Sunday Sermons

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Good News

Luke 4:14-21

January 23, 2022

Jesus has been out to see his cousin.  He’s been baptized in the Jordan River along with John’s followers.  Before that, he was out in the wilderness to listen for God’s voice, to face his demons, to discern where this ministry will take him. I wonder if he wondered, “Can I do this?”  What is God asking of me?  Suffered over the question, the way we might?  After the wilderness retreat, Jesus goes back to Nazareth, his home village – I imagine to say goodbye, to explain to his mother why he has to do this.  Perhaps to launch his ministry among friends. 

And on the Sabbath, as usual, he goes to the familiar synagogue where he worshipped with his family when he was growing up.  His parents, his siblings, his aunts and uncles and dear friends are there.  Adult males have the option of participating in the service.  He speaks to the attendant who hands him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah.  Jesus unrolls it, searching for something.  What is it he is looking for?  . . . And then he finds it.      

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

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

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

to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

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

The crowd is stunned!  Isn’t this Mary and Joseph’s son?  Their wait for the Messiah, centuries long, sits like the elephant in the room.  The carpenter’s son?  They had been anticipating more fanfare, chariots maybe, and fire and swords, a hoped for overturning of Roman rule that is squeezing the life out of them. The prophet Isaiah had railed against such a world.  He had urged his nation to keep their covenant with God.  And a “servant” – is it Israel itself or a person? – “will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).  “The spirit of the Lord . . . will bring good news….” And now Jesus picks up Isaiah’s mantle in the midst of his troubled world.  The gospel writer Luke uses this story of Jesus choosing this ancient passage to announce his mission, his purpose, his agenda – his ministry to the poor. 

But the story means more than that to us, those of us who try to be Followers of the Way, what early Christians were called.  The story is not just about what Jesus goes about doing – feeding, healing, forgiving, teaching, raising – but it is about who Jesus is.  It is not just that Jesus talks about good news or brings good news, Jesus himself is the good news, the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy.  Jesus embodies the good news!

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s make every stranger we meet happy to have encountered us – the clerk at Stop and Shop, the server at Dunkin’ Donuts, the kid on the bus, the cop who stops us for speeding, the telemarketer desperate for a sale.  We all have met people who “make our day” – those who, when they make a purchase, enter a room, answer the phone – lift our spirits, make us smile, and feel better.  Why not make it a matter of spiritual practice that everyone who comes into our presence will leave feeling better?  Well, at least some of the time…

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

When Tracey began her One Spirit Seminary studies in September, I signed up for their daily meditation. Yesterday, while I was working on my reflection, I found their quote helpful: “The way you alchemize [i.e., transform] a soulless world into a sacred world is by treating everyone as if they are sacred until the sacred in them remembers.”

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

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

The body of Christ is brought into focus for this world one person, one situation at a time. We “love and serve the Lord” through everything we say and do each day.  In us, as the meditation suggests, the world sees a picture of Jesus.  What picture of Jesus do you and I paint?  To be a Christian means to be alert to the Spirit’s hovering, to be sensitive to the times and the social conditions around us, yes, but also to be responsive to God’s anointing, to be sensitive to the way God works through us, day in and day out, in our relationships with others, to bring good news to a brokenhearted world.

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

May it be so!  Amen.


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

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Everyday Miracles

John 2:1-11; I Corinthians 12:4-11

January 16, 2022

Once upon a time, a bride and groom were celebrating their marriage with a seven-day feast at the groom’s home in Cana, a city less than 10 miles north of Nazareth.  Jesus’ mother, Mary, is there, and Jesus, too, with his disciples.  But there’s a problem:  The wine has run out.  For the couple, a source of embarrassment and shame.  For the guests, a source of disappointment.  What to do? 

Jesus’ mother sees the situation and chooses to act.  Mary does what mothers have done for millennia:  She turns to her son to solve the problem.  What made Mary think Jesus could turn water into wine?  We are not privy to the backstory, but Mary trusts in divine intervention.  For his part, as John tells the story, Jesus resists, what sons have done for millennia.  Not now, Mother.  Not yet.

