possibility of innovation.

Denominations often latch onto one of the three Persons as their primary way of understanding God. I hear talk among Roman Catholics about “Jesus our brother,” and Pentecostals and Quakers lean toward the Holy Spirit.  Martin Luther spoke about finding God in nature, and I bask in the God I find in the spring flowers and lilac trees, in the majesty of the ocean and the spring peepers on the pond. 

I wonder if we at Moosup Valley, as a congregation, lean more to one person in the Trinity than another. And how about each one of us?  Which person in the Trinity speaks most to you?  With whom do you resonate?  To whom do you pray?  Where do you find God most easily, most naturally?  In creation?  In learning about the life of Jesus?  In an inner voice, through intuition?  God speaks in many voices.  Perhaps the different aspects of God speak to the different aspects of each of our personalities. Or perhaps the different aspects of God all have something to say to us at different times of our lives.

On this Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrate the Trinity, God in three persons.  In our Western, scientific world view, we expect we should be able to understand everything, explain everything, agree on everything.  Our foremothers and forefathers argued over the concept of the Trinity.  Factions formed over whether God is one, or God is three.  Pastors were driven from their pulpits over the “Unitarian Controversy.”  Churches split.  

On this Trinity Sunday, we would do well to remember that these are only words, a creation of our human imaginations, limited as they are. Language is only metaphor for our individual experience, and truth is relative.  So let us maintain an attitude of openness to the concept of the Trinity, to the deep, divine mystery that is God, God that defies human understanding and is beyond our knowing. 

Indeed, whatever you were taught to think about the Trinity – one person or three – does not matter.  What matters most is that we understand that we are not God, and yet are wrapped in a divine love, so profound, that it is beyond our human understanding. To us, today, in this, wisdom calls and rejoices.

May it be so. 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

What Does This Mean?

Acts 2:1-21

June 5, 2022

The scene opens on the Jewish harvest festival of Pentecost. Like good Jews, the disciples and more than 100 other believers, have gathered together in a safe house in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival.  Mary the mother of Jesus and other women are there, as well as Jesus’ brothers.  It’s 50 days after Easter, the Resurrection.  People from all walks of life – but heavy on Galilean fishermen and carpenters and women in the inner circle who had traveled with Jesus – visiting, praying, waiting for something.  What was it that Jesus had promised? 

Picture it.  People coming and going.  Food being prepared and shared.  Jews from every nation, here in Jerusalem, the crossroads of the world. Poor Peter, trying to keep order.  They must have been loud, too, because bystanders thought they were drunk.  Singing, perhaps, psalms of exultation, cries for help and thanksgiving for healing.  And yes, prayer: sometimes murmuring, sometimes shouting, rising and falling above the noise in the street.  Everyone praising God, in their own languages.  They were out of order, of course, all these different people together, men and women interacting socially in public, breaking all the social taboos.  That alone could spell trouble!

And then an amazing thing happened! A rush of wind, the roar of sound, the appearance of tongues of fire resting on the gathered community, symbols of God’s presence.  In Hebrew, ruah elohim, the creative wind of the Lord, has come, to bring life out of chaos, as at creation in the Genesis story.  The Holy Spirit has come!

Think back to Spielberg’s 1981“Raiders of the Lost Ark” to picture the roaring of the wind and the blinding light. God’s Spirit had been poured out before, of course – moving over the waters at Creation, leading the Israelites as they flee Egypt in the Exodus, as a cloud by day and a fire by night; accompanying them as they are led into exile in Babylon, the glory of the Lord streaming through the temple, as the prophet Ezekiel tells it, and then, 50 years later, leading the way home as they return to Jerusalem with a clear Jewish identity. 

The Holy Spirit has been in their midst all along, but now she comes anew.  God’s breath – ruah – has been poured into this new messianic community, giving it legitimacy and power.  The Christian church has been born – the world will never be the same. Something happened that day that empowered these people, just plain folks, not so different from you and me, that they went out and turned the world upside down – in spite of persecution, in spite of imprisonment, in spite of torture, in spite of oppression and death. It all started at Pentecost. 

Perhaps it happened because they told each other again the story of Jesus and his amazing life,

how he cared for the lame and the lonely, the homeless and the hungry, the poor and the prisoner – no matter who they were and where they were on life’s journey – especially those who had no status, no hope, no future, the least of these in society. Perhaps the storyteller Luke – who wrote both the Gospel that bears his name as well as the Book of Acts – described the scene with tongues of fire alighting on the crowd because the people were so “on fire” with a vision of God’s view of the world – tongues of fire exciting their minds, tongues of fire warming their hearts – the way the world should be. 

What does it all mean?  Essentially, I believe it means that God is saying to us, “I can’t do it without you.” If God’s vision for the world is wholeness, justice and peace for all, you and I have to pitch in to make it so.  And since Pentecost is celebrated every year in our church calendar, it serves as a reminder that we have to keep the fire going. There’s a story about a little girl who, on their way home from church, turned to her mother and said, “Mom, the preacher’s sermon this morning confused me.” The mother said, “Oh! Why is that?” The girl replied, “Well, he said that God is bigger than we are. Is this true?” “Yes, that’s true,” the mother replied. “He also said that God lives within us. Is that true, too?” Again the mother replied, “Yes.” “Well,” said the little girl, “If God is bigger than us and God lives in us, wouldn’t God show through?

I suspect that God doesn’t show through in many of us because we’ve lost the fire. We’ve lost touch with the divine in ourselves – or never even discovered it. Perhaps we’re too beaten down by life, and it’s not that we are burned out but that we’ve rusted out. We’ve lost the fire! On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit came to rest on the people, flames burning with a vision of God’s beloved community, God’s breath let loose in the world, God’s power

A word of caution, however:  Not all fires are of God. Fire can be used for good or ill, for love or hate, as we see in the news so often with the mass shootings. So remember that evil also is a fire – but not of God. How do we know the difference?  Frederick Buechner reminds us that, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor imagines Pentecost this way,

          “We breathe air that circulated in the rain forests of Kenya,

and air that turned yellow with sulfur over Mexico City.

We breathe the same air that Plato breathed, and Mozart and Michelangelo,

not to mention Hitler and Lizzie Borden. 

Every time we breathe, we take in

what was once some baby’s first breath,

or some dying person’s last.

“When Jesus let go of his last breath –

willingly, we believe, for love of us –

that breath hovered in the air in front of him for a moment,

and then it was set loose on earth. 

It was such pungent breath – so full of passion, so full of life –

that it did not simply dissipate as so many breaths do.

It grew, in strength and volume,

until it was a mighty wind, which God sent spinning

through an upper room in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.”[1]

This is the Day of Pentecost, and God is waiting for us to breathe in a Spirit of love and power so that we can breathe it out into all the brokenhearted places in this troubled world of ours.  

Come, Holy Spirit, come!  Burn in us this day … and every day.

May it be so! 

Amen.


[1] Homiletics Magazine, May-June 2016, page 28.

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Moosup Valley Church, UCC

Friends for Good

Acts 16:16-34

May 29, 2022

Paul and Silas are friends, working for the good of the fledging Christian community. The Book of Acts tells some of these stories. And they are all about trouble of one kind or another.  PR people tell us that even bad publicity is good because it brings attention to what we’re about.  Right now, Paul and Silas are in Philippi on their missionary trip. Philippi is a thriving Roman city, at the center of the known world, the world of trade, of culture, of religion. Last Sunday. We heard how they had met Lydia at the river, and how they had baptized her, and how she had put everything she had at their disposal. So, they are at Lydia’s “bed and breakfast.” Her home, their missionary base of operations.

Every day, Paul and Silas go out to preach in the street, and every day they have to listen to a slave-girl, who had “a spirit of divination” and who was, therefore, a fortune-telling “cash cow” for her owners.  Every day she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” For some reason, after many days, in spite of the girl’s “tooting their horn,” so to speak, Paul gets sick of listening to her and turns and says to the spirit, “’I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour” (Acts 16:18).  With this, the slave girl is healed and, without the spirit to tell everyone’s fortune, she loses her financial usefulness for her owners. (And, I’m thinking, Paul has lost his best promoter!  Sometimes we do something in haste that we later regret.)

Well, the owners are enraged by this loss of income, and they have Paul and Silas, ragged into the marketplace where they are accused of disturbing the peace, arrested, beaten, and thrown into prison.  But even bloodied, chained, cold and hungry, Paul and Silas pray and sing hymns to God while other prisoners listen in.  And then, out of the blue, a big earthquake shakes the foundations of the prison, the doors fly open, and the chains are un-fastened.  Everyone is free – but they don’t flee, perhaps out of respect for the jailer who will lose his job, if not his life. By their faithfulness, the jailer, too, is converted – just as Lydia was converted – and his family believes and is baptized. Amazing grace!

The scholars focus on the miracle and reflect on what God has done, but I’m still thinking about the slave girl and her “spirit of divination.” Her cries seemed able to lead people to Paul and Silas, people who were hungry for their message. And there’s more to think about, too. We don’t know that the girl was troubled by her fortune-telling gift, so to label Paul’s action as a healing, is a stretch. Apparently, the girl had the ability to see what was happening in the world, even to recognize truth when she sees it, and she recognized the truth in the story about Jesus of Nazareth. His life and how he cared for the most vulnerable.  The Way of Jesus. We seek that Way, too.

Perhaps it’s in response to the news this week, that I’m still sitting with the slave girl in the marketplace.  We don’t know that the slave girl needed to be healed or wanted to be saved, but she apparently lost her spirit of divination, her ability to see the truth, when Paul tells her, “Stop it!” And so I wonder, have we lost our ability to see the truth? What is happening to us as a country that we can’t see how we are destroying our children? Why can’t we solve the problem of gun violence? I’m not opposed to guns per se, especially here in the country, for responsible gun owners like many of you.

But a moment of silence and prayers for the families at the Robb Elementary School is not an adequate response to the horror. We must take action as a nation. And we need people on both sides of this issue to help solve this problem.  We can’t even seem to enact gun safety measures – like background checks and red flag laws – to keep firearms out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them, measures to keep evil at bay. And we don’t invest enough in the mental health system to treat those who need our help.  In The Providence Journal yesterday, the front page article was how hard it is to find help for our teenagers who are suffering right now.

