Sunday Sermons

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Moosup Valley Church UCC Love Is Going Ahead of Us! Mark 16:1-8 April 4, 2021

It was not supposed to end this way – this week, this journey, this life.    They had expected Jesus to act like the militant Messiah they were waiting for, to bring in the historic age of glory that the prophet Micah (4:4) had promised, where “everyone will sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”

Instead, they are confronted with paralyzing fear, unexpected suffering, and unfulfilled dreams. They had watched their beloved teacher taken into custody, powerless to intervene. They had watched him stumble under the weight of the cross, unable to get close enough even to touch him or wipe the blood and sweat from his face.  They were held back by circumstances from even whispering a prayer in his ear or reciting a beloved psalm to bring him comfort. They had listened to his ragged breathing on the cross and could not even hold his hand or moisten his lips.  We have known this heartbreak ourselves this year, this journey through the pandemic.

And now this last indignity.  The two Marys and Salome arrive at the tomb to do their women’s work, to anoint and embalm Jesus’ body, but even that last loving touch has been taken away by forces beyond their control. The tomb is empty, the stone rolled away, and a stranger in white taking charge. Regardless of the Lectionary Year, the scholars assign John’s account of the resurrection.  We are familiar with those beloved words: “On the first day of the week while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb ….”

But Mark, the first gospel written, decades before John, tells the story a little differently with some important lessons for us, so this year, I’m going to tease some truths from Mark –the one with the abrupt ending, the ending that was such an embarrassment for the early church that someone had to add another ending or two in the second or third century.

According to Mark’s original account, when the three women arrive, the tomb is empty. It must have been the last straw. Like the empty places in our homes and in our hearts after our loved ones have died, and we don’t know what to do or  where to put ourselves. Emily Dickinson says it perfectly with, “The sweeping up the Heart, and putting Love away. We shall not want to use again. Until Eternity.”

But where is Jesus?  The young man in the white robe tells them what they can see for themselves – Jesus is not there.   How could a loved one be here one moment, and then not here, the next? Is it not the same for all of us, after the death of a loved one?

And, of course they are afraid!  After what they witnessed just three days before? The world is a scary place, then and now. As a pastor, I hear the fears: How to live alone now that he’s gone. How to make ends meet without the extra income?  How to deal with all the legal tasks? How to go on without the loved one? 

One translator of the original Greek text says it this way: [T]hey ran away from the tomb, because great fear and excitement got the better of them. And they didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone: talk about terrified …”

So, if the women didn’t tell anyone, how did the news of the empty tomb spread? Perhaps because Jesus keeps showing up:  That very evening to the disciples hiding in Jerusalem. On the road to Emmaus.  On the beach with breakfast ready in Galilee.

The women hear the news from a stranger dressed in white – We don’t know who he is and why is he there in the tomb – but he tells the women that Jesus has gone on ahead to Galilee. Why Galilee?  As he said to them at the Last Supper, Jesus has gone home. The High Holy Days are over; time to get back to business as usual, fishing – or whatever it is we do.

Some scholars say there is no Resurrection account in Mark, that it ends abruptly, and it does. Scholars suggest that the resurrection was added later as the church tried to come to grips with the death of their teacher, or to bring Mark’s account in line with the other three gospels. But there’s surely an empty tomb to account for.  And how do we understand what it means to be “raised”?

Some scholars suggest that Mark intends this abrupt ending, that it is a call for faith over fear. Jesus was always asking people why they were afraid: In the calming of the storm, he asks the disciples, “Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith?” Perhaps it’s appropriate that Mark ends his gospel in silence – as he should, to leave room for Mystery.

Mark’s original readers – the early church in Rome – had good reason to be afraid.  They are facing suffering, persecution, and even martyrdom. In many ways they are like the women at the tomb. Fear or belief?

And so what does it mean to us, 21 centuries later? What do we believe? Many years ago, I read English theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s book, Faith and Belief, in which he tells us that, originally, belief meant “to hold dear,” virtually “to love.” The German equivalent today means “to consider lovely, to like, to wish for, to choose, to commit one’s life to.”

With this understanding, then, the faithful life is not about what we believe; but about what we love, what we are committed to. Are we in love with this Jesus who lived to show us how to love God and our neighbor as ourself?  Who taught us how life is to be lived and cared for?  Early Christians were called the “People of the Way,” for good reason. Beyond that, I don’t think it matters what ideas we hold, only that we love.

However, we do our Bible a disservice if we think it is mostly a book about the past. It’s an ancient record, of course, but it has a lot to say about the future as well, and this empty tomb story is no exception: The God of scripture is always out ahead of us, leading us into the future.

When Moses asks God to self-identify and provide a name, Christian Bibles like to translate God’s response as “I am who I am.” But the Hebrew verb is not present tense, it’s future tense. “I will be what I will be” is what God is saying, “My name is the future.”

Jesus has told his followers to keep a hand to the plow and not look back. The unknown man at the tomb tells the mourning women that Jesus is going ahead of them; he’s not just stuck in their memories.  Yes, the future may be unknown, but Jesus will be there before us, setting things in motion prior to our arrival. 

So, where is Jesus if he is not in the tomb?  I suggest he is in Galilee and all the other places in the world wherever we are or need to be. He is in the future, paving the way with love, preparing for our arrival.   God’s love has been going ahead of us since the beginning of time, since the creation when the first breath moved over the face of the waters and the first star lit up the heavens.

This is Easter faith at its best. Whatever the future, we can step into it, knowing we will not be alone. Yes, it may be different after the death, but it can be full of confident hope.

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church, UCC
Hosanna
Mark 11:1-11
March 28, 2021

People could see the dust kicked up several miles away, and as the procession grew closer, watchers could hear marching feet, the beat of drums, the creak of leather harnesses, the glint of sun on golden eagles and sabers. Riding in from the west, from his garrison on the coast, was Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, 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? 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 chickens 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 yearned for the Jerusalem of memory, for justice and peace, for God’s restoration. Even now, as our friends and neighbors sit down to their Seder meals tonight, 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? The parade of empire, on behalf of the elite few, or the parade of justice for everyone?

These days with our global economy, it’s difficult to tell. When I was serving Edgewood Congregational Church ten 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 whether or not workers were exploited, oppressed? Difficult to tell.

We see countries that mirror the oppression of Jesus’ day. Right now China is cracking down on human rights lawyers, threatening them if they take certain cases; the parade of empire and control curtailing the parade of justice and peace.

Here in the United States, we have a growing gap between those with unimaginable wealth and the growing poor that the pandemic has only exacerbated. For example, Amazon has benefited enormously from our online purchases while workers have suffered from lack of protective gear and the pressure to do more.

Many of our essential workers who put their lives in jeopardy to serve us – teachers, nurses and doctors, public safety workers, grocery store clerks – struggle to make ends meet on what they are paid. I read the testimony of one nurses aid who worked for 30 years at the Charlesgate Nursing Home in Providence who doesn’t make enough on her wages to afford both food and medicine. Her husband is a cook, who works 60-70 hours a week, and they still can’t make ends meet.

So right here in our midst we see the two “parades”: the parade of empire that favors the corporate giants and makes as much money as it can for the stockholders, and the parade of justice that says everyone has value in our economy and should be cared for.

Back to what Jesus is doing: While each Gospel writer tells the Palm Sunday story a little differently, Mark, a man of few words, ends this story known as the “Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem” on a quiet note: “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. (11:11)

I had not paid too much attention to that verse before; it seems a little anticlimactic, doesn’t it? No ruckus in the temple in Mark’s gospel. We are used to Jesus who always seems to be in the moment – ministering to those who present themselves for healing, for forgiveness, for teaching – but Mark’s Jesus sounds like a man who is thinking about his next move, deciding what his plan is for the next day.

Mark presents a Messiah who reflects and strategizes, who prays for God’s guidance and “sleeps on it” to be sure. Mark’s Jesus can inspire us to look at the troubled world we are living in and to discern where we fit in.

Which parade are we marching in? In one parade, coming in on the west side of the city, the peace is kept by those who sweep in on chariots, with swords ready to maintain power and control. Today we would understand that kind of peace as governments that promise reform, then rule with oppression; institutions that cover up abuse of children; corporations that pay exorbitant income to top executives while workers struggle to make ends meet.