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

It sounds like a simple command for a simple miracle, but remember there are no faucets, no hoses.  The servants – probably many of them women – had to walk to the nearest well, lower their buckets and haul them up, then walk back to the house and empty their load. Again and again, until six jars, each of which holds 20-30 gallons, are filled to the brim.

Transforming water into wine is Jesus’ first sign in the Gospel of John. This first miracle seems lighthearted, simple, maybe even frivolous.  Until we think about it from the servants’ perspective.  Miracles can be hard work! As one commentator noted, “Miracles may be inspired and holy and wonderful, but they are not easy!”[1] And not just for the person performing the miracle, but for anyone who gets drafted into service. And miracles don’t happen in a vacuum; they happen in the midst of everyday life.  In the midst of our lives, just plain folks like you and me. 

In fact, Spanish Mystic Teresa of Avila, in the Middle Ages, made the point that they don’t happen without us.  Miracles require our participation.  She wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so!

Amen.


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

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Beloved!

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

January 9, 2022

Whether you’re from the Western branch of the Church, like Protestants and Catholics, or from the Eastern branch, like the Greek or Russian Orthodox, whether you were baptized as a child, a decision of your parents, or as an adult – which is called “believer’s baptism” – when you make up your own mind to follow Jesus, baptism is the one sacrament that unites us all.  Water, of course, is an essential element of baptism. We take our practice from Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. But Jesus’ baptism was a little different from ours in that there was no Church to be baptized into. But his baptism is similar in that John’s baptism is for repentance for the forgiveness of sins, like our promise to resist the powers of evil in our baptismal service. 

Which raises the thorny theological question: If Jesus was without sin, why did he go to John – whose baptism is so closely tied to judgment and repentance – to be baptized in the first place?  What did Jesus need to repent for?  One commentator suggests it’s because “Jesus was born from as well as into a world of systemic sin, and his baptism is a signal that he understood the full implications of the incarnation. 

He was not merely identifying with or showing solidarity with the human world, he was fully acknowledging its tragic structure. There are no innocent, no perfect, no unambiguous, no controllable, indeed no sinless, choices in this world. All choice must be made within a context of a system that precedes and impinges upon them.”[1]

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

The Hebrews expected a Messiah to come and to save them, to lead the nation into a new political and religious future.  John the Baptist has been preaching and teaching and gathering disciples. The people assume, then, that John is the Messiah, the one they have been waiting for.  But his cousin Jesus, apparently, is in the wings, and he also is preaching and teaching. I imagine people asked each other: “Are you for John or Jesus?” Both men, these cousins, had extraordinary births surrounded with unexpected angels, impossible events, mysterious circumstances. 

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

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

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

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

This week, the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty held its 14th Annual Vigil at the State House to advocate for the poor:  for a safe, affordable place to call home, high quality education, starting as early as possible, reliable, affordable transportation, dependable health care, adequate and nutritious food, and work with decent wages.  A number of religious leaders – UCC, Baptist and Methodist pastors, rabbis and imams, Buddhists and the Hindu Swami – stepped up to the microphone to read the names of elected officials and to ask them “to govern with wisdom, care and compassion.”

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

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

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

Luke uses very few words to describe the baptism of Jesus.  But those few words are very telling:  Another commentator wrote:  “To identify with all people, to depend upon God in prayer for strength to live and love, and to hear the affirmation of [our] God as the source of [our] shared calling and purpose, are the most enduring joys of life.”[i]

These are just some of the blessings of our life together in our Larger Parish, as we move into this new year.

May it be so!

Amen.


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


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

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Epiphanies

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

January 2, 2022

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

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

What does “epiphany” mean?  It’s a manifestation, a revealing, a moment when one suddenly feels that he or she understands, or suddenly becomes conscious of something, a moment when one “sees the light” (think of a cartoon with the “light bulb” to indicate that a character has just had an idea). 