I have been broken-hearted since Tuesday.  In Uvalde, 10-year-old Maite Rodriguez, her mother’s only daughter, dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. Now she will never realize that dream, and the world will never benefit from her gifts. Xavier Lopez made the honor roll on Tuesday, which would turn out to be the last day of his life. Alexandria Rubio wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up. Her parents saw her make the honor roll with straight As and receive a good-citizen award at her school on the day she was killed. And it goes on; there are 16 more stories like these.

Why can’t we solve this problem? We are the only wealthy nation that can’t curb gun violence. The statistics are astounding.  We have more than 10 times (even 100 times) the death rate of other civilized countries.    Even Australia with its cowboy culture has come together to stop the violence there. This Texas massacre is the 24th school shooting so far in 2022; there were 42 in 2021, which we’ll surpass this year at this rate. And what about those students who don’t die? What will they live with for the rest of their lives?

And it’s not only the truth of gun violence that a slave girl with the sight might see and that is staring us in the face. Why do we have a shortage of infant formula? Because the sanitation at the Abbott facility in Michigan was so poor that four babies were sickened, two died. And because we allow the consolidation of manufacturing in this country; if we provided for more competition, we’d have more facilities to pick up the slack. But no, big business and big profit rules in our society. And, in the case of Abbott, the FDA was hamstrung by Congress opposed to regulation.

Dana Milbank wrote in the Cape Cod Times on Friday: “If the measure of a society’s health is how it cares for the most vulnerable, this week revealed a profound sickness in ours.”[1] This Memorial Day, we remember soldiers and sailors on both sides who died in the Civil War – and those since who have served.  And the shooting in Buffalo two weeks ago, grandparents in a grocery store, killed because of the color of their skin. The Civil War still simmers under the surface.

In this story in Acts today, Paul and Silas are not just friends.  They are “friends for the common good.”  Their impact goes far beyond just preaching and baptizing – just as the impact of our Larger Parish churches goes far beyond our Sunday worship.  In a study conducted by Harvard professor Robert Putnam and Notre Dame scholar David Campbell, the researchers tell us that relationships in our “moral communities” carry more weight than relationships in say, our country clubs or volunteer fire companies.[2] Faith communities are important because we can see the truth and speak up.

I see friends-for-good here at Moosup Valley all the time:  When we rally around neighbors who are experiencing the death of loved ones and host their funerals. When we reach out to others who are hurting. When we buy food and Christmas presents for kids. We have a reputation for being a welcoming place, a place that helps their neighbors. Rice City, too, with its Music Night coming up in two weeks which will raise money to feed hungry families.

Back to that study: They write, “A congregation as a whole is a super-charged friendship where we draw forth good things from one another for the benefit of others.”[3] Another super-charged friendship is parents who have lost a child to a mass shooting. There’s an entire network of these parents I discovered when I listened to an NPR program on my way back to Foster yesterday. They show up wherever a shooting has occurred Nobody understands better than they do.

We may be in Foster, but, because of technology, we sit at the crossroads of the world. Where is our spirit of divination?  Can we see the truth? Will we have our neighbors’ backs     and our children’s backs, like Paul and Silas had the jailer’s back? Are we not missionaries and evangelists for the good news gospel of Jesus, whether we spell it out in so many words? There’s no knowing where all of this will end, where the gospel will lead us.  To be sure, there are many problems to be solved in this world in which each of us is broken in one way or another, and in many ways through the fear of illness and violence and the death of loved ones.

Yet, the church came into being through the movement of the Spirit in the lives and sacrifices of just-plain-folks like you and me who take the gospel into somewhat remote places in Foster and Greene, like Lydia’s city of Philippi, and into close, confining places like prison cells and living rooms, that the world might be saved.

May it be so, for us here at Moosup Valley where “super-charged friends for good” like us make miracles happen, turn the world upside down, and make all things new.

May it be so!

Amen.


[1] Cape Cod Times, Friday, May 27, page 9A.

[2] “Amazing Grace” in Homiletics, May 16, 2010, pages 30-32.

[3] Ibid.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Open Hearts & Minds

Acts 16:9-15

May 22, 2022

Of all the gospels, the Gospel of Luke emphasizes the role of women in the Jesus movement that became the Way, and then the early Christian church.  And, since Luke is also the writer of the Book of Acts, it’s not out of character that he would include this story about Lydia – although her story is highly unusual.  Women were second class citizens in that society.  They lived under the protection of the male members of the family.  They were mostly invisible, confined to the women’s quarters, living outside the public sphere.  As they say, nice women don’t make history, so we don’t have many stories about women in our scriptures.

But here we have a story about Lydia who appears to live independently of a father, brother, or husband.  And she manages her own affairs.  This is a big deal for the time – and Lydia became a big deal in the developing Christian community.  Luke tells us that Lydia was a business woman, a dealer in purple cloth which, in ancient times, was associated with royalty.  Her cloth was expensive, so Lydia’s customers were the elite class in Philippi.  Because of her success, she was the head of her own household, a rarity in that patriarchal society.  She must have been quite a woman!

This story takes place in Macedonia, in Greece, the gateway to Europe.  Luke calls Lydia a “God-worshipper” which means that, although she was a gentile, a non-Jew,                                 she was attracted to Judaism, but she was not yet ready to take the plunge and convert to Judaism.  She lives between the already and the not yet.

Lydia shows up here in this story in Acts because she has gone to the river where God-worshipping people like her went to pray on the Sabbath if they were not able to go to the synagogue. This is where Lydia meets the apostle Paul who has seen a vision that calls him to take the good news of Jesus Christ to Europe.  Paul’s extensive missionary journey begins here and takes off with the help of Lydia in this unexpected encounter. 

As Lydia and her companions are walking along the river, she overhears Paul preaching to the crowd, and she stops to listen. Imagine her holding up her hand, signaling to the women to pause.  Imagine her standing at the edge of a clearing or sitting down on a rock, leaning in to hear.  Why does she stop, take notice?  Lydia must be hungry for something, for meaning or purpose in her life, for a life beyond comfort and contacts, beyond purses and possessions.  Something is missing for her, unfulfilled, a holy longing in her soul. And so she stops to listen to this foreigner, a man who introduces a God different from any she has considered.    

Who could think such a thing – a God who reaches out to women like her.  A God who values the poor, the outcast, children, the least of these.  A God who speaks through ex-cons and immigrants, which is what Paul and his companions are, given that they have recently been in prison and are now in a foreign country.

Lydia is so taken with their testimony that she commits her life to this God.  She asks Paul to baptize her on the spot, an act signifying her conversion to this new Jewish sect which we now know as Christianity.  She is open to sharing faith with these strange men, here at the river – of all places. 

This is the good news Lydia has been waiting for – Jesus the Messiah’s message of love and justice for everyone, not just the upper crust with whom she is used to dealing.  She dives in, hook, line and sinker and puts everything she owns at Paul’s disposal urging them and his missionary group to stay at her home, changing her plans for the sake of the gospel – in spite of her busy life. 

That day at the river, Lydia found what she was looking for – and she seized the day.  But she had to go outside of her comfort zone to embrace it, and she had to involve everyone else in her household. Together, they became home base for Paul’s missionary journey.  It must not always have been pretty or without argument – or safe – for a single woman.  But because of her boldness and generosity, she becomes the “mother” of the church in Europe.  Without Lydia and her passion for Paul’s message, we wouldn’t be sitting here this morning.

There at the riverside, Lydia opened her heart and mind to the Spirit, and it changed not only her life but also the life of the world.  Lydia found the God who was finding her.[1]  This God, this God, is the same God who reaches out to you and me, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey.

May it be so!

Amen.


[1] Ronald Cole Turner, Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 2, page 474.

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Moosup Valley Congregational Church UCC

The Road Less Traveled

Acts 9:1-20

May 15, 2022

Saul was a bully. He had approved the stoning of Stephen, watched over the coats of the mob that killed him.  Stephen, an early Christian who had testified about Jesus of Nazareth before the religious authorities, insulting them, calling them “stiff-necked people” and “uncircumcised in heart and ears.”  Stephen is considered the first Christian martyr – and the persecution that followed terrified the Christians in Jerusalem, and they scattered across the countryside.

In the passage from Acts we heard this morning, Saul sets out after them, breathing threats and murder against the People of the Way, that is, members of the synagogues who were both Jews, that is, followers of the Law of Moses, and followers of the Way of Jesus.  He was hell-bent on hunting them down and wiping them out, young and eager to show what he could do, expecting to put an end to this heresy.  And he set off for Damascus with official papers in hand.

But God has a different idea.  While Saul was on the road, suddenly a light in the sky flashed around him, and he heard the voice of Jesus, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asks. So Jesus tells him to get up, go to Damascus, and wait for instructions.  So Saul gets up and dusts himself off and, when he opens his eyes, discovers he’s blind. 

God has a way of turning the tables.  Saul’s companions take his hand and lead him into Damascus, and for three days he cannot see and refuses food and drink. This is a fairly familiar Biblical story of the conversion of Saul – whom we later know as Paul. The change of name is important for it signifies a new identity. I have watched two transgendered friends over the past few years choose new names, a big deal. One of them told me recently how she wakes each morning, grateful to be alive, and to be able to be who she is, without having to hide any longer.

But Saul’s conversion is not the only conversion that takes place in Damascus. There’s another man that God has chosen for a holy errand:  This is Ananias, one of the disciples who had heard about this Saul and all the evil doings in Jerusalem.  Ananias has a vision that God calls him to go to Saul and to lay his hands on him so that Saul might regain his sight, Ananias is dubious, to say the least.  “You must be kidding, God!”  But God has a way of insisting:  “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.”  

So Ananias goes to the house where Saul is staying and lays his hands on him and tells him that Jesus has sent him so that he may regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. “And immediately,” scripture tells us, “something like scales fell from [Saul’s] eyes, and his sight was restored.”  Saul rises and was baptized, a new man.  He is changed from being one who is a witness againstthe followers of Jesus to becoming history’s most powerful witness for Jesus.  And Ananias, the one who was hiding from Saul, becomes the one who anoints him for his mission.

Two men are converted in this story.  You have heard me preach before about turning, about conversion.  In Hebrew, the word for “turn” is shub, meaning to turn back, to return.  In Greek, it is metanoia, meaning a turning around of 180 degrees, not just of the heart but also of the mind.  For both Saul and Ananias, they come to a fork in the road of life – and take the one less traveled. 