In the other parade, the one coming in on the east side of the city, the peace is kept by one who comes alone and vulnerable and who brings the peace of healing and hope. Today, we might understand that kind of peace as aid workers building clinics and schools in third world countries, churches digging wells in villages in Ghana; Doctors Without Borders serving the poorest of the poor, in Brazil, coping with a surge of COVID-19; people like us collecting canned goods for food pantries and clothes for nonprofit clothing distributions and scholarships for children in Haiti.

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. Just turn on your TV.

But 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
A Clean Heart
Psalm 51:1-12
March 21, 2021

The Psalms were ancient Israel’s songbook, like our church hymnals. They would have been sung by pilgrims as they made their way to Jerusalem for festivals and as they climbed the steep slope to the temple. Some of them are simply hymns, some are laments or calls for help, and others are prayers of thanksgiving. Not only are they important to our Jewish neighbors today, from the earliest days, they have been important to Christians.

In the words of Nan Merrill, whose Psalms for Praying I have been using each week in the newsletter during Lent, “[The Palms] become living prayers that evoke, albeit subtly, new insights, new emphases, new words and phrases…. [They] bear witness to Love in these unsettling times.” Merrill says, “To pray is to be transformed…. [We are] scattering seeds of love and light into the chaos; thus, we blanket the world with a web of peace…. Just as light dispels darkness, fear cannot exist where love abides.”

Psalm 51, a portion of which we just heard, is the perfect psalm for our Lenten march toward Jerusalem and the cross, with its emphasis on self-reflection and penitence and confession. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;…” and “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me,” are familiar to many of us.
Psalm 51 also is one of the best known psalms, one of many that is attributed to King David, who has been a “bad boy.” He has been caught in a compromising situation, lusting after Bathsheba, another man’s wife, and David is imploring God to forgive him, to create in him “a clean heart.”

In Bible Study, we often turn to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, to help us understand the text, and in this psalm, Biblical scholar and pastor Peterson, has God doing the laundry: “Scrub away my guilt, soak out my sins in your laundry,” the psalmist croons. “Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean.”

UCC minister Katherine Willis Pershey picks up on Peterson’s paraphrase and writes, “In an attempt to understand the concept of God’s abundance all I need to do is consider the laundry: “There is something deeply compelling about a God involved in household chores. I suspect God is diligent and detail-oriented when it comes to laundry. God reads the tags outlining fabric care; God even reads the machine manuals and knows what all the cycles mean. God never forgets that God put a load in before breakfast, never leaves it to mildew all day long. God plucks the favorite shirt out of the pile and pre-treats it with some good old-fashioned Fels-Naphtha soap, thereby avoiding the dreaded permanent stain. God does the laundry as a generous act of love, bereft of resentment and free of fury.” She continues, “We do not need a domesticated God, [one that we keep as a pet], but perhaps we do need a domestic one. Even if it is a little hokey.”

When I worked at Beneficent Church, Reverend Rick Taylor and I had a UCC clergy friend whose husband worked for the Episcopal Church’s publishing house in Beijing, and Elyn volunteered with a Christian congregation there. For several years, Elyn had been working on a devotional book based on Chinese characters, and during Lent, when I booted up my computer every morning, I would find another devotional that Elyn had emailed me, and many other friends, while we slept on the other side of the world.

She would write about how many of the characters about important concepts include the Chinese character for “heart.” For example, the character “forget” is made up of two characters: the top is the character for “to escape,” and the bottom, for “heart.” To forget, means something has escaped from your heart, it is forgotten. In one meditation, Elyn writes,

[I]t is such a blessing to have things that have “escaped” from your heart. When we can
put aside old hurts and forget the things that should be put aside and forgotten, we have a
whole new direction possible. That direction is not clouded by our past, but can be led by
those things that should be remembered, like the importance of kindness, support,
encouragement, and humor in [our] relationships with others.

The Chinese character for “rest” also includes a heart. The top part looks a little bit like a face and means “self” while the bottom half is a heart. Why the heart? Because in Asia, the “mind” is embodied in the heart. In the West, when we talk about our minds, we are talking about our brains, what our brain is thinking. Not so in the East. You can see this in the Chinese word for psychology, which translated literally means, “heart-inside-study-of,” the study of the heart. So the truth of “resting” is embodied in this character – to truly rest, we need to rest our hearts as well as our bodies.

We might, then, understand Sabbath, our Sunday, as a day of rest, a day to rest our bodies and our hearts. To take this idea further, as nurture, Wayne Muller in his book, Sabbath, writes, “At our best, we become Sabbath for one another. We are the emptiness, the day of rest. We become space, that our loved one, the lost and the sorrowful, may find rest in us.

If we read the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, in the Hebrew, rather than in English, we will see that the primary words for “heart” also mean mind, understanding and will – more like the Chinese concept for mind than our Western concept. And in Jeremiah, God promises a new covenant, a new covenant “written on their hearts” which I reflected in my Assurance of Forgiveness this morning when I said, “God forgives us and does not even remember our sins.”

This new heart-based covenant reflects Jeremiah’s vision for the future, a vision where God and God’s people will be in a covenantal relationship, the kind of relationships we believe we should have with each other in our Larger Parish. “I am yours, and you are mine,” says the Lord. This is the language of love and faithfulness.

When I read the news, I wonder if God is sorry again, as in the time of Noah, that God made humankind, because [the violence] grieves God’s heart?” Imagine how God feels when eight people are killed in Atlanta, seven of them women, six of them of Asian descent. Imagine how the Asian community’s hearts feel with the increase of hate crimes against them – mostly against women….

Yet, God loves us in spite of ourselves and hears our plea for a clean heart! God’s salvation is waiting for us . . .. How? Because of what is written on our hearts! Not our physical heart, pulsing in the center of our chests, but our spiritual center that only God can fill – a center that is based not on law but on a relationship with the divine One who does the laundry.

What is written on our hearts this morning? Can we acknowledge that we are broken people? Undone by circumstances beyond our control, like COVID? Betrayed by the life choices of others? Angry that the world around us has changed? Grief-stricken with the losses that surrounded us?

At the heart of Christianity is the possibility of transformation and healing in human life. But first there is the petition for mercy, like King David’s, and the washing out of the stains – the fears, the guilt, the attitudes, some of which may have been there since we were children – and the installation of a clean heart. That is the message of Lent. We have to get cleaned up before we can really live again.

Can we acknowledge that we are sinful people who yearn to be washed clean and folded into the arms of a loving God? Can we trust God to lead us? In John’s gospel, our lesson for today, the depth of God’s covenant with us is evident, but first we must make choices: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life,” (John 12;25) Jesus says.

In other words, those who play it safe, live in the past, think only of themselves, will lose their lives. And those who are willing to risk a new future, will live forever in those who come after us – and in God. Imagine a Larger Parish where God’s people know the promises of God deep in their hearts – a community where the people know that the power of God’s saving love is at the heart of their identity. That is the community of love into which we are being invited. That is the salvation being held out to us this Lent.

What will we do with our newly washed and clean hearts? I pray for restored lives and willing and sustained spirits. May it be so! Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church, UCC

For God So Loved
John 3:14-21
March 14, 2021

If you grew up in the church, you probably can’t remember when you first heard this verse of scripture, one of the best-known and best-loved in the Bible. It has been the centerpiece of Sunday School lessons and sermons for generations. And it is frequently lifted up as a pithy summary of the Christian faith. It’s even become a cliché, lifted up on signs in the bleachers at football games and printed on bags at Christian bookstores. When my son, Craig, was a toddler, I’d sing to him the John Stainer anthem, “For God so Loved the World,” as I patted his back while he was going to sleep. And I listened to them again as I wrote this reflection.

This passage follows the exchange between Nicodemus, a Jewish religious authority, who has come to question Jesus under the cover of darkness, to find out what Jesus is all about, who he is, how he performs all these “signs.” They have a discussion about being “born again,” and Nicodemus is totally confused.

As are we. This is a complex text, characterized by word play, misunderstanding, and irony, complicated by double meanings of the Greek words, and missing the immediacy of Jesus and Nicodemus in the middle of the night, with their heads together in conversation, Jesus trying one metaphor after another to get his point across. Plus, John is a sophisticated gospel, very different from that of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – which are seen as essentially telling the same story; John’s gospel is without their homely stories and ethical teachings, such as, “The kingdom of Heaven is like….”