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

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

Three wise men. You do know what would have happened if it had been three wise WOMEN instead of men, don’t you?  They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped to deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought diapers as gifts! 

Matthew, remember, is writing long after Jesus has been crucified, and the gifts he has the Magi bring are symbolic for a king: Gold – precious metal – representing Jesus’ kingship; Frankincense – perfume or incense – representing Jesus’ priestly role; Myrrh – anointing/embalming oil – foretelling Jesus’ death.  

So, Epiphany is both a celebration of Jesus’ divine nature (because kings are divine in that ancient world) and an acknowledgement of Jesus’ coming to the Gentiles, as well as to the Jewish community. Two epiphanies right there. Are epiphanies a thing of the past, introduced by “once upon a time”?  Or do such manifestations happen even now? Where do we look for God today?  How is the Word made flesh in your life, in the church’s life, or in the lives of those you love? 

There are a variety of ways to ask ourselves that question, as individuals and as a church. We could ask. “What are we leaving behind at the end of 2021?” (We thought it would be COVID, but that prediction was wrong.) We could ask, “What are we grateful for?,” in spite of COVID?  We also could ask: “What do we invite into our life in 2022? We could frame the question in religious language, in terms of light: In what ordinary and extraordinary ways has the light of Christ appeared to us and those we love this year? And how will we reflect that light in 2022?

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

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

mystical experience.  After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared.  My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. A feeling came over me I’d not experienced before. Perhaps a sensation experienced by the ancients ….  I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them.  And the vast expanse of time—extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die—seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos.  I felt a merging with something far greater than myself; a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute.  After a time, I sat up and started the engine again.  I had no idea how long I’d been lying there looking up.

Lightman is not a “believer” in any particular religion, just a searcher of truth wherever it can be found, trying to make sense of the world and his place in it, but truth verified through science, not expecting to have his life changed by the stars.  But in those minutes, alone and adrift on the sea, he experienced something beyond himself, something eternal, something ordered and timeless, a connection with all of creation, something divine beyond his Jewish roots, something divine beyond his study of Buddhism. In my Christian understanding, I would say Lightman experienced God, God that cannot be defined by our limited imagination or any one faith. He discovered God who creates, beginning with the stars.  God’s first words in Genesis, “Let there be light.”

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

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

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

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

With God’s help, let there be light in 2022! 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Who Is This Child?

Luke 2:41-52

December 26, 2021

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

This is a Jewish baby, a descendant of King David, the shepherd boy who defeated the Philistine Goliath with nothing but a slingshot, the boy who rose to become king of his people.  This is a baby born of uncertain parentage in ways that even his mother Mary said, “How can this be?” This is a baby over whom the shepherds and the angels marveled and for whom wise men from the East traveled. This is a baby whose birth threatened the powers-that-be, and whose parents became refugees to save his life. 

This is a baby who was born into a family like our families, a family with its particular traditions and inherited customs, a family with its particular circumstances and struggles, a family making sense of the question, “Who is this child?”   

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, he is not truly like us; he is unique in his relationship with God. And this story provides a transitional marker between the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke – with their angels and shepherds, innkeepers and wise men – and Jesus’ growing self-knowledge and his need to be in his Father’s house. 

He will return to that house during what we now call Holy Week during the Passover, riding in on a donkey at the end of his ministry.  Then, a fully mature Jesus will teach the crowds, and drive out the money changers, and promise, “I go to prepare a place for you and will take you to myself,…”

But for now, we ask, Who is this child?” He is, surely, Mary’s child, the boy who was filled with wisdom as a child and who will increase in wisdom as he grows. And for us, who seek to follow in the Way of Jesus, who is this child and what can we learn from this story?  Surely that God can be found even in difficult family circumstances, moments fraught with fear and division and differences. 

It teaches that God’s wisdom is available to the young as well as to the old and that we must make room for God to surprise us with unexpected revelations given by unusual messengers. And finally, we have a glimpse of the divine, the indwelling of God in human life, in our lives, the mystery of the incarnation present with us, in us – if we but notice. 