Saul’s conversion is dramatic. Writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote of Paul, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.”  The text doesn’t say Saul was riding a horse, but her point is well taken.  Not all of us need to be knocked off our horses – but we all could do with a conversion:  from our tendency to thinking we always are right and not listening to all sides of an issue; from seeking revenge instead of reconciliation with those who have hurt us or someone we love; from preoccupation with ourselves and our own success; from loving ourselves more than our neighbors when Jesus says we are to love our neighbor as [much as] we love ourselves.

We all are in need of a conversion.  Saul is turned from one who breathes threats and murder to one who proclaims the way of love.  Ananias is turned from one who holds back and hides out to one who steps forward to do what God needs to have done.  What are we waiting for?   Perhaps to be knocked off our horses!  But I’ll bet, if I were to ask you about your conversion stories, many of you would have them.  Perhaps not as dramatic as Saul’s, but you could point to a time when you felt the grace of God and something changed in your life. 

In yesterday’s New York Times, I read the story about a young man, Domingo Morales, who grew up in the projects, and his only goal in life was to live to be 18 in the rough neighborhoods where gangs ruled. His conversion came when he met a man who hired him to work for a nonprofit that taught young people about solar energy and gardening and other green jobs. And a kid who was afraid of germs fell in love with composting and learned how to turn table scraps all over NYC into vegetables while cutting methane emissions from landfills. Morales was named “New Yorker of the Week,” and turned his prize of $200,000 into compost and showed hard bitten New Yorkers how to grow a garden.

Perhaps your conversion came when you agreed to do something that was scary, or that you didn’t think you were qualified to do, or that interrupted your life in a way that made you uncomfortable – and afterwards, you realized that you had made the right choice. For me, the scary conversion was doing High Ropes at UM Camp Aldersgate up on Snake Hill Road – 40 feet in the air! I was in a seat harness and wearing a helmet, yes, but I was afraid I would die. After that I realized I could do anything!

God touches the lives of unlikely people like you and me to change the world.  We have all been on the wrong path; we have all been stubborn or afraid; we have all been closed-minded and racist; we have all been addicted to something that is not good for us – substances, too much work, insisting on perfection, you name it….   

And then there is this blinding light – or at least a gradual coming of the dawn.  We see the world differently.  God is at work in us.  Something changes our mind, our perspective, our behavior. Was it a friend’s persistent question?  Was it an illness that knocked you on your backside?  Or was it your soul’s restlessness that cried out in the middle of the night? 

One of those times for me was when the UCC Conference Minister asked me if I’d ever considered the ministry – something I’d been avoiding for 50 years. And here I am.  We think that our scriptures are archaic and have little to do with our lives, but in truth, we all are walking on the road to Damascus, and we all need to see the light.

What happens when we see the light?  We are converted, we are turned around, we turn toward the life for which God has made us.  Robert Frost says it this way, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Love grabbed Saul, turning him into Paul, and saving him from a life of hatred and violence. We can love each other like this.  May God’s light shine upon each of us and through us in the Mt. Vernon Larger Parish, and our little country congregations as we make choices for the future.

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Life-Giving Acts

Acts 9:36-43

May 8, 2022

What will people have to show of your love when you die?  Will they be hand-sewn quilts or afghans knitted for your children?  Or fishing flies that you tied with your grandson?  Or a beautiful poem or a scrapbook of family pictures? Maybe people will talk of the Concerts you worked on or how faithfully you maintained the webpage and the books, or how you built the stage. Or how you drove people to medical appointments.

Or perhaps what you will have to show for your love will be happy and successful children, a beautiful flower garden, a well-maintained church yard, or parents well-tended at the end of their lives.  Whatever it is, could be as big as an invention that saves lives – or as unassuming as a kind word or a smile or a helping hand.  What will people have to show of your love when you die?

In today’s scripture from the Book of Acts, Tabitha has died.  She was a church lady, one of those women who serve the church faithfully (and there are church men like that too) who are always there when you need them.  Tabitha, as she was known in Aramaic, was that kind of servant in the church in Joppa.  She was a widow who worked with other widows, a disciple when women weren’t given the honor of being called disciples.  

Yet she was known in the wider community, too, so the writer of Acts tells us that the Greek translation of her name is Dorcas.  A woman with two names, two cultures.  Tabitha / Dorcas, whose name means “gazelle,” was a seamstress, a strange name for a woman who sat and sewed.  Her hands must have flown over the fabric, a stitch here, a tuck there, to clothe her community.  For when she dies, the widows come with proof of her love in the garments she has made. We hear echoes of Matthew’s “When did we see you naked and give you something to wear?” in this story.

The Book of Acts, which records this story, is a strange little book, sandwiched as it is between the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and the letters from Paul and others that circulated in the early church.  My New Testament professor described it as a “romantic novella,” telling the stories of conversions and healings and early missionary activity.  In our secular day and age, we might think Acts quaint and magical. Acts comes to say that God is still working in the church and the world, in the lives of individuals and of society, to restore brokenness and bring wholeness.  God is still speaking – in your life and in mine. 

Tabitha’s community is devastated when she grows ill and dies – just like all of our congregations when we are wracked by illness and loss – whether we are in Joppa or in Foster.  We know, because we, too, have lost our saints, pillars of the church, and so Joppa sends for help. Peter is nearby in Lydda, and he comes at their bidding to restore Tabitha. The importance of the story is not in Tabitha’s healing, for apparently it’s not her time to die, but in the community of faith that cried together and prayed together and acted together.  Commentator Stephen Jones notes, “The emphasis of this text is not upon a return from death, but upon the community honing all of its spiritual strength and resources passionately on life and wholeness.”[1] 

The Tabitha story is interesting from another perspective, too:  Tabitha is worthy.  Nowhere else do we read in the Bible, in quite the same way, that someone deserved to be saved, and a woman at that!  Women’s lives had little value in that culture, just as they do in some cultures around the world today.  Women are born, they give birth, they serve, they die.  Our African friend Irene tells of her husband in Zimbabwe who kicked her out of her house with nothing.  “Go away.  I don’t need you anymore; I’ve found someone prettier, younger,”  he told her. But God’s value system is different from the world’s system, and this time, Tabitha is restored to her community – at least for a little longer.

On Mother’s Day we celebrate our mothers, as we should, but our observances tends to be sentimental – flowers and candy, cards and loving words, maybe a dinner out.  But our recognitions tend to stop at our front doors.  What about other mothers’ life-giving acts in the larger community?  How do they carry God’s love out into the world?  I think of this poem written by Chenjerai Hove:

If you stay in comfort too long

you will not know

the weight of a water pot

on the bald head of a village woman…

If you stay in comfort too long

you will not know the pain

of childbirth without a nurse in white…

You will forget

the unfeeling bare feet

gripping the warm soil turned by the plow

You will forget

the voice of the season talking to the oxen.

I think of Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi, a poor black women who picked cotton with her family at the age of six and grew up to be a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Because she was able to read and write, she was given the job of “time-keeper” in a sharecropper system designed to keep black workers in debt.  As an adult, she reached out to her neighbors to help them get ahead by starting a pig bank. She bred pigs and gave the piglets away so other families could breed them, a way out of poverty, a way out of hunger. 

She wanted her community to get ahead – which almost cost her her life. She was extorted, threatened, harassed, shot at, and assaulted by white supremacists and police while trying to register for and exercise her right to vote. But she lived and took her story all the way to Congress. She attended the National Democratic Convention in 1964 and later co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus to help women of all races who wish to seek election to government office. Fannie Lou Hamer was a mother of four children, but she also mothered the nation, took responsibility for its future.  But we don’t have to go that far away to know that some of our mothers mothered more than their own families. 

Pat’s mother was active in the larger church community, and I hear that Rose Hawes was “mother” to a lot of kids, not only Cheryl, Kathy, and Brenda.  Sonja often talks about her mother here at Moosup Valley.  My mother encouraged me to join Church Women United, and I learned a lot from those women on the national level. And think of Phyllis, Foster Grandparent in Robin’s class, who loved the children and whose family is still caring for them.

Without our mother’s examples, many of us wouldn’t be here today.  And some of our mothers are still making a difference.  Look at the way Martha and Evie “mothered” some of us.  I heard story after story at Evie’s memorial service at Summit Baptist Church. Most of the time, except for those who willingly put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of the greater community – like the mother who intercepted a bullet in the California synagogue a couple of years ago ago – we are not called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.

But the community of faith is called on through the ages to make life-giving acts central to its calling.  Few of us are called upon to die, but we all are called upon to care for each other – and for the least of these. This means collecting food for the hungry at Rice City’s Music Night, supplies for Ukrainians, and food for our families in Haiti, and, not too long ago, rushing to put a tourniquet around a severed limb in Boston. 

It means becoming knowledgeable about legislation that helps to lift people out of poverty, cleans up our environment, puts people to work.  It means thinking about our shut-ins, taking in a meal, providing transportation, working on church projects, raising money for Foster Social Services, sitting with a friend whose mother is dying.  It means acts of courage and kindness and love, acts to lift up the lowly, acts to serve the world.

Tabitha’s church gathered around her, weeping, vulnerable, hopeful, showing Peter what she meant to them – and celebrating her life.  What will people have to show of your love, or my love, when we die? 

May it be miracle enough! 

Amen.         


[1] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, page 431.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

John 21:1-19

May 1, 2022

Breakfast with Jesus

I read a piece by a retired English teacher in which he noted that “pandemics are like comets, they have long tails. We stand in their wakes and wonder years later why we are still shaking.” We know this, those of who have lost loved ones to Covid.  I find myself marking time “before the pandemic and after the pandemic,” the same way people in England talk about “before the War and after the War.”

And it has occurred to me this year, perhaps for the first time, the overwhelming PTSD that those at the cross must have felt.  Imagine the horror of it, the shame, the disappointment, the dreams dashed. We can only imagine how the disciples must have felt.  A triumphant entry into Jerusalem, followed by a night of betrayal and an armed arrest, their beloved leader tortured and killed, and then, gone missing from the tomb. 

Yes, he had appeared to them afterwards – to Mary in the garden outside the tomb, to the disciples – twice – in the locked room in Jerusalem and on the road to Damascus, according to the Gospels, but that was so confusing!  First sorrow and fear, then amazing appearances by One who claims to be – or acts like – Jesus, but how can that be?