Instead, the gospel of John, written decades after Jesus walked this earth, and probably not by the disciple John, son of Zebedee, the beloved disciple who leaned on Jesus’ breast at the last supper. But, more likely, by teachers who grew up around the name of John, now known as the Johannine school. This is a community attempting to understand the incarnation, God with us, as in his Prologue … “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

All the gospel writers are writing for an audience: Mark for the earliest followers, after the temple was destroyed in 70 C.E.; Matthew, next, to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures; then Luke, for a more sophisticated Greek and Roman audience. John brings up the rear, with it’s very high Christology, identifying Jesus as divine, even having Jesus identify himself as divine.

We are left to struggle with some contradictions, however: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” We don’t know how much of this is John speaking – with belief as a prerequisite for salvation – or Jesus’ reflecting God’s love for the whole world, regardless of belief. Since this pronouncement is found only in John, we can’t check the other gospels for their “take” on it. At Bible Study we are reading the three letters attributed to the Johannine school – I, II, and III John – and we see that there was schism in the community. People were leaving and being threatened, so we have to wonder if this tension is being reflected in the gospel – who is “in” and who is “out.”

So does God’s love extend to all people? Or is God’s love conditional on our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior before it is bestowed. Which way is it? What do you think? Our Christian denomination historically has made “character” the requirement for membership, not belief, and in our Moosup Valley mission statement, we “respect each person’s beliefs.”

This morning, however, we are lifting up One Great Hour of Sharing, and instead of trying to make sense of this thorny theological thicket, I’m going to lean toward my understanding of Jesus as a student of Isaiah who leaned toward God’s love for everyone, “no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey.”

This past year under the pandemic has been a difficult one for all of us, but no more difficult than for the Israelites in exile in Babylon, some 500 years before Jesus’ birth, when the writer of Isaiah promises restoration with these words: [in Peterson’s contemporary Message translation]
God also says:
When the time’s ripe, I answer you. When victory’s due,
I help you. I form you and use you to reconnect the people with me,
To put the land in order, to resettle families on the ruined properties.
I tell prisoners, “Come on out, You’re free!”
and those huddled in fear, “It’s all right. It’s safe now.”
There’ll be food stands along all the roads, picnics on all the hills –

Nobody hungry, nobody thirsty, shade from the sun,
shelter from the wind,
For the Compassionate One guides them,
takes them to the best springs.
I’ll make all my mountains into roads,
turn them into a superhighway.
Look: These coming from far countries,
and those, out of the north,
These streaming in from the west,
and those from all the way down the Nile! (Isaiah 49:8-12)

This is the narrative that I believe Jesus embodied, a God who embraced the whole world, a God who recognizes that Israel’s responsibilities extend beyond their own borders and their own people, a God who wants us to show compassion and mercy as an expression of our being God’s people. With COVID-19, we have seen that a virus does not distinguish between the boundaries of countries and economies, and neither should we. With our OGHS offering we recognize that our well-being is tied up with those neighbors both close to home and those half-way around the world. And so, we are encouraged to give generously, to let love flow, because God so loved the world. And when we do, here are some of the specific examples that we are living the life that Jesus teaches:

In Nicaragua, our offerings are helping families to have enough food.

A farmer named Rene Bermudez is raising stingless Melipona bees,
which produce medicinal honey that he can sell, and through this program
he also is learning about poultry raising and now has 40 hens that produce eggs and some he can sell. He and other farmers there have been hit hard by climate change, from too much rain, and then not enough rain. Though our OGHS offerings, they learn how to build a sustainable life. Because God so loved the world….

In Vietnam, our offerings are helping families have better hygiene.

Hanh and her mom live in a poor rural village about 135 miles northwest of Hanoi where people still use bushes and streams as bathrooms. Two years ago, offerings brought modern latrines and clean water taps to Hanh’s school, so when the virus came they were able to have clean water and better health. God’s compassion, flowing through us means healthier children. Because God so loved the world….

In California, our offerings are helping UCC churches that are making meals for migrant workers and for families who are quarantining during COVID, and responding to evacuates of tens of thousands of wild fires every year. Because God so loved the world….

In Kenya, our offerings are drilling wells so women and their children don’t have to walk
12 miles in search of rivers and ponds with five-gallon containers to fill with water.

Namanu Macharia still walks from her home to retrieve water, but now it’s less 

than a third of a mile, so she can leave her food cooking, fetch water, and be back in time. Residents pay a modest fee for clean water which covers the operating system and maintenance costs. Each well serves 2,850 community members and two schools, the local livestock market, and a health center which serves more than 4,800 people.
Because God so loved the world….

When we give to the One Great Hour of Sharing, God’s love flows through us to all the world. The world that God loves – and wants us to love. I have given to this offering all my life, but reading the materials and realizing how much can be done with our gifts, I’m going to do more this year. I’m going to give everything I can to help fulfill God’s promise: nobody hungry, nobody thirsty.

May it be so! Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC
What Consumes Us?
John 2:13-22
March 7, 2021

It’s the day everyone has been looking forward to for weeks. Passover, the celebration of the exodus, liberation from captivity in Egypt. Close to three million pilgrims have made the journey to Jerusalem, the geographical and spiritual center of the Jewish people. They have come to satisfy their religious duty, to make new friends and reconnect with old ones, and, yes, to party.

Picture it: Crowds descending on the temple, anxious to purchase their sacrifice. Most have traveled long distances, so it had not been practical to bring a cow or carry a lamb or a dove with them. They count on being able to buy one when they get there. Plus, they are afraid their own animal may not survive the journey – or may not be judged suitable by the inspectors.

I can imagine their haste to find just the right animal, the purest. The first pilgrims there would have their pick of the best. Those who had trouble along the way were late to arrive. Perhaps a woman in the late stages of pregnancy, or a child who demanded to be carried, or a relative who was lame, held them up, slowed them down. But now they have arrived in Jerusalem at long last, hungry and tired.

Picture it with me: Finally, here at the magnificent temple! For some, their first visit, perhaps the visit of a lifetime. They enter the temple court – an open area of about 24 acres surrounded by columns. It must have looked something like the Foster Fairgrounds to the nth degree during Old Home Days – without the columns, of course – filled to overflowing with people. See the people of all shapes and sizes milling about. Hear the cries of frightened cows. See lambs tethered, pulling against their restraints, and doves flapping in cages. Everywhere, the smell of animals, sweat, fear – and blood as the sacrifices were made….

Imagine wide-eyed children from villages who had never seen anything like it. Parents trying to keep track of the family. Where are you? Don’t get lost! Hold my hand! People pushing, tripping over bundles, jostling in lines, searching for coins in the folds of their robes.

And, yes, there is the problem of the money. The coins the pilgrims had brought with them could not be used because they were stamped with the face of the emperor and violated the commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol…, so their coins had to be converted to plain coins. Of course, there would be a markup, just as there is today wherever money is exchanged. Everyone was lining up before the money-changers’ tables. And all this had to be done quickly, before sundown,and the start of the Passover celebration.

And then the commotion escalates. Jesus – perhaps with some of his disciples – has caused a scene. He was always doing this, wasn’t he? Revolutionaries often made trouble during the Passover; Pontius Pilot has ridden in the from coast with his troops – to keep order.

Jesus has fashioned himself a whip. We can imagine it licking the back of the neck and shoulders of the farmers selling their wares, grazing their rumps and driving the sheep and the cattle out of the court. He has turned over the tables of the money changers; tossed their coins into the air to land across the rough ground. He has put a stop to the buying and selling, at least for the moment!

What does it all mean? For us, it means we can stop thinking about “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” the hymn I grew up with in the Methodist Hymnal. At least not only meek and mild; Jesus could be ferocious and consumed with anger when people were being taken advantage of and abused. So we learn from Jesus, our model for how life should be lived and cared for, that anger is okay, a normal human emotion, even an appropriate one, given the circumstances.

Why is Jesus angry in this case? Why does upset the business in the temple? Probably not that animals were being sacrificed. And probably not that money was being exchanged, at least not only that. Although Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s version of the story (but not John’s) accuses the temple businesses of robbing the pilgrims.

No, for Jesus the issue may be even more fundamental than that! More likely that this grandiose, superficial display of piety on this important feast day had been reduced to this: a commercial spectacle, not a house of worship. Jesus is consumed with a very human yearning for true worship – and true relationships between God and people and between people.

This “cleansing of the temple story,” as it is called, is found in all four gospels, which means it was an important event and a widely circulated story in the early church. Why? Because they were surrounded by a larger society in which people were being exploited, as we see here, and as they tried to figure out how to follow Jesus – how to be the church – they could easily have been exploiting each other.