May it be so! 

Amen. 

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What Should We Do?

Luke 3:7-18

December 12, 2021

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

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

But, instead, he lambastes them, threatens them, calls them a “brood of vipers,” tells them not to count on their being good Jews who follow the law (translate this as good Christian folks who make it to church); they can be replaced with stones, for goodness sake! 

So the people ask John this pertinent question, “What then should we do?”  John begins with the practical, ethical issues:  If you have two coats or enough to eat, share from your excess with those who have none.  Be fair in business; don’t cheat or collect undue bonuses for yourself.  Don’t use your position to take advantage of anyone; be satisfied with what you have.  This sounds like a prequel to the ministry of Jesus, doesn’t it?  Which, of course, it is.  John and Jesus were at least cousins, remember, and they probably spent long days roaming the countryside discussing such matters as how to change the world for the better.

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

My experience tells me that it is only in giving, in sharing, in serving that we find joy. It’s not in having or saving or hoarding for myself. “The beating heart of the universe is holy joy,” says Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. That is the only way to find meaning –to lose ourselves in the world.

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

What should we do this Christmas about the rift in the family?  What should we do about the violence all around us?  What should we do about the refugees desperate for safety?  What precautions do we need to take around COVID-19? What should we do about the fear and anxiety invading this country?   What should we do when the baby is finally born and has a life-threatening fever or a disability? What should we do when the baby grows up to be a teenager and keeps with a wild crowd?  Or wants to stay out until 2 a.m.?  Or wants to sleep with her boyfriend?  What should we do – when we’ve just lost our job or have no health insurance?  Or our parents are aging and need more care?  Or our friends are losing their home to foreclosure? 

Perhaps we don’t have to change the whole world – only our part of it, and when we’ve done our part, and everyone else has done their part, the world is different. 

What should we do?  Well, I can’t tell you how to live your life.  I have enough trouble living my own – figuring out how much I really need – and how much is superfluous stuff.  I have enough trouble living my own life – deciding how much to give away and how much to spend on my own bills and pursuits.  I have enough trouble analyzing how I spend my time to see if things on my to-do list advance my goals – or are a waste of my energy.  Each of us must sort all this out for ourselves:  to clarify our values, to share, to be fair, to be satisfied, as John the Baptist teaches. 

Each of us is responsible for the integrity of our own actions.  Each of us is challenged to go to a deeper level of self-reflection and repentance. You’re thinking, I suspect, that this sounds like a sermon for Lent, not Advent.  But no, it’s in the time of Advent that we need to consider such things, when we are pregnant with possibility.  When we are ready for a coming, an appearance, the arrival of something new, something unexpected. 

John the Baptist calls us to make a mental and spiritual U turn, away from self-absorption, fear, and the like, and toward a recommitment to lives focused on love of God and care of neighbor.

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

What should we do?  And who will deliver us? 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Make Ready

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

December 5, 2021

These two passages from Luke’s gospel this morning are about pregnancy and childbirth, fear and joy, blessing and prophecy.  Two women carrying the gift of life; two babies destined for amazing lives; two appearances by the angel Gabriel. Elizabeth, wife of the priest Zechariah, has conceived in her old age. Mary, her cousin, has conceived in a way we don’t understand.  Even Mary herself asks, “How can this be?”  It’s surprising, given the low status of these Judean women – nobodies in that culture really – that Elizabeth and Mary have been written into history, that we know their names, that God is using them to bring salvation to the world.

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

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

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

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

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

In the second passage in Luke, chapter 3, John, now grown, is preaching in the wilderness a baptism of repentance, a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy “to prepare the way of the Lord.”  Advent is a season of preparation:  Last night, we lit the tree and sang Christmas carols.  Today, we light the second candle for Peace. And our neighbors will light candles for lives lost and mourned at the Blue Christmas Service at North Foster.