Imagine how the disciples must have felt – because we, too, often feel overwhelmed by our lives: a doctor’s grim diagnosis on the other end of the phone, a spouse who walks out of a marriage, the boss who gives notice, violence in our families, crises in our world. 

The disciples had had a “resurrection experience,” a “mountain top” experience, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called it, but it was too much to sustain.  They needed the comfort of familiar things and so they go fishing. They need some time, some emotional space, to assimilate what they have experienced.  They need to get away from it all, so they go back to their ordinary lives.  

And even here, after working all night long, they have “come up empty.”  So often, we, too, come up empty.  Weary with working so hard for so little reward.  Longing for connection with something greater than ourselves.  Hungry for meaning in our lives.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says to the disciples.  “Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says to you and me. Imagine that, breakfast with Jesus! 

Where would you go?  To Rice City?  Shady Acres?  Probably.  Jesus doesn’t seem like a Country Club kind of guy.  He was always eating with tax collectors and sinners, engaging in conversation with women and other “least-of-these” kinds of people, inviting children up onto his lap.  Yup, it could well be Shady’s.  Might you spot him in the booth, or at a table by the window?

Would you know Jesus if he wandered into our Camp Fire?  He would bring his own kosher hotdog, share his potato chips with those around the circle, fill empty cups with his own special wine.  He’d be the guy in the plaid shirt with red suspenders and hiking boots for mucking out the stalls.  He’d be the one with the stories, with you and me, hanging on every word.

Or, maybe, you could invite him to your house for breakfast.  Jesus could bring the bagels and cream cheese.  You could put on the coffee pot.  Would you worry that your house wasn’t clean enough, dog hair all over the cushions?  Or not nice enough?  Big enough?  Somehow, I don’t think Jesus would care. “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” Jesus said. 

No, Jesus isn’t into material things.  Jesus is into you.  It is people he cares about:  the sick and the poor, the widows and orphans, the lame and the lonely, the discouraged and the broken.  Jesus is into the homeless man on the park bench, the mother and children at the Texas border, the family that can’t make enough money to afford a safe place to live, the children hunkering down in Ukraine. He is into the worshippers who are afraid when they go to church or synagogue or mosque to pray, into the students who listen for gunfire in their school. 

“Come and have breakfast.”  What would you talk about with Jesus?  Could you share your hopes and hurts?  Your fears and fragility?  Your dreams and disappointments? 

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.  

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow. 

Sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m down,

Nobody knows but Jesus,” sang Louie Armstrong.

Jesus has many gifts, but his greatest gift – the gift of the gospels – is compassion.  Loving and forgiving us – so we can love and forgive others.  It’s that simple – and that profound. 

Come and have breakfast with Jesus. 

He’s waiting for you.

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Breathed On Ones

John 20:19-31

April 24, 2022

It is still the first day of the week in today’s reading, still the Sunday we call Easter. At dawn, remember, Mary Magdalene, the lead disciple according to recent scholarship, had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body and found him gone.  She had summoned the disciples who confirmed what she already knew before they went back into hiding. But Mary’s grief held her at the tomb, and she was rewarded by meeting with Jesus himself. One of our favorite hymns, “I came to the garden alone,” celebrates Mary’s time with Jesus.

But now it is evening, and the disciples are gathered in a safe house.  And then, through locked doors, Jesus comes to them, too, and stands among them.  Imagine how afraid they must have been, thinking Jesus a ghost.  “Peace be with you,” he says, and proves, by his wounds, who he is.  Thomas, who was absent, doesn’t believe it, of course.  Would you?  Would any of us?  We can imagine Thomas’ thinking that his friends have had too much wine or that they have snapped under the stress of the past three days. 

There are a lot of unanswered questions in this passage:  For example, why don’t Mary and the disciples, in both of these occasions, recognize Jesus as soon as they see him?  Is his appearance altered in some way?  Is he there, but not there?  Their senses must be tricking them.  And then, a week later, Jesus returns and stands among them.  This time, Thomas is present and can see for himself; he can touch Jesus’ wounds.  “Seeing is believing,” it is said, but perhaps it is also, “Touching is believing.”  And for Mary, at the tomb, it was “Hearing is believing,” when Jesus spoke her name.

Second, another question:  Why does Jesus need to show them his wounds?  Do his wounds define him?  In the same way, do our wounds define us?  Perhaps we are known, at least in part, and shaped by our woundedness, by our suffering, by our life experience.  To be human is to suffer, just as Jesus suffered.  It is part of our lives:   We lose loved ones and livelihoods.  We suffer cancer and accidents.  We live with regrets and lost opportunities.

Also, think about Thomas:  He has been wearing a “doubter” chain around his neck for 2,000 years.  But all of the disciples, except for Mary Magdalene, are doubters.  Perhaps being a disciple means, at least in part, a readiness to doubt, to question, to get to the bottom of things that matter.  We have all been told that we must believe what we are told, in order to be considered faithful.  That we will believe by-and-by – a theological idea, for example, like the Virgin Birth, or a creed that was formulated in ages past, or a verse of scripture taken out of context.  There’s the story of a cranky old minister who once said to a girl in his confirmation class, “The church is no place for questions, young lady!”

Well, I disagree.  In the UCC, remember, we believe that “God is still speaking,” and so it is.  Keep in mind that Jesus did not ask for blind obedience of the disciples, only that they carry on his ministry, with the words, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  And then Jesus does something that gets lost in the text when we get caught up with too much “believing” and “doubting” and “proving.”  He breathes on them. 

Imagine being breathed on by Jesus.  What would his breath have smelled like?  Was there something of springtime in his breathe?  Of heaven, beyond ordinary experience?  Or would it still carry the hint of bread and wine that he shared with his followers in that upper room three days earlier?  Or the taste of gall that he had been given to drink on the cross?  The heavy odor of spices from his embalming?  Or perhaps the disciples smelled the fish and olives and bread they had shared in Galilee, in what must have seemed like a lifetime ago. 

A very real Jesus, a human Jesus, breathes something divine into his followers, and, by extension, into you and me:  He breathes the Holy Spirit, God’s divine presence, God’s never-ending love for all of God’s creation, into us.  Take a breath.  We receive that breath to give oxygen to our lungs and life to our flesh, but we are not allowed to keep it for ourselves.  Life comes as in the cycle of breathing in and breathing out. 

We can only hold our breath for so long, and then we must let it go.  In the same way, Jesus sends us out to carry his divine life-breathe, God’s Holy Spirit, into all the locked rooms of fear in our world, and to breathe out judgment and forgiveness and peace.  

Faithful discipleship is not measured by believing the right words as they have been handed down to us (although words are important).  This gospel, with its pressure to believe without real flesh and real breath has been used to fill us with fear, to make us feel guilty, to worry us about the extent of our faithfulness.  

Doubting is part of using all of our God-given gifts of intellect and experience and reason to create a faith that is our own, that rings true to us, that makes sense in the 21st century. 

Faithful discipleship, rather, is about doing:  breathing the love of God and Jesus’ resurrection breath into our own lives and then breathing it out into all the wounded people around us, breathing it in and then out into all the dead places in this troubled world of ours, breathing out that divine presence in the halls of government and on the battlefields of war, in our homes and schools and communities.

After meeting the resurrected Jesus and touching his damaged hands and the wounds in his side, Thomas is transformed.  Tradition has it that Thomas traveled beyond the limits of the Roman Empire, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ even as far away as southwest India.  I hear that there are a number of believers there in that part of India who call themselves “Christians of St. Thomas.”  And Thomas is the patron saint of architects because he built so many churches.  Not bad for a doubter, I say!

Close your eyes and take a breath.  We are the “breathed on ones.”  Imagine Jesus’ breathing the Holy Spirit into you.  Taste his breath; feel his wounds; see him beckoning you out into the world to preach good news to the poor, to heal the wounded, and to bring peace to the world.

May it be so! 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Unbinding Love

John 20:1-18

April 17, 2022

The end of a long week, and the beginning of the rest of their lives.  The political forces in Jerusalem had conspired to put an end to this trouble-maker from Nazareth.  And they have succeeded:  Jesus’ body buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.  His followers in hiding.  Pilgrims heading home.  The religious leaders have kept a lid on things.  Zealot uprisings averted for another year.  Pilate prepares his legions to go back to the coast. All’s well that ends well.  Jerusalem sighs with relief.

The Sabbath is over; the Galilean women who have been traveling with Jesus, are anxious to come to the tomb to anoint his body with spices, the custom after the death of a loved one – one last loving touch.  The gospels differ on how many women come.  In John’s account, Mary comes alone.  He was her best friend and she, his closest disciple – until the politics in the early church pushed her to the background, scorned her as a harlot. And so she comes, broken-hearted, to be near her beloved teacher, to stand at his tomb, to witness to love. 

Jesus had taught them a new way of being, of caring for one another, of serving the least and the lost.  They had had such hope.  How can they possibly go back to a life without him?  Just hours ago when they celebrated the Passover in that upper room, Jesus had talked about love, demonstrated his love for them by washing their feet, commanded them to love one another.  And now it is over.

Imagine her shock, her confusion, her disbelief, when she arrives at the tomb and finds the stone rolled away.  Has she gone to the wrong tomb?  Has his body been moved to another?  Even worse, stolen?  Does Peter know something she does not?  She runs to tell, the first witness to the empty tomb.  We can imagine her, breathless, heartsick, “Help me find him!”  Peter and Thomas come running.  They enter the tomb but find it empty – except for what Jesus has left behind:  The burial linen that had bound Jesus is laid there by itself, alongside the strips of cloth that had bound his head.  Grave robbers wouldn’t have taken the time to unwrap the body, surely.  What could have happened?  Indeed, what on earth has happened?  The disciples fail to understand, draw no conclusions, return home.  Jesus is not only dead – but now he also is gone.