When we tend to think that our churches and Jesus are synonymous, we should remember that the Jesus we study this morning challenged every ruling system that cannot see a fresh revelation, including ours. And here in our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is consumed with his mission to bring the Jewish religious practices back to basics, back to the prophetic call of love of God and love of neighbor. He was consumed by God, with the truth, with the poor and the hungry and the sick.

Jesus doesn’t like “systems” that exploit people. The temple authorities have tolerated the practice of money changers. They have probably turned a blind eye to price fixing. It suits their own income needs, and provides for patronage jobs. Just as the sacrifice of animals puts food on their tables.

Jesus would not like systems that exploit people today: He would be angry that the gap is growing wider, especially during the pandemic, between the super wealthy and big corporations and the rest of us. He would be appalled by poverty in the richest country in the world. It’s no wonder people today feel left behind. They are. We are. Just as in ancient days.

Jesus raises his whip to disarm all such systems. Jesus, our teacher and role model, was consumed. It was this zeal for God’s truth that brought him to the cross. And what consumes us, this third Sunday in Lent, half-way to the cross? Jesus would have us be consumed not so much with ourselves as with the community’s welfare, as with the common good.

May it be so!
Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC
Saving Our Lives
Mark 8:31-38
February 28, 2021

As you know, we have been working our way through the first chapter in Mark since January, and in the chapters that follow, although we haven’t read them, it’s been one healing after another and the feeding of thousands of hungry people and the telling of parables and teachings. The first half of Mark is a love feast, really. But very little is said about who Jesus is and how he is able to do all these things.

Today, the lectionary catapults us from chapter 1 to chapter 8, the middle of Mark’s gospel, and the tone changes without warning. From here on, Mark places less emphasis on miracles and more on Jesus’ identity. In fact, immediately before today’s text, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter, replying for them all, says, “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus is cautious about accepting that title and, in fact, says “I am the son of man,” a “yes, but” kind of response indicating that he’s not the kind of Messiah Peter is speaking of.
Before Jesus’ time, the longed-for Messiah was to be a military leader who would overthrow the Roman oppressors and restore Israel to former glory. But that doesn’t seem to fit with what Jesus has in mind, and so he is reluctant, perhaps, to acknowledge his spiritual messiahship.

And then, he must know, there is the recognition of his coming suffering if Jesus continues ruffling feathers – an outcome that I imagine Jesus would like to avoid if he could. Wouldn’t we all? Remember his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “If this cup can be taken from me…, but not my will, but yours.” Jesus would have been a child when the Romans executed zealots by the hundreds, crosses dotting the landscape, men moaning, a scene calculated to intimidate the populace into being quiet and submissive, and paying their exorbitant taxes to Caesar.

But by referring to himself as “Son of Man,” Jesus is identifying with us, ordinary people who struggle and suffer and die. And he invites us to suffer with him, to take up our own crosses. But just as I often say that preachers are really talking to themselves, perhaps Jesus is really talking to himself with his, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Peter’s objection to suffering must be tempting, and so Peter becomes like “Satan!” for Jesus.

So what does this “losing” and “finding” our lives mean to you and me? The teaching shows up in all four gospels and in what is sometimes called the fifth gospel, the Gospel of Thomas, all of them worded slightly differently, showing this was an often talked-about teaching that took slightly different forms in this early Christian movement. We can’t forget that our forebears in the faith were a persecuted minority; they were losing their lives, literally! So this must have been an important memory in the fledging Christian community, something to bring comfort and fortitude.

So, what does it mean to “take up our cross and follow Jesus”? What does it mean to lose our life in order to find it? And is it necessarily and always a burden – or could it be liberating and life-giving? Pastor Deitrick Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship” was an important book in the religious community, one that challenged the church after World War II when the pews in Germany were filled with Nazi officers in uniform and support for Hitler. Bonhoeffer was appalled by the Nazis and their persecution of the Jews – and anybody else who didn’t go along with the authoritarian drift of Germany. I have a friend whose parents fled across the border into Switzerland in the middle of the night, no time to say goodbye to family.

Bonhoeffer spoke out against Hitler until he was arrested. “We have spent too much time in thinking …” he wrote, “We have learnt, rather too late, that action comes not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.” Yet, sitting in the cell where he was detained, he must have felt some peace that he had done what he could to stop the horror of the Holocaust. Just before the Allies liberated the camps, he was led out, stripped of his clothes, and a noose slipped over his neck.

This week I read a story in Plough Quarterly about a successful businessman in Philadelphia, Tom Potts, who grew dissatisfied with his life. He had a wife and three children and all the material things one could ever want. He served on a lot of committees and worked on good causes, but “nothing specially came of it,” he said.

Potts was a Quaker, and in 1952, he sent an open letter to the Friends Meeting.

For all my adult life I have been frustrated by the contradiction between
ordinary American life and the impossible teaching of Jesus’ second commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” I make out all right during the week: I have a good job and I am part owner of a steel warehouse. We have a most congenial working group and enjoy the game of competing in the marketplace for available business. We advertise honestly, we charge fair prices, we are concerned about good employee relations, we have a Christmas party, we give generously to the community chest, and we have a profit-sharing scheme.

But do I love my neighbor as myself? Am I concerned for the clerk who has come to work in the streetcar while I drive a big car? Do I give the community chest just what I don’t need anyway? Do I share the profit in reality, or do I save a big percentage for my old age, before the distribution? Yet, if I gave it all away, what would my family and I live on? How foolish can you get?

But Jesus did not say, “Love your neighbor after taking care of yourself.” Then on Sunday when I go to meeting for worship … I realize again and again that all men are children of God and brothers to each other. But what do I do about it? He goes on to say (and remember he was writing 70 years ago, but has anything changed?) “Our social and economic system is based on the premise that if each looks out for himself the end result will benefit everyone. But does it? What about the third of our nation who are still ill-fed, ill-housed, and ill-clothed, not to speak of the millions upon millions in the underdeveloped parts of the world? He asks himself, “What are you doing to create a social and economic system which will so function as to sustain and enrich life for all?”

And so Tom Potts and his family left the life that they knew – and that many would envy – and joined a community where they shared everything with others who lived there. Tom was asked to manage the community’s woodworking business, Community Playthings, which made wooden toys and play equipment and classroom furniture. And when children with disabilities began to be integrated into the classroom, he developed products modified for these children as a new business, Rifton Equipment. The income not only supported the community but also provided employment for those who lived there. With the creation of every new product, Tom would think about the child who would use it one day.

In a similar way, a South Korean engineer found her true calling. Hyeran Jang had been working with a group toward the reunification of North and South Korea, and she helped plan a peace village to be built in the demilitarized zone. She writes,

Suddenly one thought came to my heart strongly. I felt that God wanted me to pray for our nation for a whole year. So I decided to quit my job to spend one year in pilgrimage and prayer, traveling around Korea … I wanted to know how God was working in Korea, and I also wanted to find the place where God was calling me to be. During that year I was inspired by reading the Gospels and was deeply moved by God’s love for this world.

Jang said, “I felt like I was on a cliff, and I had to either keep standing there or jump. I decided to jump—to give up everything.”

Poet Mary Oliver asks in The Summer Day, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

We have been taught to think of discipleship as a burden and a denying of self, but perhaps it’s really a joy, a finding of self, this losing of our life in order to find it. Perhaps it’s an attempt to find meaning in our lives, to be in touch with who we really are and what we are meant to be and do, to align ourselves with our purpose in life, with God’s purpose for us. And that means that we are called to work for wholeness in the world and for all of God’s beloved people, to follow in the way of Jesus.

The Way of the Gospel is not the way of the world. We are called to work against systems of oppression and death – but to do so, I believe, by finding what piece of the action belongs to each of us – the piece that brings us peace and joy, the piece where we find our meaning.

May it be so!
Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC
Wilderness
Mark 1:9-15
February 21, 2021

For the fourth week in a row, we are in the first chapter of Mark, and we have backtracked a few verses to the story about Jesus’ baptism and the launch of his ministry. Mark tells the same story as Matthew and Luke, but he does it straight up, short and to the point, without embellishments.

The story itself must have been an embarrassment to the early church because Jesus, who supposedly is without sin, has brought himself to the River Jordan to be cleansed of his sin along with the masses. Jesus has gone there on purpose to make a statement that he’s not too good to mingle with the masses, people on the margins of society – the lame and the blind and the poor, those forgotten and considered unworthy by the good citizens of Palestine. And a voice from the heavens commends his choice, calls him “beloved” as he comes up out of the water.