But into our Advent busy-ness enters John the Baptist who demands a different kind of preparation from us – a preparation of self-examination, a time to evaluate our lives, our values, our priorities – our readiness to welcome God into our lives.  John’s challenge is to repent and to prepare. True repentance means, literally, to change one’s mind, to turn around, to reorient oneself. Would that our politicians would change their minds about reasonable gun legislation!

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

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

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

May it be so! 

Amen.


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

[2] Ibid, page 49.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Mercy and Love

Luke 21:25-36

November 28, 2021

It’s the beginning of a new church year, a leap in the gospel readings from Mark to Luke, and the first Sunday in Advent. We were hoping, maybe, for Santa and Elves, especially with children in the house. But Advent is not Christmas in the church. Instead, it’s a season of waiting and hoping and preparing. We would prefer to hear about Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, shepherds and stables and stars, and yes, we do hear about stars! But foreboding stars, not friendly and twinkling ones.

Why this text, this Sunday, toward the end of Luke’s gospel when the grown up Jesus is well on his way to Jerusalem and the cross? Why this “The sky is falling!” kind of scripture?  Because this troubled time is just when we need Jesus to come, with the mercy and love we need and are hoping for.

This passage is what is known as apocalyptic literature, a kind of Biblical writing that usually is associated with the end of the world – and a bearded man carrying a sign, “Repent, the end is near!” And indeed, it seems like that to us sometimes, doesn’t it? Seas rising, floods and fires, people fleeing. Violence in the streets, and Covid which won’t go away.  Members of Congress at each other’s throats; wealthy donors and lobbyists calling the shots.

From time to time, it has always seemed like the end of the world is near. My brother Bill who has studied history says it has been like this many times before, and in fact, we’re less divided now than we were in the years leading up to the Civil War. Yes, we have serious division, and it’s exacerbated by the internet. And I suspect it will be worse in a few years with Global Warming. Scientists predict that half of the Earth’s land mass will not be habitable by the end of this century. The Earth will survive, but life as we know it, will not.

In 1889, Vincent Van Gogh captures the mood of this Advent text in his most famous painting, “The Starry Night,” which might have been called, “The Scary Night.” You know those wild shapes and colors, the swirling clouds in bold yellows and white on deep, dark blue and black, the bold and bright yellow moon and very bright stars, described by one art critic as “rockets of burning yellow.” On the left, in the foreground, is a foreboding flamelike image connecting earth and sky, that art historians take to be a cypress tree, which in Van Gogh’s time would have been associated with graveyards and mourning. And in the background is a small village, seemingly innocent, asleep under the chaos above. The church steeple in the center, its most prominent feature,

Van Gogh’s father was a Dutch pastor, and Van Gogh might have heard this scripture read by his father, thundering from the pulpit. As an impressionable youth, mentally-ill, who knew what might have been going on in his mind?  Perhaps he had forgotten to milk the cow or was caught napping in the wheatfield, or had forgotten to put away his paint brushes. Fear, guilt, punishment, foreboding? The end of the world! And so he paints it….  Some see it as bold and beautiful, others as frightening.  And still others as a glimpse of God.

Just like the word picture which Jesus paints this first Sunday in Advent. Luke uses Jesus’ words to challenge us, just as Jesus challenges his listeners in the Temple in Jerusalem, to look up and pay attention, and be ready.

The Bible plays with time – with the already and the not yet.  And Advent involves preparing for two comings: The coming of the infant Jesus to teach us about God, to be God incarnate, God-in-the-flesh in our midst. And the coming of the adult Jesus in our brokenhearted world, to be God incarnate in our lives in acts of mercy and love. The good news of Advent is not simply that Christ is coming, but also that he is already here; This means we can hope – just as we hope for spring when the trees sprout leaves. The purpose of the parable about the fig tree.

The Psalm for this Sunday, Psalm 25, a Psalm for Deliverance, reads “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.” The Hebrew word for mercy is rechem, which means “womb,” a mother’s womb, a place of safety and compassion. And for steadfast love, the word is hesed, a word that expresses God’s ever-present love for creation, and that includes us!