We call this gospel story a resurrection story – except that it’s not a resurrection story at all, not yet!  It’s an empty tomb story.  How can this be?  William Jones in his imaginative poem titled, “Day One,” writes, of Jesus’ awakening:

                    wondering what next after this,

he woke to cave’s pierced-darkness

edged by light stone sought to block,

but could not this bright morning

loosing the wrappings death held close,

falling to floor he reaches his hand

un-bent, un-bleeding, into cool air

and, risking life, begins breathing

slowly it dawns it has been undone,

bruised yet healing from wounding

wondering what next after this,

he rises and eases through walls

clinging close the still-moist earth,

upending the plot tended by mourners

stumbling, tripping what they hadn’t sought,

newly un-dead, rooting deep seed

pulling himself up into the living,

harder than dying his hand gripping mine

dried blood and cooling the fever his brow,

he rises and eases through walls.[1]

How can we understand the resurrection?  Surely, not as science, as fact.  But what, then?

Perhaps we can understand it as an “unbinding…”.  The one who commands his followers to “love one another as I have loved you,” cannot be kept in the grave.  Love loosens the bindings and sets him free.  The symbolism of the grave cloths appears in the Easter gospels – but it’s not the only place where it appears.  Remember the story of the “unbinding” of Lazarus. It was love, was it not, that called Lazarus forth from the tomb?  And it was love that commanded the crowd, “Unbind him, let him go free.”

What if the mystics are right?  Can we conceive of love as the foundation of the universe?  Can we fathom love as the ground of our being?  That we are made for love, the ultimate reality?  I wonder if we are all so “bound up” that we are blind to the love that surrounds us, that we live in a darkness of our own making and can’t imagine a light to unbind us in that darkness. Surely, you and I are made for love and light – just as we are made to lead others to the love and light. 

When Jesus is asked by the Pharisees, “What is the greatest commandment?” he immediately draws on two commandments in the Torah, and makes them his own: You shall love the Lord your God….” from Deuteronomy (6:5), and then adds: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge . . . but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” from Leviticus (19:18).  He reiterates this in his last words to his disciples: “Love one another as I have loved you.”  This is the heart of the gospel.

We think the Easter story is an account of an event that happened on a hill far away, 2,000 years ago.  But Easter is a story about you and me, and rolling away the stones in our own lives, and loosening the guilt and grief and shame that bind us so that we can really live and love. Easter is a story about unbinding the strips of sorrow, peeling away the layers of anger, loosening the grip of fear, so that we can be free – free of addictions, free of destructive behaviors, free of negative attitudes – free of everything that binds us and walls us up in the tombs of our own making. It’s

easy to roll the stones in place, but it’s hard to roll them away.  We’re all in need of unbinding and resurrection. 

Jesus tells us that he has come that we may have life and have it abundantly.  And he demonstrates new life by example:  Imagine how he is wounded – the nails in his hands – the spear in his side . . ..   Imagine his disappointment in the religious establishment that has orchestrated his execution.  Imagine his loneliness when his disciples run and hide to save themselves.  Imagine his sorrow when Simon Peter denies him.  We all know what it is like to be ignored and misunderstood and betrayed.  It happens to all of us!  Yet, Jesus is fully human in a way that we are not:  He was able to be unbound.  He was able to embrace the dark side of temptation, the pain of rejection, the despair over what looked like failure, and rise above it. 

What does Jesus do in the face of adversity?  Does he stay locked in the tomb?  No!  He rises above tribulation, and suffering, and evil.  That’s what Easter is all about.  He, and all the love of heaven and earth, unbind the grave cloths and roll back the stone.  Jesus brings his woundedness out into the sunlight.  He acknowledges and accepts his hurt and, in so doing, is able to transform it and use it for good.  The mystics tell us that the way to become enlightened is not to dwell in the light but to carry the light into our own darkness.  “O, death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?”

What happened at the tomb?  We don’t know.  Had it been a struggle to work his way out of the grave cloths?  There is no videotape of a resurrection.  No public factual account.  No witnesses to the actual event.  Jesus is in the tomb one day – and gone the next.  Yet, he’s not gone, he’s everywhere.  His love is everywhere.  After the resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” “Look at my hands and feet; see that it is I, myself.  Touch me and see;…”   And they find him on the road to Emmaus and cooking for the disciples on the beach after they have gone back to fishing.

The real question is not did it happen?  Or how did it happen?  The better question is what does the empty tomb mean?  Is the resurrection a spectacular miracle, a demonstration of the power of God?  Is it proof that Jesus is God’s son?  A chance for Jesus to say, “I told you so?”  Is it the promise of an afterlife?  When we get hung up on the scientific facts – or the lack of them – we miss the meaning of the resurrection.  And the meaning is the same for us as it was for Jesus’ followers.  And this is the important part, the part that removes the distance between the first Easter and ours this morning.  For Jesus’ followers continued to experience Jesus in their lives.  They knew him in the present, not just in the past.  It was not their belief in the resurrection that changed their lives – but the real presence of the living Christ who lived in their midst. 

“Easter is God’s ‘yes’ to [love] and God’s ‘no’ to the powers that killed him.  Easter means “Jesus lives” and “Jesus is Lord of our lives,” just as we proclaim today[2] So the miracle of resurrection is this:  For resurrection we have been created. But first, we have to let love unbind us from the people and the things and the attitudes which we should let go of, from whatever we cling to that does not bring us life.  For most of us, it is a struggle to work our way out of the grave cloths.  But that’s what Easter is all about:  We are called to be God’s resurrection people!  Come, Lord Jesus, come….

May it be so! 

Amen.


[1] William B. Jones, “Day One” (Maren C. Tirabassi & Maria I. Tirabassi, eds., Before the Amen:  Creative Resources for Worship, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1989), 80-81.

[2] Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006) 274.

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Moosup Valley Church, UCC

Spellbound

Luke 19:28-4

April 10, 2022

As the procession grew closer, people could see the dust kicked up several miles away. Watchers could hear marching feet, the beat of drums, the creak of leather harnesses, the glint of sun on golden eagles and sabers. Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, was riding in from the west, from his garrison on the coast, heading a column of cavalry and soldiers.

It was Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year.  Pilate rode in like this every year at this time, as did all the governors before him, to keep the peace.  They knew these Jews, celebrating liberation from an earlier empire, the Exodus from Egypt, were likely to cause trouble.  Some who watched were curious, spellbound by this show of imperial power; others were resentful, surly, fearful. 

At the same time, another procession was coming into the city from the east; this was a peasant procession which was making its way down from the Mount of Olives.  A lone figure sat on a donkey, and as he passed, watchers spread out their cloaks and laid down palm branches in his path, singing the words of Psalm 118, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

It was the spring of the year 30.  Jesus of Nazareth, from Galilee about 100 miles to the north, had pre-arranged this counter-procession, even down to the colt of a donkey he was to ride.  He comes to fulfill the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey,…”


This crowd is enthusiastic, wild with joy!  Spellbound….  Some Pharisees in the throng call out to Jesus, “Order your disciples to stop!”  Are they embarrassed by all this emotion?  Do they resent that Jesus identifies himself with the Messiah?  Are they afraid Rome will see all this commotion and, fearing an insurrection, retaliate?  Probably all of these! Jesus retorts, “I tell you, if these [people] were silent, the stones would shout out.”

To understand what is happening on Palm Sunday, we must understand the significance of the City of Jerusalem, this city of the prophets, the city over which Jesus cried and wished he could gather them in like a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings.  Jerusalem had been the capitol of Israel for 1,000 years.  King David and his son Solomon had reigned from the city during the greatest period in Israelite history.  Particularly under David, it was an era of power and glory, tempered by goodness and justice.  It was a golden time, etched in people’s memory.

But by Jesus’ day, Jerusalem has become the seat of political oppression.  The religious leaders in the temple have colluded with the Roman occupiers to preserve their own position of wealth and power.  Peasants have lost their ancestral land and are taxed heavily to support Rome. The elite live in luxury; the poor are hungry. 

The pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem to observe the Passover yearn for the Jerusalem of memory, for justice and peace, for God’s restoration.  Even now, as our friends and neighbors prepare to sit down to their Seder meals later this week, they will recite the hope, “Next year in Jerusalem” (which is not the same as saying, “Next year in Florida.”)

Into this city, then, the City of David, come two processions, two parades – one from the west representing the power of empire; one from the east representing the power of God. The question then and now, for all of us, is – in which parade are we marching?  Church and state have often colluded, over land and property, over ideology and special interests: the Crusades in France; the Inquisition in Spain; the church’s going along with Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and gays in Germany; even our witch hunts in Massachusetts.  We see it happening today in our so-called “culture wars” and the tension between church and state in today’s issues.

So, two parades; the parade of empire and the parade of justice. Which one are we marching in? How do we even know? These days with our global economy, it’s difficult to tell.  When I was serving Edgewood Congregational Church 13 years ago, one of our members who was vacationing out-of-state had fallen and broken her wrist.  I telephoned her in Florida to see how she was managing. She told me that her splint was designed in England, made in China, packaged in Mexico, and distributed from California. When we purchase a shirt made in Guatemala, or a computer with parts made in Malaysia, do we know if workers were exploited, oppressed?  When we buy a chocolate Easter bunny, do we know if child labor was involved? It’s difficult to tell.  Maybe we don’t even want to know….

Some countries, today, still mirror the oppression of Jesus’ day:  you know who they are….  How can the world respond?  It’s difficult to make a difference.  We are tied together by trade and dependent on each other – as we see with Russian oil and gas. We’re all over a barrel, so to speak.

It’s at such a time that the moral leadership of the church is called for, not to bow down to political ambitions. More than 100 religious leaders in the U.S. joined together in March to urge the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, to speak up as Russian bombs rained down on hospitals, schools, desperate families and vulnerable children. As the world watched in horror, they wrote,

          “With broken hearts,” they said to Patriarch Kirill, “we are making an earnest plea

that you use your voice and profound influence to call for an end to the hostilities and

war in Ukraine and intervene with authorities in your nation to do so.”

Pope Francis reminded him: “The church must not use the language of politics but the language of Jesus.” We would not have had a Civil Rights Movement in this country if it were not for the moral leadership of the Black church. And our own Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this when he said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”

Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, asks of religious leaders, “Are we bedfellows, court chaplains or prophets?” On this Sunday, that we now call Palm Sunday, we’re called to exercise our prophet-hood, and to celebrate the One who stood up to power, knowing the great risk it involved.  Jesus invites us to reject the parade and the peace that is kept by those who sweep in on chariots, with swords ready to maintain power and control for their own benefit. And to choose instead his parade, led by one who comes alone and vulnerable and who brings the peace of healing and hope – aid workers building clinics and schools in villages, churches digging wells in villages in Ghana; people like us collecting rice and beans to fill a barrel for hungry children in Haiti.    