And then Jesus goes out into the desert, the wilderness, a desolate place – a place with sandy soil, or a rocky plateau, or pasture lands far from settlements. This is classic hero mythology, a time of testing, of coming of age, of discernment, of garnering one’s courage to face the future. We see vestiges of this in contemporary times – Confirmation Classes and Believers’ Baptisms, Jewish Bat Mitzvahs and “coming out” parties for southern belles. If you google men’s self-discovery programs, you will find opportunities to join drumming circles nearby and recommendations of such books as “The Final Frontiersman” and “Failure Is Not an Option” available from Amazon.

Native American stories of boys of the tribe who go off for days alone without provisions where they commune with the Great Spirit as wolves howl nearby. Time to figure out who you are, what you value, how you want to live your life. Mark is telling a classic story, not just a Jesus story.

So what is our Jesus doing in the wilderness? Weighing a life of working in the carpenter’s shop, running his hands over the wood in his mind, a life of the easy companionship of friends and neighbors, people he grew up with in Nazareth? Considering Joseph who depended on his help as he aged? Considering his family, his mother who risked public humiliation and death by stoning to birth him out of wedlock? Perhaps he is troubled by the Roman occupation, the burden their taxes place on the already oppressed villagers? Perhaps he is ashamed by the silence of the religious establishment who seek to save their own skins and bow down to Caesar. Perhaps he is haunted by the words of the prophet Isaiah, that he studied as a child in Sabbath school in the synagogue, even as he fidgeted as boys do when they’d rather be out playing kick the can with their friends.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” he remembers Isaiah confessing, “because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the prisoners; … to comfort all who mourn….”

Forty days is a long time alone. What does it mean to be God’s son, God’s beloved? Time for the Spirit of God to wrestle with Satan. Surely Isaiah was writing metaphorically. He didn’t really mean me, Mary and Joseph’s son, did he? We don’t know about the nature of Jesus’ struggle in the wilderness, but Mark tells us that “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,…” Apparently he had reached some understanding of acceptance, some clarity of mission, some resolution of purpose.

Lent is about the struggle in the wilderness – the coming to terms with the personal wildernesses all around us — the underlying rage and fear left by childhood sexual abuse, the overwhelming grief and loneliness of the death of loved ones, the spirit-sucking, health-wrecking travesty of poverty. Lent is the time to take the challenge of the wilderness journey. What to take and what to leave behind? What is essential for life and what is not? If we have to carry it on our backs, what do we really need, and what is excess baggage?

And what about the silence? All that time to think? Which wild animals of our own thoughts and feelings will we encounter that we will no longer be able to outrun? And how will we tell the difference between Satan’s voice and those of the angels?

And we have our own collective demons which bedevil our society, do we not? Theologians remind us that the greatest heresy of our time is individualism, thinking that God only cares for my personal salvation and not for the world’s salvation.

On my drive back to RI yesterday, I was thinking about our demons, and I could name a bunch – violence, and all the isms and phobias of our times (sexism and racism and homophobia) and especially our exploitation of the environment. You know what they are. But I tried to go deeper; perhaps these public demons are just symptoms of underlying personal demons. Satan can be crafty!

One of them is EGO: We see it in “me first” talk as opposed to the common good; about rights and liberty and “don’t tread on me!” And so people refuse to wear masks during a pandemic and carry guns onto planes in their luggage. Yet, the gospel impels us to care as much about everyone’s safety as we do about our own.
And another is FEAR: We are afraid that life is a “Zero Sum Game,” that we’re not going to have enough, that there’s only so much of something to go around. And your gain is my loss – in wealth, in opportunity, in love. We don’t realize that when we share wealth and increase opportunity for a segment of society that all of us benefit. And so we worry about there not being enough vaccine, and if you get it before me, I might miss out, even though your getting the shot makes the community safer for me. Yet, the gospel impels us to care as much about everyone’s wellbeing as we do about our own. Love grows to meet the need. So, too, with wealth and resources.

There are many other demons, of course: UNCERTAINTY might be another, not knowing what to believe in the swirl of conspiracy theories, how to discern what’s factual and what’s fabricated. We need to learn to become critical thinkers, to be thoughtful and wise. “Then [we] will know the truth, and the truth will set [us] free.”

I wonder if Jesus struggled with any of these demons. And demons are hard to drive out; it takes more than 40 days, I’m certain, to banish a demon. But once we name them, we can begin to be attentive to God’s Spirit in the wilderness – with us, beside us, ministering to us.

Perhaps there are angels hovering overhead right now, over all the schools in the land. Perhaps there are angels hovering, right now, over all the homes and offices where fear and anger lurk and over all the war zones where bombs land and refugee boats sink. Perhaps there are angels hovering over all the open prairies and sea beds threatened by development.

Perhaps there are angels hovering over you and me, right now, inviting us on the Lenten journey into the wilderness to confront the wild beasts of our own hearts and souls, to confront the wild beasts of our own society and times.

Perhaps.
I pray that it may it be so!
Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC
Creating Compassionate Community
Mark 1:40-45
February 14, 2021

We are still reflecting on the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry as told by Mark, and, in just the first 45 verses of the first chapter, Jesus heals three people: First, two weeks ago, we read how he heals a man possessed of an evil spirit in the synagogue. Then, last Sunday, Simon’s mother-in-law in her own home. Finally, today, a leper out in the country. Mark has steadily moved us from the religious space, through the space of a private home, to the public space, strongly illustrating for us the overwhelming power of God’s presence in all human spaces. Today, we arrive in the open fields outside the city gates where the impure ones wander. Mark is making the point that God’s kingdom is everywhere we are.

So we begin this morning with the story of Jesus’ cleansing a leper. The man has no name, no life; he is a non-person, an outcast, a pariah. He cannot work, associate with people in the community, go to the synagogue. The priest has declared him ritually unclean, impure, and, according to the sacred purity laws in the Book of Leviticus, expelled him from religious and civil society.

We know the feeling because it is our situation under COVID; these laws served a purpose in ancient Israel, keeping the community healthy, just as masks and distancing and hand-washing keeps us healthy. But what it means for the leper in the story is that he cannot pray in the temple or go to the synagogue; he cannot visit his family and eat at their table. People avoid him, keep a safe distance, are repulsed by him. He might just as well be dead. There was no Zoom in ancient Palestine to keep him connected!

But stories about Jesus have reached him. Hope is spreading throughout Galilee. The leper believes that Jesus has the power to heal him, to make him whole. And desperation makes him bold: perhaps he thinks it is his only chance, and he comes and kneels at Jesus’ feet. “If you choose, you can make me clean,” he says. Mark reports that Jesus is moved with pity, and he matches the leper’s boldness by stretching out his hand and touching him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Jesus chooses compassion.

Scholars tell us that Jesus may be feeling more than just pity, however. Some ancient manuscripts read, Jesus was moved with anger! Anger? At whom? The leper for interrupting him? At the disease and the suffering? Or perhaps Jesus is angry at the religious establishment for casting out those who are different – the disabled, the slow learner, the poor, the immigrant, the one who has AIDS, the homecoming soldier with brain damage, the hard to love. And, since I don’t see too many of these people in our pews, I wonder if God is angry at us, too! We don’t know, do we? But these are questions worth our reflection.

We do know that Jesus shows compassion. The word comes from the Late Latin, com (with) + pati (to suffer), literally meaning to “suffer with” another. It’s about feelings, to feel the suffering of another, to come together in the suffering of another. Just look at our prayer list in the newsletter!

I wonder if it is suffering that makes us human. We all suffer, some of us more than others. So it is the experience and acknowledgment of our own suffering, and our own need for healing that makes it possible for us to reach out to another. Is that why Jesus was compassionate? We don’t know what Jesus’ life was like before he began his ministry. Had he suffered? Or was his compassion a response to the anticipation of his suffering? Surely, he must have had a foretaste of what was in store for him – if he continued to upset the powers-that-be, causing trouble for them, rousing the peasants and the countryside.

He must have suspected what was to come on the cross, as Mel Gibson so vividly portrays in his film, “The Passion of the Christ…,” his hands grasped and held on the crossbeams, the nail flashing in the sunlight, the hammer driving it home.
Perhaps, to the extent that we are in touch with our own suffering, then, we are able to be in touch with another’s suffering. And Jesus reaches out to touch the leper. With that action, two things happen: The leper is healed from his disease; he becomes clean, pure, and Jesus, himself, because he touched the leper, becomes ritually unclean, dirty.