And so, on this first Sunday in Advent, let us remember that God protects us and loves us and has compassion for us – like a mother and a father – and who points us to the mercy and love of God breaking over this congregation and over this community.

For this we have hope!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

What Is Truth?

John 18:33-37

November 21, 2021

Today is Christ the King Sunday, and we celebrate it with the story about a trial, the trial of Jesus before Pilate, Rome’s governor in Judea. It’s Pilate’s responsibility to keep order during the Passover in Jerusalem, his job to keep the peace. For three years, Jesus has been challenging the religious establishment – and now his challenge has brought him to this place. The high priest has turned him over.  Pilate, a gentile, isn’t interested in the religious issues or Jewish traditions.

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

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

Pilate isn’t listening. He who has likely compromised his integrity for ambition many times responds sarcastically, “What is truth?” 

So is this passage about Jesus before Pilate – or perhaps Pilate before Jesus?  Is it about unholy alliances?  Between religious authorities and governmental authorities?  Or the tension between the two?  Is it about two kinds of power – political power and moral power – and the intersection of the two?  Is it about truth and two kinds of kingdoms – a kingdom of the worldly realm and a kingdom of God’s realm – and their conflicting allegiances?  Perhaps it is all of these . . . .

What is truth?  Pilate asks our question, two centuries later. It’s hard to know these days

with accusations of fake news and alternative facts and political “spin.”  I’ve caught articles by both the URI Alumni Magazine and the Harvard magazine – and sometimes in our newspapers  which explain how easy it is for clever people to use the internet to invent a story out of thin air, with absolutely no foundation, to mislead the public. Stories invented and passed off as news.  Sometimes by people in this country to make money from advertising income, and sometimes by people abroad to destabilize our democracy. And people like us take the bait and pass on the lies. And we become afraid. One of those bloggers, who is located in Maine, has a sign on his desk that says, “We live in an Idiocracy.” And he takes advantage of that!

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

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

The argument that is raging now across the country is about what to teach in history classes in our schools. In a column in the Cape Cod Times on Friday, retired history teacher Lawrence Brown, writes: “From whose point of view should American history be taught?  Whose story is it and who gets to tell it? Those of us who’ve taught history think about these questions all the time. Here’s the thing: If what and how we teach become political footballs, truth will become a football, too.”

Don’t we want our children to know what it was like to be an Irish girl working in the mills in Pawtucket? Or a Chinese man building our railroads across the country? Don’t we want our children to know what it was like to be one of the Blue people from France working the coal mines in Appalachia? Or an African slave picking cotton in Mississippi? Don’t we want them to know how the Finns cut timber in Oregon after WWI? And what we did to Japanese-Americans during WWII?    And how we cheated Mexicans out of wages after they had picked out crops?

Don’t we want them to know what it was like for a young woman who grew up in Boston to find herself living in a sod house on the Great Plains? Or a country person from Poland laboring in the canning factories in Chicago? Don’t we want them to know about the Dust Bowl in the 30s and why people went to California? And why people migrated north after Reconstruction?  I want my children and grandchildren and all children to know about our history. It’s who we are. We are all Americans.          We belong to each other. And this is the truth!

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

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” Jesus reminds us.  This is the Jesus that the United Church of Christ claims in our Statement of Faith is the sole head of the Church.  This Jesus, this truth – and to his deeds we testify, to truth lived in speaking truth to power, welcoming the stranger, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the least of these.  Thistruth, embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.  This Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world, who comes to us – you and me – when we are afraid, and our lives are out of control, trapped by life’s circumstances. 

This Jesus, of whom angels will sing “glorias” and before whose crib shepherds will kneel in just a few short weeks.  This Jesus whom we pray will be born in our midst. This Jesus, who welcomes us, whoever we are and wherever we are on life’s journey.