“Order your disciples to stop!”  Jesus protests, “The very stones will cry out….”  The truth is too good to be silenced.  If these disciples fall away, God will raise up others – Gandhi, King, Mandela, Zelensky….  And us?

What parade are we marching in?  It’s difficult to know for sure:  We live in a complicated world.  We can be spellbound by pomp and circumstance, lulled by smooth talk, blindsided by prejudice.  It’s hard to know what is going on and what parade we’re marching in, isn’t it? The world is a complicated place!

Today, I’m feeling like the donkey that Jesus rode and that poet Mary Oliver writes about:

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
   leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
   clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.

And us?  For those of us who pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth,..” there is nothing to do but to call out, “Blessed is he who comes….” and to wave our palms and to lay down our priorities and to sing not only for the peace of power and glory, but also for the peace of goodness and justice!

Hosanna!  Save us!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

The Ache of Love

John 12:1-8

April 7, 2019

There are few stories in the gospels that are more beautiful than this one:  Jesus’ coming to the home of his beloved friends, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, perhaps for comfort, perhaps to say goodbye, and perhaps because Bethany is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the cross. 

We can only imagine the atmosphere. 

Surely everyone knows that Jesus is in danger.  In the previous chapter of John’s gospel, days earlier, he had raised Lazarus from the tomb, an outrageous demonstration of his power.  So it is that Jesus’ love for this family, these friends, has aroused and intimidated the powers-that-be in Jerusalem.  Lazarus is the last straw.  The Jewish leaders call a meeting of the Council.  High priest, Caiaphas, leads the plot to kill Jesus.

In this week’s story, in this visit to Bethany, Judas is there and perhaps other disciples, too.  The family is giving a dinner for Jesus, probably inviting friends and neighbors; Lazarus is sitting at table, though the text doesn’t tell us how ragged he may be after three days dead. And Martha, as usual, is serving. 

During the meal, Mary takes “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard” and anoints Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair.  It was common in those days to anoint the head of a guest as a sign of respect, but in those cases only a few drops of oil normally would be used.  But to lavish the oil the way Mary did, was the kind of sacred anointing usually reserved for designating someone as a king or priest – marking that person for divine service.

Judas is outraged by her extravagance and says, “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?”  Three hundred denarii was a lot of money, perhaps an entire year’s wages; it might have done a lot of good.  Where could Mary have gotten it?  And why?  What had she been planning?  Perhaps it had been purchased for her brother’s anointing after his death – or for Jesus’ anointing after the crucifixion, if they suspected that’s what was coming. But Judas thought Mary’s act wildly extravagant – and wasteful.

Jesus comes to her defense, speaking sharply. “Leave her alone.  She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”  Surely by then, if he continues to Jerusalem, Jesus knows he’s a “dead man walking.”  What must Mary’s anointing have meant to him?  A bit of tenderness?  A chance to receive a loving touch?  A confirmation of his ministry and mission?  The fragrance of perfume to remember when the only stink he will have soon enough is the smell of blood?

He loved Mary; and she, in turn, is loving him in the only way she can – with an outrageously extravagant act.  Would that we be so comfortable reaching out, touching, going out of our way, making time, saying “I love you,” with those who matter. We don’t know what Mary is thinking, and why she is doing what she does.  Why the rush to use her precious oil while he is still alive?  Perhaps she anoints his feet – not for burial, but for his short, resolute walk toward death.

Perhaps Mary had bought the oil for her brother Lazarus, and then never had a chance to use it.  This time she is hesitant to wait.  What do we do when the time grows short?  Writer Annie Dillard offers this advice to other writers: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place … give it, give it all, give it now.”

This is good advice for life, to be present to what each moment requires.  And this moment requires of Mary a reckless act of beauty.  We only witness, through the gospel, her non-verbal act of love.  She is a disciple, not by what she says, but by what she does.

In an article in The Christian Century, the Reverend MaryAnn McKibben Dana tells the story of a man who, on his 70th birthday, was presented with letters of appreciation from his friends, colleagues, and loved ones.  His wife bound them into a book, all 100 of them.  Sometime later, when he was asked what was in the letters, he paused and got tears in his eyes.  “I’ve never been able to bring myself to read them,” he said.  It was too much love; he couldn’t bear it.

The anointing at Bethany is Mary’s “letter,” written in the fragrance of death.  Jesus reads her meaning loud and clear.  And we can hear the ache of love in her act of anointing.  And we know it as our own – from worrying ourselves sick over our children, even grown ones, when we’ve hugged a brother or son or daughter off to war, while we watch a once vibrant spouse die in pain, as we’ve anguished over loving someone we’re not supposed to love.  We know about loving and anguish and grief – and helplessness.

And Judas.  Who is this Judas?  He is you and me, when we criticize, when we are too practical, when we are lost, when we are too wrapped up in ourselves, when we operate out of a mentality of scarcity rather than abundance. And who is this Mary?  She also is you and me when we cannot be generous enough, when we cannot find an adequate way to express our gratitude, when we long for a different outcome, when we cannot say a word in our own defense, when our world is collapsing in front of our eyes, when our sorrow is almost more than we can bear. It is for both of them – and for all of us – that Jesus is going up to Jerusalem, a place of treachery and betrayal, to make a gift of himself for the world, as an extravagant act of compassion to make all things new. 

We think of Lent as a time of self-reflection and atonement, a time to prepare ourselves for betrayal and terror and death.  But Lent is also a time, as this Gospel reminds us, to take the time to grieve beloved ones wrenched from us, to acknowledge the ache of love, and to act without delay – because life is too short and the world, too treacherous! Perhaps the anointing gives Jesus the courage he needs, and Mary, the strength to face what she must face. Strength we need as well. 

May it be so! 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Congregational Church UCC

Lost and Found

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

March 27, 2022

The writer of the Gospel of Luke is fond of “lost and found” stories.  In this chapter alone, we have three – the story about the shepherd who has 99 sheep safely in the pen and goes to find the lost sheep; the story about the woman who sweeps her house until she finds the lost coin; and, our lesson for today, the story of the son, called prodigal, squanderer, because he recklessly spent his inheritance.  To the family, he is the lost son. Jesus tells these stories in the context of a lot of whining, by the Pharisees and scribes, who complain that Jesus spends too much time with sinners – and, furthermore, that the sinners are enthralled by him, likely why these religious leaders are “bent out of shape.” 

So Luke is making the point that Jesus has come for the lost, just as he declared in the synagogue in Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry, when he opened the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, … to bring good news to the poor…  release to the captives, . . . sight to the blind, . . . freedom to the oppressed….”  

In the first two stories it’s clear what is lost and found – a sheep and a coin.  God is like a shepherd who looks for us when we are lost, even us, and God is like a woman who turns her house upside down until she finds what she has lost.  On the surface, we can assume, then, the prodigal son story is about God who loves us and welcomes us home, no matter what.  And it is – but there’s more to it than that.

You heard the text:  Tell me if it doesn’t feel like a dysfunctional family case study, and as family therapists tell us, “dysfunctional family” is an oxymoron – all families are dysfunctional.  It’s only a matter of degree.  So, in the case of this biblical family, what was lost — and what was found?  Clearly the prodigal son loses his innocence and his arrogance.  What about the others?

There are four family members in this story, three who speak and one who is silent:  the young son, the older brother, the father – and the mother.  Where was she?  What was her role in all this?  Usually, we look only at the boy who squanders his inheritance and the father who welcomes him home.  Today, let’s look at everyone.  For which role would you try out?   Which part are you going to play?  Maybe there’s a little of all of them in all of us….

First, the prodigal.  He’s young, full of himself.  It’s all about him and what he wants.  So what, if the ancestral land he is to inherit is sacred land, passed down through generations as God’s gift to his family.  So what, if he is shaming his father by asking him to sell land in this land-based economy, and fork over the proceeds.  So what, if he is diminishing the entire family.  It’s all about greed – and I want it now:  He must have been a teenager, the “me” generation.  The world is his oyster, and it revolves around him.  We know about teenagers – we were teenagers and we, many of us, have raised teenagers.  And we all know adults who are still stuck at 15, adults in age only.

So this boy packs up his things and goes off to find his fortune.  It’s the stuff of fairy tales.  But life in the real world is difficult.  He squanders everything he has on wild living, and when his money runs out, and he goes to look for a job, the economy in this far country has been hit by famine and is in recession.  The only work he can find is working for gentiles, on a pig farm, no less, and he a Jew!  This is insult added to injury! 

He comes to his senses, the text says; that is, he grows up.  And he realizes what he has lost, that he is lost, he sees himself for who he is, and he wonders if it is too late to make amends, to have some kind of reconciliation with the father he has shamed.

Then, the older brother, all this time, the dutiful son.  He was the first-born with all the responsibility that first-born children carry.  Many of us are the oldest children in our families and take leadership seriously.  It’s all about the job, taking charge, and holding the family together.  I wonder what it was like for him to watch his younger brother growing up.  Was he pushed aside when the new son was born?  Was he jealous?  Did he resent that his brother was pampered?  Got away with things that he had not been allowed to do?  Perhaps he was secretly glad when his brother left:  good riddance!  Maybe he even had seeded the idea, led him on, encouraged him.  In his heart of hearts, however, I wonder if he felt guilty. 

And now the brat has come home, looking like he’s been living in a pig sty!  Mixed emotions.  Jealously that his younger brother has gotten to do all the things they had dreamed about together, lying in the hayloft on warm nights.  How come he gets to screw up – and then come home to a royal welcome? 

But perhaps he also feels relief that his little brother is safe?  I wonder if he can admit that he colluded in this, that he bears some of the blame for his brother’s leaving, that he’s not so innocent after all.     Almost forty years later, I still look at my former husband, should I run into him, and wonder what blame I share for our divorce.  People have confessed to me, “I regret that I slapped my kid.”  “I regret that I cheated on my spouse.”  “I regret that I stole the money.”  I regret, …”  No one of us is squeaky clean….  