And Jesus is angry, remember? He sends him off to the priest to confirm that he is clean, to do what is required in the law, so that he can reunite with his family, rejoin society.
Over and over, we see that Jesus’ greatest gift is compassion. And compassion is the way that we heal a broken world and broken lives. Can you remember a particular time or a situation when you felt compassion for someone? And what was the greatest act of compassion you have received from another? And when was the last time you treated yourself with compassion? Stopped feeling you had to be a super hero or stopped blaming yourself for something you did or didn’t do but think you should have?

A colleague told me the story about when her best friend in college died very suddenly. She was distraught. The next day her mother, unannounced, without being asked, flew up from North Carolina to her daughter’s college in MN to be with her. Her mother must have known, in her own heart, the loss. Feelings are the first steps to – and forerunners of – actions. But compassion need not wait for a crisis – we can be intentionally compassionate – and practical – in the ways we look out for each other.

Compassion creates the community of love. We’ve known for years that healthy relationships and healthy communities are what we need to keep us happy and healthy as we age. Relationships are the building blocks of compassion. One person at a time; one day at a time; one kindness at a time. When we take a meal to a someone just home from the hospital. When we buy food, Christmas gifts, and school supplies for needy families, we are practicing acts of compassion. When a member can’t get out to church but mails in her offering, she is practicing an act of compassion that keeps her connected.

It will be helpful to remember that Jesus didn’t stay in Nazareth to create compassionate community. He was everywhere: On the mountain. Throughout Galilee. In a boat on the Sea. Across the River Jordan into Gentile countryside. On his way to Jerusalem.

So let’s not stay “buttoned up” by ourselves: The Spirit calls us to proclaim compassionate community all up and down Moosup Valley Road and over into Greene, as far north as Chepachet and west into Connecticut, and as far south as Haiti, in search of those who need God’s healing presence and the Compassion of Christ. And when we gather our gifts for victims of disasters, and sponsor a child in Haiti, and pray for those who are struggling, we are following the Spirit’s call to proclaim compassionate community not only for our own families but also for all the families around us, and all those across the world.

“If you choose, you can heal me!” someone says with hope. “If you choose,…” Jesus waits to hear our reply, “We do choose!”

May it be so!
Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC
Healing Touch
Mark 1:29-39
February 7, 2021

Last week the scripture lesson was about Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue and healing a man possessed by a demon. In the ancient world, diseases of all kinds were lumped together as demon possession, and the cause was sin. Jesus was asked once when a sick child was brought to him, “Who sinned? The child or his parents?” Somebody must have; there was no other explanation. Jesus, however, rejects the tendency to consider sickness as sin, and he restores the tormented man to wholeness.

Today’s text is connected to last Sunday’s – when I preached on the “contest” between Jesus and the demon – except that the place of teaching has moved from the synagogue to Simon and Andrew’s house. This is significant because the early churches were house churches, and Mark is recognizing this by moving the action out of a public worship space, the synagogue, into a private worship space, the home, the center of the Jesus movement.

When Jesus and the disciples arrive, they discover sickness in the house. Simon and Andrew must be embarrassed that the hospitality they promised Jesus is not waiting on the stove. Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever, and people have been waiting for Jesus to come to heal her. Imagine their anxiety over this capable grandmother who usually took care of the household, now burning with fever, bed ridden, helpless. Is she possess of a demon? What other explanation was there? Fear lurked in the corners of the room. Her daughter must have been putting cold cloths on her head; hushing the grandchildren to be quiet, looking down the dusty road for a sign of Jesus.

And then Jesus was there. He took her by the hand, and she was able to rise and minister to them. With this action in the very first chapter of Mark’s gospel, Simon’s mother-in-law becomes the first deacon, the first servant of the church, a servant as Jesus is servant.
Church-goers today miss the significance of this text. Jesus risked catching her illness – we would understand that – but he, a rabbi, also risked ritual uncleanliness – just by touching a woman. So Jesus is not only a healer but he is an equal opportunity healer. Women receive his attention as much as their husbands and sons do.

Now, does Jesus know Simon’s mother-in-law? Had he been in her home before, perhaps served by her before? I expect so, probably often. Jesus behaves like “family” as he enters the house. And so this text reminds us that the early church was very much a family affair, in much the same way our country churches are family affairs.

In addition, we cannot dismiss the significance of Jesus’ touching the mother-in-law. And, in fact, the scriptures refer to touching a number of times. In one incidence after another, in both Old and New Testaments, someone is touched, and that touch makes a difference: The woman who pushes through the crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe; the blind man whose eyes touched are restored to sight; the little girl whom he touches to bring her back to life. One incident after another points to the power of touch. It might even be said that, in the Bible, touch is a metaphor for intimacy, for presence, for relationship.

Psychologists remind us of the power of touch to give life. Depriving infants and young children of touch has a devastating effect on their developmental and social skills. Babies who are not held and cuddled don’t thrive. Even our pets need to be touched. When I was a teenager, I remember my father walking around the house with our cat, Mittens, tucked under his arm, and he said to me, “You know, Betsy, when you think how much love an animal needs, imagine how much more love people need.”
And look how many people adopted a pet when the pandemic hit, just to have something to cuddle.

Now, we don’t know why Simon’s mother-in-law was bedridden with a fever. But Jesus’ touch restored her to wholeness, just as his words restored the demonic in the synagogue to wholeness. For Jesus, teaching and healing were part of the same ministry.

And think of all those people dying of COVID in ICU without their families, and how the nurses are the ones who hold phones up to their ears and their hands as they take their last breath. Jesus came and took her by the hand and then the fever left her. Commentator P.C. Enniss notes,

The power of touch, of intimacy, of nearness, to make whole: Jesus must have understood that which we are too often too slow to comprehend. Love not expressed, love not felt, is difficult to trust. Theologically speaking, that is the reason for the incarnation. God knew the human need for nearness. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love, which makes it all the more demanding (if frightening) to realize that for some people, we are the only Jesus they will ever meet.

We too often think of God as “up there” or “out there” without realizing that God is “right here” in our midst in and among us and through us, in all the places, and in all the ways, we touch each other.

But that is not enough, to heal only those we already love. The one who has come and has been found in prayer, the one who teaches and heals, never stays put. The missionary work is extended out into the world. The disciples are those on the road spreading God’s kingdom of love and justice.

And so it must be for us, reaching out to our families and neighbors, as near as the one beside you, and as far away as refugees across the world. All of us, in need of God’s healing touch. All of us made whole.

May it be so!
Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC
The Contest
Mark 1:21-28
January 31, 2021

Jesus has barely begun. A baptism in the Jordan by his cousin John. A 40-day temptation in the wilderness and then a trip to the Sea of Galilee where he recruits his first disciples. Then the five of them – Jesus, Simon, Andrew, James, and John – continue on to Capernaum.

On the Sabbath, they go to the synagogue, where a contest ensues. Note that we are barely through the first chapter in the gospel of Mark, and we have a contest – not between football teams – but the first of many between Jesus and the powers of evil, between Jesus and the status quo, between Jesus and social convention.

Today’s story is a story within a story, and the overlapping of the two stories. Jesus stands up to teach, and his teachings are different from the Scribes who merely pass on the traditions that have been handed down for generations. But Jesus adds to and builds on those traditions. Mark does not tell us what Jesus says, but he tells us that Jesus is heard as someone who speaks with authority and whose words have the power to transform.

Now, Mark is writing at least half a century after the birth of Jesus, and he draws on stories handed on by word-of-mouth in the early church. He writes in a pre-scientific age and with a world view that predates the fields of medicine and psychology, when epilepsy, and neurological disorders, and mental illness were lumped together as “demon possession.”

And so, Jesus’ first “contest” is with an “unclean spirit.” Note that this unclean spirit has entered sacred time, the Sabbath, and sacred space, the synagogue. Mark, more so than Matthew, Luke or John, emphasizes Jesus’ miraculous power to heal and to exorcise. (Of the 18 miracle stories he records, 13 have to do with healing, and 4 of the 13 are exorcisms.)