This Jesus. 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church

Faithful Transitions

I Samuel 1:4-20; I Samuel 2:1-10

November 14, 2021

Our Bible is mostly a collection of stories – stories trying to understand who we are as human beings and how we got here, as in the myths and legends in Genesis. Stories trying to understand why we suffer, as in the speeches in Job.  And now, as we prepare to enter the new season of Advent, stories about transitions.

Unlike ordinary, linear time, the church year is cyclical – sacred time – in which we tell the Christian story over and over.  Next Sunday is Reign of Christ Sunday, the culmination of our history, and the following Sunday, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we begin our wait and watch for the birth of the Christ child.

The scholars who devised the Common Lectionary – the schedule of readings from the Bible – prepared us for this transition with a series of stories about new beginnings.  Stories in which women and children saved the day. At the end of September, we reflected on the story of Esther who grew up in a far corner of the Persian empire where she has been chosen Queen.  Esther’s people were Jews – although no one knew that about her – and the Jews were being blamed for military failures by one of the king’s advisors who was trying to take the blame off himself. The Jews were slated to be hung. Esther’s uncle appeals to her to go to the king, “Perhaps you were born for such a time as this,” he says to her.  To go into the king without being invited was to invite death, but Esther agrees and says, “If I die, I die.” The king favors her and her people, and they are saved. Perhaps, as Eleanor Roosevelt said in this country during the Depression, when people were starving, and her first-hand accounts influenced the public and her husband to take action, “It’s up to the women!”

In October, we looked at the story of Naomi and Ruth, both widows living in the Cannanite country of Moab in a time of famine.  Naomi decides to return to her birthplace in Bethlehem of Judah to live out her days.  Her daughter-in-law Ruth, the Moabite, a foreigner, opts to go with her. We know her pledge to Naomi, “Whither you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge, your people will be my people and your God, my God.”  Back in Bethlehem, Naomi orchestrates the marriage of Ruth to her kinsman Boaz, and she bears a son, Obed, who is the great grandfather of King David and a distant ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth. For Naomi, who had lost everything, the baby becomes a “restorer of life and a nourisher of [her] old age.” It is a story about love and courage and a community’s willingness to accept a newcomer and to do what is right according to the Jewish law.

Today, we have the story about Hannah who was barren and humiliated, and without sons to take care of her should her husband die, vulnerable. She goes to the temple and pours out her soul to God that she might bear a son.  Sometimes we get what we pray for, and this is one of those times for Hannah; she conceives and gives birth to Samuel. Then, in a surprise move, Hannah promises to give Samuel back to God as a holy child to serve in the temple.  So when Samuel is a little boy, she takes him to Eli the priest to be brought up in the temple.  When he is grown, Samuel plays an important role in Israel’s history transitioning from a period of independent Judges to a unified country under a King. 

These stories are tied together because they are about women and children who “save the day.” And then there is another woman and child about whom we will read in Advent: an unwed mother named Mary and her newborn infant, Jesus.  Hannah’s story and Mary’s story are linked by the prayers they offer upon hearing of their roles in the salvation of their people – Hannah’s prayer and Mary’s Magnificat.  Stories about a reversal of fortunes when the proud are brought down and the weak are lifted up.  For Hannah, it’s after she leaves Samuel in the temple – imagine her heartbreak – and for Mary, it’s upon hearing the news from the angel Gabriel that she will bear a son, the news that takes her to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

Doesn’t it strike you as odd that it’s women and children who save the day? Women who seldom have a name in scripture, who are lost in the narrative except as concubines or whores, who are secondary to the story.  Except here in this time of transition when their faithfulness in spite of difficulties launches new life for everyone and makes a pathway to the future.  Sometimes, salvation come from the most unlikely places.

And what of our transition in the Mount Vernon Larger Parish? Who will save our churches as we age?  Who will bear us children to carry on the legacy? In all of these stories, just one faithful person – Esther, Ruth, Hannah, Mary – was open to the spirit, and did what was difficult, and her action changed the course of human history.  Who will act for us?