But his father, the head of the family, to carry on like this?  Life really is not fair…!  He has worked night and day on the farm, year after year, being the “good” son, doing what was expected, honoring his father, supporting the family.  Lots of us are like the older brother – miffed that someone else is successful, resenting it, in fact.  Life is a contest, and we’re out to win! 

And the silent one:  Where is the mother?  There’s always a mother.  Was she in the women’s quarters?  Relegated to the kitchen?  Did she miss her youngest son?  Long for his return?  Perhaps she treasured a dove that he had carved for her when he was 10, a crudely shaped thing he had made for her with love.  She would take it out when she was alone, to caress the memory of him as a little boy, bright-eyed, excited with generosity.  If she had seen him coming, would she have hiked up her skirts and gone running down the dusty road to embrace him?  Had she dreamed of such a possibility, lying awake in the night?

Or perhaps she – a beloved wife – had died in childbirth, bringing this new baby boy into the world.  Maybe that’s why the father coddled him, was so generous with him – instead of disowning him.  After all, he had his mother’s eyes, and he would give his kingdom to have her back!

Where is the mother?  In his painting, Return of the Prodigal Son, Dutch master Rembrandt, painting in the 17th century, shows a young man kneeling at the feet of his father, old and heavily bearded, bending over him.  His hands are splayed on the boy’s back, pulling him toward him.  If you were to look closely, you would notice that one of the hands is a man’s hand, and the other, a woman’s hand.  Rembrandt had great empathy for the human condition, and was known as one of the great prophets of civilization.  Rembrandt understood that the love of God can be understood as a father’s love –         but also as a mother’s love for her child.  Remember Jesus’ parable of the woman who sweeps until she finds us?  God is like that….

Finally, let’s look at the father – who is, for all intents and purposes – a prodigal himself, because he is extravagant in his love.  He has been robbed of the land he has tilled all the years of his life, shamed by a son who forsakes him for loose living, left in his old age without the comfort of the child of his heart and precious grandchildren on whom he might dote.

Yet, he, too, squanders his love lavishly on the son, giving out of his abundance everything he has for this lost one who has returned home.   “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost and now am found,…”  Who deserves the father’s lavish banquet?  Not the young son who has been blind but now sees….  Not his self-righteous older brother who resents the extravagance….

You see, Jesus’ story is not about right and wrong; it’s not about what’s fair and what’s not fair; it’s not about human standards and conventions.   It is about love:  And in God’s world, mercy trumps justice; forgiveness trumps sinfulness; the extravagant love of God trumps all expectations.  We humans “dumb” God down to our own narrow-mindedness and selfishness.  In the hymn, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” one stanzas often 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 – a shepherd who searches through the dark until he finds us, a housewife who sweeps herself frantic until she finds us, a father and mother who forgive us and long to bring us home, with a love that we cannot begin to comprehend and that multiplies with each new one found. 

Whoever we are and wherever we are on life’s journey – Pharisees, scribes, tax collectors, fishermen, innkeepers, brick-makers, soldiers, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, God is calling us home during this Lenten season and all seasons. 

And our spendthrift, prodigal God will throw a lavish party for us, and hire the best caterers, and bring out the best California wines, and bring in Susan Boyle and Bruce Springsteen, and invite all the neighbors and the street people and the people behind bars, and the people in barrooms and drug dens and mental hospitals, and the elderly who live alone, and our children who are unable to live alone, and our wounded veterans who need to learn how to live again.

There will be feasting and music and dancing, and when the wine runs out, there will be more, enough for everyone.

May it be so!

Amen. 

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Moosup Valley Church

Thirsting….

Isaiah 55:1-9

March 20, 2022

When was the last time you were really thirsty?  Really thirsty?  Often, when I’ve been busy all day, I forget to take time to eat or drink anything and then, at bedtime, I’m so thirsty!  

When I am that thirsty, I remember the story my friend Irene told me about her trip back to her country, Zimbabwe, in Africa, several years ago to see her mother before she died.  She watched thirsty people in her village stop at a puddle and gather up dirty water in their hands.  And I remember the people in Flint, Michigan, waiting for the truck to bring bottled water when they are thirsty.  Safe, clean water is getting to be more and more of a problem around the world, including in the US. And think of our sisters and brothers in Ukraine, thirsty for water!  Thirsty for freedom! Thirsty for peace!

When was the last time you were really thirsty?  When you were working in your yard last summer?  When you were hiking in the mountains?  When you donated blood and couldn’t seem to get enough to drink for long afterwards? 

Are you thirsty?  Are you hungry?  Isaiah is addressing his people in Exile who have been hungry and thirsty in captivity in Babylon but who now contemplate returning to their homeland.  But Isaiah is talking about more than bread and water.  Are you trapped by circumstances?  Are your finances dried up?  Are you lost and lonely and afraid?  Are you thirsting for life to return to normal after Covid, or for something out of reach – an unrequited love, perhaps, or the face of a beloved parent, child, or spouse long since gone?

Isaiah addresses a conquered people – in exile, struggling.  “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;…” all those who are hungry but without money, come and buy and eat.  Isaiah holds out a new life and a different reality with a series of imperatives: “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,…”  See! And seek!  And forsake!  And return! 

At the same time, Isaiah chastises his people for wasting their resources and striving for things that have no benefit:  “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”  Isaiah spreads out God’s banquet and issues an open invitation:  “Come, everyone who thirsts….”  Isaiah presents a God who loves us in the flesh:  a God who knows we have bodies that need water and bread and touching, a God who uses our physical eyes and ears to draw us to Godself, a God who uses our brains and hearts to build a lasting covenant with us.

Too much of Christian thought neglects the body and concentrates on our spiritual selves, as if they are disconnected from our flesh and blood. Picture us all in a swimming pool together, bathing caps of different colors bobbing around in the water, heads without bodies, faith without substance. 

Isaiah connects us – body, mind and soul. God wants all of us – no matter how young or old, no matter how fat or skinny, no matter how sexy or uptight.  In the Genesis creation story, God looks at all of creation, including us, and pronounces it very good.  God loves us in the flesh. Ho, everyone who thirsts – that would be you and me, and everyone – … come to the waters;…”  Note that the way we experience God is in our body-ness. We take in the nourishment that God gives as we take in water through our mouths.  

I love the concrete earthiness of Isaiah.  But there is a challenge here, too:  How do we use our bodies and minds?  Do we use them to build a relationship with God?  Isaiah urges, “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.” We have sought after drink that does not quench our thirst, bread that does not satisfy our hunger, material goods that do not bring us fulfillment.  We thirst after reputation and money and status in the marketplace.  We despoil the earth’s body and use more than our share of the world’s resources.  We are disconnected from each other.  Isaiah says, “We spend our money for that which is not bread, and our labor for that which does not satisfy.”

But God does not give up: God speaks to us through the Word become flesh to dwell among us – Jesus of Nazareth – in the body of a human one who ate and drank and slept, who listened and taught and wept, who laughed and loved and walked the earth.  God speaks “body” language; this is why God sent Jesus to us, someone who offered living water to the Samaritan woman at the well, and the bread of his own body that satisfies, someone who would show us through his life how our lives should be lived and cared for.

Spiritual dryness can become a chronic condition, and on this third Sunday in Lent, Isaiah calls to us with a “Ho!”  And a reminder to come to the “living water” and drink deeply on a regular basis.  It is during Lent that we recognize that we, too, are living in Exile in our time, that we are estranged from our own best selves and the God who made us. 

Poet Mary Oliver, in her book Thirst, writes of “Coming to God” and how difficult that is for her:

“Lord, what shall I do that I can’t quiet myself?   . . .

“To enter the language of transformation! 

To learn the importance of stillness,

with one’s hands folded!  . . .

            “Lord, I would run for you, loving the miles for your sake.

            I would climb the highest tree

to be that much closer.

            “Lord, I will learn also to kneel down

into the world of the invisible,  

the inscrutable and the everlasting. 

Then I will move no more than the leaves of a tree

on a day of no wind,

bathed in light,

like the wanderer who has come home at last

and kneels in peace, done with all unnecessary things;

every motion, even words.”[1]

It is during Lent that we are reminded that regular and sustained disciplines of prayer, quiet times and engagement with God’s word will also sustain the thirsty soul. God invites us, through the prophet Isaiah as to the people of Judah, to come and drink deeply and be refreshed.

May it be so! 

Amen.


[1] Mary Oliver.   Thirst.  Boston:  Beacon Press, 2006, p.23.

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Moosup Valley Church, UCC

The Fox and the Hen

Luke 13:31-35

March 13, 2022

We first heard his name at Christmas. Herod, the father, had been appointed King of the Jews by the Romans. He was a brutal ruler who terrorized the nation.  You would remember him, Herod the Great, as the one who ordered all baby boys to be killed following the visit of the Magi, to make sure no boy would grow up to threaten his seat on the throne, the reason why Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, as Matthew tells it.  And 30 years later, it’s his son – Herod Antipas – who beheads John the Baptist over a promise at a party.  Jesus is well aware of this Herod, known by the people as the “fox.”  He’s a petty tyrant, rich, cruel, paranoid.  Herod will stop at nothing to maintain his status, power and control. It’s always politics, isn’t it? 

We are not immune from politics, 2000 years later.  We’re more embroiled in political battles now than ever! Over the right to vote, over the right to carry guns, over who can enter the country and who cannot, over who decides what can be taught in the schools. And now the U.S. and Europe are dancing dangerously around Putin and trying to stop the invasion of the Ukraine without triggering a nuclear war with Russia.  Russia’s official position is that we started it, and says that any other news is fake news. It’s always politics, isn’t it! Whom to believe?

Jesus was as astute as anyone, as politically savvy as the next prophet.  He was not the timid, self-effacing, meek and mild Savior that some, who have not read the Gospels carefully, would have us think. He was prone to saying such things as, “Indeed [when the kingdom of God arrives in its fullness], some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:30).  Jesus was always turning the social order upside down, upsetting the political applecart.

No sooner had Jesus uttered these words, than some Pharisees show up.  Luke, too, you see, is political about how he pieces together the Jesus story to make his point. The Pharisees have come to warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him, no surprise….  Jesus had been traveling through one town and village after another, teaching and healing, working his way toward Jerusalem, toward the seat of power; clearly he has captured the imagination of the people, and Herod is threatened.