Very early, then, the scriptures hinted at the close relationship between religion and health. To be possessed by a devil or unclean spirit is to be “impure” in biblical language. To be contrary to the sacred, to be outside the sanctity of God. Here in this place, Jesus intercedes. No one is outside of God’s love and concern. Jesus’ actions tell us what God is like, what God cares about.

In our churches, we expect everyone to have it all together – emotionally, physically, socially, spiritually. We expect church to be safe and restful – not confusing, chaotic, or violent. We expect everyone to be “pure,” no devils or unclean spirits. Yet those are just the people Jesus is coming to heal.

A study of the roots of the medieval English language shows that the words “health,” and “whole,” and “holy” come from the same root and express different sides of the same truth. When we are healthy, we are whole; and when we are whole, we are holy. This is what God wants for us.

And so, in the synagogue, Jesus, a man possessed by the Spirit of God, confronts a man possessed by a “monkey-on-his-back,” a man tortured and oppressed. Jesus liberates him from whatever burden he carries and restores him to wholeness, to holiness. His words carry the power to make the unclean, clean. Jesus wins this contest, hands down!

Tampa Bay plays Kansas City in the Superbowl next Sunday, a contest in which you may have a stake, emotional if not financial, especially since Tom Brady is playing.
But it’s not the only contest in which we are engaged. We, too, harbor our own demons of aging and illness and disability. We are engaged in contests with cancer and heart disease, kidney failure and addictions, Alzheimer’s and COVID-19, marital discord and life-sucking workplaces.

And we live in a world that begs for transformation. There are contests playing all around us. Demons of hunger and poverty, racism and sexism, violence and oppression, refugees and immigrants fleeing for their lives, the rape of the environment and climate change. In Mark’s story, Jesus takes action to liberate a child of God from his bondage, and we hear the echoes of Isaiah (58:6) in the background: “Is this not the fast that I choose – notice the action words: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”

This authority that Jesus transmits to the disciples – to preach and to cast out demons – is the authority that Jesus, by extension, transmits to you and me. The people are amazed. “What is this?” they asked. What is this, we might ask?

Mark’s gospel puts us on notice, right from Chapter 1, that the boundary-breaking,
demon-dashing, law-transcending Son of God has arrived in the person of Jesus, and he expects of his followers, you and me, far more than amazement.

Jesus’ words guide the church to create and be spaces of freedom and places of healing and opportunities for communion. Not just information, but transformation. The ball is passed to us.

Yes, Jesus, make us faithful, true, and whole!
Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church, UCC
Follow Me
Mark 1:14-20
January 24, 2021

We’re back in Mark’s gospel this week, picking up where we left off after Jesus’ baptism several weeks ago. Context is important to understanding the story. And there are many lessons here for us.

Our story today begins as John exits center stage, and Jesus steps onto it. Mark is a man of few words, so every word carries weight – and this one is ominous. He writes,
“Now after John was arrested…” John had criticized Herod for his illegal marriage under Jewish law, what’s called speaking truth to power, and the authorities have caught up with him; we know he will soon lose his head. Preaching the gospel can get you into trouble. Faithful living has consequences, in every generation.

With John gone, there is a leadership vacuum, and Jesus steps up. Scholars think that Jesus was one of John’s disciples, and after John is arrested, Jesus fills the void – although he preaches a different, more spiritual kind of repentance from that of John’s.
Immediately before this, he has been away in the wilderness, coming to terms with his calling, sorting out what kind of a preacher he will be, gathering courage for what lies ahead – and now he’s as ready as he ever will be.

“The time is fulfilled,” Jesus says, “Repent,” which means, in this Biblical context, not saying you’re sorry for your sins, as we might repent today, but to turn your life around 180 degrees, to live a righteous life.

Then Jesus recruits four fishermen going about their daily lives – Simon and Andrew, James and John – and he invites them “to turn their lives around” in ways that they could never have imagined. How could they have done that, just laid down their nets and walked away? I would have had to organize everything first, given assignments, tied up loose ends. But no, Mark says these men “immediately… left their nets and followed him.” Jesus must have been quite compelling.

And then there is something else that we might acknowledge – they have to leave where they are to follow Jesus. Perhaps there’s a message for us in this, too: Being a disciple requires turning from the comfort and certainty of what we know to a future we don’t know. It requires us to take action, to make a change, to pick up and move – physically, mentally, emotionally.
In her poem, The Journey, Mary Oliver says, “One day you finally knew, what you had to do, and began…”

We can’t be disciples if we are afraid to step out and take a chance. We can’t sit in the boat – or on the couch, or on a rocker on the porch – and say, “I can follow Jesus right now from here, no problem.” OR I know that I should try this or do that … you fill in the blank … (for me it was the ministry), but we think, I’m settled now, so no need to rock the boat; I’m too old now, to follow the call, to pull together a life that I once thought God was calling me to.”

In spite of the consequences, Jesus preaches. In spite of the consequences, the four fishermen follow. And although these four can’t know in advance, we know that the consequences of faithful living also include the experience of true resurrection – resurrection to new awareness, new opportunity, new relationships, new life.

In addition, hidden and easy to overlook in Mark’s text, is the fact that Simon and Andrew are casting nets from the beach but James and John from a boat. So, we have a class issue here, a gap between the wealthy who had a boat (and could go out into deeper water where there were more fish) and the poor who could only cast in shallow water, so there is a big difference in their economic opportunity.

Discipleship sometimes means leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar – and getting to know people who are different from us. Greater Good Magazine notes that political polarization has become a problem for Americans as we spend more and more time only with people who are like us – making it easier for us to demonize others outside of our social circle, those who hold other points of view. Disciples are those who are willing to risk leaving the familiar.

We also know that fishermen in Jesus’ day, like shepherds, had a reputation for being a little rough around the edges. Yet they were the ones that Jesus called. We might think they would have been the most unlikely ones for Jesus to call. Why not choose men who had more experience with crowd control or feeding multiple people or with education who could advise him on a fair distribution of resources in Galilee or health care policy for the blind and the lame. But no, he chooses these men whose only qualification is a willingness to leave the comfortable for the uncomfortable.

Disciples are those who are willing to risk leaving where they are. In his book, A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century, journalist Jason DeParle follows a woman and her family for 30 years as they travel around the world in search of work, then send money back to their family in the Philippines. Rosalie works the night shift in a hospital in Galveston, Texas, caring for her patients with great love – the love she first thought of giving to God as a nun, but now as a nurse in the U.S. where we need skilled nurses.

DeParle’s book is said to be one of the best books on immigration written in our time. He notes that “the money that migrants send back to their families is three times the world’s foreign-aid budgets combined. Migration is the world’s largest self-help program, the world’s largest antipoverty program. It’s hugely important to the people back home who are relying on the money they get for education, for health care, for food, for shelter.”

Our scholarships for our children in Haiti do that for the children Rose introduces us to. In this case, Rose is the one who leaves and invites us into discipleship with her.

Here in Foster, it’s a long way from Opening Day of Fishing Season. But we know that fishing is more than casting nets and pulling in the haul. There’s work to be done between now and then to be ready – untangling the line, tying flies, buying the license.

Just so with discipleship. It’s not a once-and-done proposition but a lifetime of listening to the call, of discerning how and where to serve, of mustering our courage, of realizing that we are worthy and capable, that it’s not so much what we do as who we are – and we do not walk alone.

May it be so!
Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

The Word

John 1:1-14

January 17, 2021

John begins his Gospel with these beautiful words, this wondrous Prologue, as it is called – “In the beginning was the Word,…” It brings to mind the Book of Genesis, “In the beginning, God created… and it is John’s equivalent of a birth narrative, though without a baby in a manger as we have in Matthew and Luke, though not in Mark, the first gospel.

John is writing years after the other gospel writers when the stories about Jesus have been influenced by the Greek world, and they have become more philosophical, less folksy. In the Prologue, John is introducing themes he will explore, dichotomies such as light and dark, heaven and earth, God and flesh.  These are questions that were of particular interest to his readers – Gentiles and Greeks, Gnostics and disciples of Plato and Pythagoras.  John is making the case to this audience, late in the first century or early in the second, that Jesus is God’s Word, entering into time and space.  “In the beginning was the Word . . ..”

So, what’s in a word?  Is a word a thing?  Something you can hold in your hand?  No.  But you can think a word with your mind, or speak a word with your voice, and with that word refer to something of substance or an idea.  And with a word, you can communicate that something to another person, and build ideas upon ideas, like a tower of children’s blocks.