On November 28th we will baptize Piper Marie Wood, Cheryl’s great granddaughter.  Perhaps Piper will grow up to come to Sunday School.  Perhaps because of Piper, we will begin again to teach the children and to raise up the next generation. 

May it be so.

Amen. 

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Clean Hands and a Pure Heart

Psalm 24

November 7, 2021

Every year during the holiday season, the RI Philharmonic Orchestra and the Civic Chorale collaborate to offer George Frederic Handel’s glorious oratorio, the Messiah, first performed in 1742.        For many, his masterpiece is a “must do” for Christmas: the first part prophesies the birth of Jesus in Isaiah, with his declarations: “For unto to us a child is born,” and “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

Imagine you are sitting at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. The conductor enters to applause and goes to the podium; the audience quiets and holds its collective breath, the violinists raise their bows,      the maestro raises his baton and brings it down, and we are off on a great adventure though the Christian story – birth, death and resurrection – for the next two hours.

Sometimes it’s the tenor who sings the holy words from scripture, then it might be the basses, or altos or sopranos, until the entire chorus is singing their hearts out. Eventually, we come to Psalm 24, which we have just heard read, and voices sing, “Who is this King of Glory? And other voices answer, “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.” Then the entire chorus sings, “Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in.”

Handel’s servants would often find him in tears as he was composing this masterpiece. You may not know it, but I’ll bet you’ve heard the Halleluiah Chorus! “Hallelujah for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.”  When the King of England heard it, he stood, why audiences stand to this day.  This was the praise music of that century.  

Now imagine what it must have been like to be a pilgrim in Jerusalem, climbing up the steep bank to reach the temple; perhaps it’s been your life-long dream to make that climb and finally, here you are, catching your breath as you ascend. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,” you sing as you climb, voices ringing out from one climber and answered by another. Much like the voices calling out to each other in Handel’s Messiah.  

Much like the intake of breath with each brilliant hillside and field this fall, the oranges and yellows of the Sugar Maples and Birches, and the reds of the Swamp Maples, against the green of the White Pines. This was an amazing year for foliage, even this morning on the deck with the sun rising, glancing through the trees onto yellow leaves. Cars pulled off the roads in Vermont to gape, Kathy Shuster told me. “He’s got the whole world in his hands….”

“Who shall ascend?” to such majesty? “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,” the psalmist writes. We struggle up many hills, you and I. The climb up the Temple Mount was serious business in ancient times.  Who shall have the audacity?  Those who are righteous, who care for the poor and vulnerable.  It’s what Jesus means when, in the Beatitudes, in the Gospel of Matthew, he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”  Pure hearts are about having integrity, humility, and honesty.  The key idea is to “Love the Lord your God” (Deut. 6) and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19), both ideas imbedded in our Old Testament, and imbedded in our mission statement here at Moosup Valley.

Why this text, Psalm 24, on All Saints Day?  Because they are stories about “right living.”  We have celebrated the lives of some remarkable people here in Moosup Valley and Greene this year.  People true to the gifts God has given them.  And today we light candles in their memory: I think of the Arnolds – Frank, historian and town leader in Foster, and Natalie, a believer in libraries and women in leadership.

Phyllis Dexter, organizer of suppers and bus trips and music nights, and a Foster Grandparent in Robin’s classroom.  Rhoda Dexter, who loved life and had a good sense of humor.  She was a good neighbor, not too nosy – but there when you needed her. And Bill McGrath, who had an eye for talent and who believed in young musicians until they believed in themselves, who collaborated with us in bringing music to the stage that Carl built. And Michael Lavoie, a good worker and family man and neighbor.

These are some of the qualities we admire in our saints!  On this day each year, we celebrate those who have died, members of our communities. We acknowledge their faithfulness and their contributions to the common good.  They lived their lives for others, role models for us, teaching us how to live our lives.  And they point to the Creator of Heaven and Earth, as those who have clean hands and a pure heart always do.  They are our saints, reminding us of God’s goodness to those who love – when our time passes into God’s time, and God’s eternal love comes home to us.

May it be so!