But what of these Pharisees?  Weren’t they working hand in glove with Herod, concerned for their own position among the elite?  Now it sounds as it they are Jesus’ friends, coming to warn him….  Or is this just more politics?  Perhaps, they think, if they drive him out of Herod’s jurisdiction, toward Jerusalem, Pilate will have to deal with Jesus.  Herod and the religious establishment will be off the hook.

Jesus is not fooled.  “Go and tell that fox for me ….”  For three years, Jesus has been presenting a counter-cultural reality of the world, one in which demons are cast out, people are cured, the poor are cared for, the vision of Isaiah is fulfilled.  Jesus is on a mission that will take him to the very seats of power, and he will not be diverted from this mission, foxes or no foxes.

Jerusalem and Washington, Baghdad and Tel Aviv, Port-au-Prince and Kabul, Moscow and Kyev,     and all the capitals of this world, where dreams of a more just world go to die – watch out!  Jesus is on his way, and he will not be diverted.  I can imagine Jesus’ lamenting over Washington, our broken government where there is no longer any middle ground. 

We voters are part of the problem when we want balanced budgets but no tax increases or cuts to programs that benefit us; a stop to importing Russian oil and gas without a price increase at the pump, a better health-care system without any threatening change.  Security has become our new idolatry, so we lead timid lives. We allow evil to trump the pursuit of good. What would it take for our leaders sit down together, put aside politics, ambition, and foxy maneuvering, take the hard stands, develop a coherent and courageous policy, and find middle ground that will serve the people?  

I can imagine Jesus’ lamenting over Jerusalem – and over Washington.  I can imagine Jesus seeing our Congress – and leaders in London and Paris, Buenos Aires and Mexico City, and in capitols all over the world – not as the imperial masters they think they are – but as frightened barnyard chicks in a storm.  Jesus might have responded to the fox with hate or rage or vindictiveness.  But he does the unexpected:  He remembers the barnyards in his village of Nazareth, the way the mother hen responds to danger.  And Jesus responds with a lament – and with love.  He offers a strong and tender word of both challenge and promise.  “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Jesus “broods” in the same way that God brooded over the waters of creation in the Genesis story, the way the Spirit of God fluttered – feminine in Hebrew – over the face of the deep on the first day of creation.  In Jesus, there will be a new creation. Jesus sees these barnyard chicks – the Herods and the Pharisees and all the masters of this world – even us – lost in the storms of our own political machinations, our own hunger for power, our own greed and self-interest, for what it is:  fear, insecurity, neediness, weakness, vulnerability.

God loves us, even when we fail, and seeks to draw us close under feathered wings. God loves us and will not stop loving us, ever, no matter who we are and how broken we are.  Jesus’ lament would be good news to the fox and to his cohorts, good news of peace and justice and love, if they understood that they, too, are called by God whose passion is to draw them close under her protective wings.

Can we trust the hen who is on her way to Jerusalem – to challenge the fox and his den of thieves?  Can we trust Jesus who will lose his life because of politics?  Can we use this Lent to consider how to restore the world to God’s original creation?   Can we tame the bit of fox in each of us?

May it be so!  Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Wilderness Companions

Luke 4:1-13

March 6, 2022

The first Sunday in Lent begins our 40 days of discernment, as we find Jesus at the beginning of his 40 days of discernment – a time for sorting out the meaning of his visionary experience and uncovering God’s call upon his life.  We remember the story of his baptism in the Jordan River by his cousin John.  After Jesus comes up out of the water and is praying, the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove and a voice comes from heaven “You are my son, my Beloved.” 

We can imagine that he has come out here into the wilderness to discern what these things mean for him and his ministry, to face his own demons and doubts, to examine his commitment to God and God’s call on his life. 

Like so much of scripture, the passage is filled with symbolism.  What does it mean for us?  First we might look at Jesus in the wilderness and ask, in what ways do we experience the wilderness in our own lives?  I look out at this congregation and the people in the Valley and across Rhode Island and the country, and I see the wilderness of economic uncertainty, of war in Europe and, hopefully not here, the wilderness of family estrangement and conflict and pain, the wilderness of untimely death, the wilderness of alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness.

And it’s not just us. We can’t miss the wilderness that is the rise of autocracies in the world and the move away from truth in our own country, refugees fleeing for their lives, natural disasters exacerbated by climate change and crumbling infrastructure in our cities.  And we can’t miss the wilderness that is civil unrest and polarization that divides families and neighbors. We, too, experience the wilderness of our common life.

Then, too, we might look at the meaning of the temptations.  Much is made of them, even by people who have no idea where the quote came from!  How often have we echoed Jesus’ retort to the devil, “One does not live by bread alone!”  What do you think of these three challenges posed to Jesus?  Some scholars say they are a review of Israel’s history and fall from grace. Others, that they confront our own human situation and our tendency to act for our own selfish gain.

But look at the temptations:  On the surface, the devil challenges Jesus to do good things,      to take actions that will serve his own people – which Jesus chooses not to do.  Why, do you suppose?  In the first temptation, for Jesus to turn stones into bread would have been a blessing to hungry people, and people under Roman occupation were certainly hungry and in need of bread. 

In the second, for Jesus to have power and authority over all the nations of the world would have made it possible for him to overthrow the Romans and rule with justice, a blessing for conquered people. And wasn’t that what the prophets were calling for all along?  Remember, Jesus had just read from the Prophet Isaiah in his hometown synagogue a few days before:               “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives ….”  Why not seize the day?

And in the third temptation, for Jesus to go to the temple in Jerusalem where supposedly the most righteous – the priests – were in charge and to test it would certainly have been called for. 

The religious hierarchy was working hand in glove with the Roman governor and elite to collude in the repression of the poor. Jesus could have brought needed reform to the religious institution.

But Jesus rejects these options, at least during his wilderness adventure. Later, though, he does them all:  He feeds the 5,000.  He preaches righteous thinking and acting. He whips the money changers right out of the temple and confronts the religious leaders.

So, what is going on?  What are we to learn from Jesus in our own wilderness journeys? 

On the surface, it might be about saying “No” to worldly things in order to say “Yes” to God –              which is confusing because the temptations that Jesus rejects are things that, at another time and in another place, he would embrace as a way of saying “Yes” to God.  Or, perhaps, evil is masquerading as good:  We see that, for example, when hatred and fear of gays are disguised in the language of so called “family values,” and pressure to save marriage denies it to those who don’t fit the stereotype.

But these are easy answers – and they may not be the right ones.  Let’s take another look:  Jesus is facing the temptation to be a hero, to be great in his own eyes as well as in the eyes of the world, to save people through his own personal power.  Wouldn’t we all like to be a hero? 

If you are a teacher, wouldn’t you like to turn around the children in your classroom through your own loving perseverance and attention?  If you are a health care worker, wouldn’t you like to save the next victim of a stabbing or an auto accident – or someone suffering from cancer –through your own quick action or medical judgment?  Wouldn’t I like to preach a sermon      that would solve all the theological problems of this congregation and make your lives better?  Of course!

But then, it’s all about us –and not about God!  It’s all about our success and not about God’s presence in the world, acting through us.  It’s about our egos and not about divine mystery.                                   To use a beloved hymn, the chorus becomes not, “How Great Thou Art,” but                                                 “How Great We are.”  Perhaps this is our greatest temptation.

But Jesus resisted making his ministry about himself.  In that wilderness, he emptied himself of personal ambition to make room for God’s spirit to fully inhabit him so that he could be for his followers – and for us – God’s presence in our midst. 

Jesus was not alone in the wilderness.  He went there filled with the Spirit, led by the Spirit. The Spirit did not just “drop him off” to fend for himself.  The Spirit strengthened him in fasting, led him in prayer, prepared him for the sorrow of rejection and misunderstanding and the                                     physical pain and terror to come on the cross.

Being baptized and chosen and beloved of God was not sufficient preparation to begin his ministry – just as it is not for us.  We need a wilderness.  That’s why we have Lent, a period of 40 days in each of our own wildernesses to be open to the leading of God in our lives.  Some people might give up candy or dessert, or excess TV or screen time.  But doing so might help our waistlines or our eye strain but not our lifeline to God.

Lent is … not giving up something,” one liturgical scholar wrote, “but rather taking upon ourselves the intention and the receptivity to God’s grace so that we may worthily participate in                                   the mystery of God-with-us.”[1]  This is what Jesus was doing during his 40 days in the wilderness, and this is what we are called to do during our 40 days of Lent – to discern God’s call upon our lives. 

If we can do this, we will discover God is faithful.  And not only will God meet us in the wildernesses of our own time, but God will lead us through them.

May it be so!

Amen.


[1] Hoyt L. Hickman, The New Handbook of the Christian Year, as quoted in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, page 46.

This happened three more times.

Finally, he consulted some of his Christian friends and told them what he suspected his neighbor of doing.  He said to them, “I’ve tried to be patient, but is it right to continue to be quiet about this?”

After they had prayed together about it, one of them said, “If we only try to do the right thing, then surely we are poor Christians.  We have to do something more than that which is right.”

The troubled Christian took these words to heart.  The next morning, instead of repairing the breach once again, he first filled his neighbor’s two fields, and then in the afternoon he filled his own field.

After that the water stayed in his field. His neighbor was so amazed at his actions that he began to inquire the reason and in due time he, too, became a Christian.

We, too, are called to “conspire” with God and each other, to breathe with God.  The message of the Transfiguration is that, once we start breathing with God, our appearance is going to change, we will look and sound and act like different persons.  We will become more compassionate.  We will speak the truth to our neighbors.  We will live in love, as Christ loves us.  We will act in ways that are kind and tenderhearted, forgiving others as Christ has forgiven us.  

Billy Dexter called me yesterday, and we talked for an hour! He is enormously grateful for your cards and calls, and he gives you the credit for being there through this dark time of his, for what pulled him through. I told him we have been “breathing with God.” That’s what it means to hold each other in prayer.

This Sunday, we stand on the threshold of Ash Wednesday, about to enter the season of Lent, the “lengthen season,” moving from darkness into light, from winter into spring, from death to life.  Let us pray that we, too, may breathe with God, that we, too, will begin to live a transfigured life, a life transformed by true intimacy with the divine. 

May it be so! 

Amen.

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people – just as the prophets Isaiah and Jesus require – that we may preach good news to all God’s children, that we may be a place of fairness and opportunity for everyone. 

May it be so!