So we might ask, What is the meaning of language?  Why do we need words, anyway?  Why can’t the wag of a tail or a nod of the head or a robust purr explain how we feel or what we want?  Obviously, because without words, we can’t express complex ideas.  Words are symbols of experiences, feelings, ideas and proposals.  Words are not real – but they point to what is real.  Simply put, all language is metaphor, a symbol or code that stands in for something else. 

Of course, words and their multiple meanings certainly can create confusion.  For example:  A woman goes into the post office to buy stamps for her Christmas cards. She says to the clerk, “May I have 50 Christmas stamps please?”  The clerk says, “What denomination?”  The woman replies, “God, help us!  Has it come to this?  Give me 22 Catholic, 12 Presbyterian, 10 Lutheran and 6 Baptist.

So, what’s in a word?  Words can communicate feelings: “I love you.” “I’m sorry.” “I miss you!”  “I am so angry…!”  “I am afraid.”  “I’m lonely.”  And words can serve as moments of grace: “I forgive you.”  “I’m calling to offer you the job.”  “Yes, our church can help with your electric bill.”  And, of course, “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” 

What’s in a word?  Words can pass judgment; and words can kill:  It’s not true, what we learned as children on the playground:  “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!”  You know it’s not true if you’ve been called “fatty” or “stupid” or worse!  Words can bless or curse, heal or wound, unite or divide, soothe a baby – or summon a mob.

Some people adopt a resolution for the year and others choose a word – love – joy – peace – patience – generosity….  Kim’s church here on the Cape encouraged everyone to take a word this year and even sent one out with every newsletter – for those who wanted help choosing one.  Psychologist Becky Bailey says in her book, Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline: The Seven Basic Skills for Turning Conflict into Cooperation, “What you focus on, you get more of,” and advises us to focus on those things we want to nurture.

These days – the way words fly around on the internet – we don’t have to wait for the evening paper to hear the words of the day.  Words travel like the speed of light around the globe.  And it’s difficult to know what words to believe, what words to trust, what words are factual, true – and what words are designed to mislead, to undermine trust, to create an alternate reality.  I think of Pilate’s question to Jesus during Jesus’ trial, “What is truth?”

Several years ago, the University of Rhode Island published an article in their alumni magazine entitled, “The Age of Disinformation,” which highlighted the problem.  They noted that identifying credible sources of information – what’s factual versus what’s fabricated – is now one of the core competencies students are required to develop in order to graduate.  The author identified six types of fake news:  disinformation, propaganda, hoaxes, satire/parody, partisanship, and inaccuracies in journalism.  Honest mistakes always occur, of course, and newspapers are duty bound to correct them as soon as possible.

But this age of intentional disinformation goes further – and it’s not new!  Examples of such words being used to promote a position go back centuries. During the American revolution, Benjamin Franklin swayed British opinion by printing fake newspaper stories in London papers.  And the Spanish-American War in 1890 was started by two New York newspapers competing with each other.

Today’s conspiracy theories often come from young, tech-savvy webmasters in Eastern Europe, where jobs are scarce, and where they have discovered they can make a good living by creating false narratives, and they don’t care about their sources or whether they are true. We read these stories, think they are real or funny, and circulate them to our networks.

Some are harmless “urban legends,” like the story of the mature woman who rammed the red convertible of the young guy who stole her parking place and said, “That’s what you can do when you are young and fast,” and she crumpled his fender and replied, “That’s what you can do when you’re old and rich.”  We laugh!  But some stories are unhinged – and dangerous.  If we hear them enough, we think they must be true. Especially if they confirm what we already believe.

So, what about The Word?  John’s Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was withGod, and the Word was God.”  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, . ..”  John is making his case that Jesus is the Word, the one in whom the God “no one has ever seen,” is made known by Jesus, who is close to the Father’s heart – or to use the more accurate translation found in the footnotes, close to God’s “bosom,” evoking mothering images for God.  Jesus, leaning on God’s breast, resonating with God’s heartbeat.

This Jesus, who speaks the words of the Torah:  You shall love the Lord your God and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  This Jesus, who speaks the word of the prophet Isaiah: I have come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. This Jesus, says John, is God with us.  This Jesus is God’s Word for our lives – the Way God speaks to us.  And this Word is not fake news.  This Word is true and trustworthy.  This Word is the Light that overcomes the darkness.  This Word is the Word by which we are to judge all other words.

Jesus: making God’s Word known to us, giving us power to become children of God, bringing to life God’s Word in usWhat’s in The Word?  Nothing less than our life.  Our truth.  Our future. 

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC
Defining Moments
Mark 1:4-11
January 10, 2021

Kim and I used to live on the Bay in Oakland Beach (many of you have been there), and when we bought a condo on the Cape, we found one on Santuit Pond, home of the Mashpee Wanpanoags, although we can’t see it from our unit without a short walk. I don’t know what the compulsion is to be on the water, but it’s there for lots of people – if not the sea, maybe a lake or even a brook. Perhaps it is that our bodies are mostly water, and we are coming home.

Perhaps, as the aquatic theory of evolution goes, it’s that our species spent millions of years on the coastline, learning to stand upright in deep water, losing our warm fur and adding the insulation of body fat to keep us warm. Perhaps, deep in our subconscious, is the realization that we are not perfect, and we long to be washed clean. Whatever the motivation, … it is powerful.

Much of our Biblical mythology centers on water. Before the world had shape or form, God moved over the waters to bring forth the earth, as we read in our baptismal service. In the time of Noah, the flood waters washed over the earth, and the ark of salvation bore a new beginning. In the time of Moses, the people of Israel passed through the Red Sea on the way to the promised land. In the fullness of time, God sent Jesus to be baptized by John, to become living water to a woman at the Samaritan well, to wash the feet of the disciples, and to send them out to baptize all nations by water and the Holy Spirit.

Why, do you suppose, Jesus went to his cousin John to be baptized in the River Jordon? Had his mother told him stories about his unusual birth? Did his family tell stories about the three wise men who had come looking for him? Did he grow up thinking there was something he was supposed to do? Maybe Jesus been planning this all along, to stop to see John on his way to a wilderness retreat? Or was it the baptism that gave rise to the his trip to the wilderness – in the way that Mark says, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

At any case, Mark treats Jesus’ baptism as a defining moment: He says Jesus sees “the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him, and a voice … from heaven, “You are my son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Whatever the baptism was for Jesus, we know that the baptism is a defining moment for the writer of Mark – for with this story, he launches Jesus’ story.

And what of Jesus? Where had he been all these years, before he comes striding onto the Biblical scene. Was there an incident in Nazareth that compelled him to take action? Had he had enough of Roman occupation and the temple’s complicity? Or perhaps he and John had grown up together, studying the prophet Isaiah, waiting for the promised One who was coming to save Israel. John had grown up in the temple, remember? His father Zachariah was a priest and his mother Elizabeth, a devout Jew, and it could not have been so far from Nazareth that healthy boys couldn’t spend time together, dreaming of the restoration of Israel.

There is evidence that Jesus was one of John’s prophets, and when he comes out to the Jordan to be with John, he has an unexpected experience of God. Did John know that Jesus was the messiah? Apparently not, because, when John is imprisoned and hears what Jesus is doing, he sends a message to Jesus, and asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt.11:3, Luke 7:19)

It would be helpful for us to know what baptism in the Jordan was about. John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance – which has a distinctly different meaning from our Christian sense of being sorry, or remorseful, or penitent. In ancient Judaism, repentance had two meanings: First, to return, as to return from exile, to follow the way of the Lord that leads from exile to the promised land; and a second meaning, “to ‘go beyond the mind that you have’ – that is, to go beyond conventional understandings of what life with God is about.”

This kind of repentance is like the prayers we often hear at a baptism – prayers about needing to change our perspective, about looking at the world a different way, about starting again. What, do you suppose, brought Jesus to this kind of repentance, to this defining moment?

Now, the word “beloved” can also be translated as “chosen.” Did Jesus know he was chosen? Or did he, too, like his cousin John come slowly to this realization? I’ve always thought, when Jesus asked the woman at the well, “Who am I?” he really wanted to know, that he is not sure, that he is still discerning his destiny. Nevertheless, this baptism by John in the Jordan appears to be a defining moment for Jesus, a realization that God is doing a new thing, a sense that life will never again be the same.

What of our defining moments? Many years ago, I attended a workshop for people in the field of volunteer administration, a few months before I went to work for the Volunteer Center of RI. The agenda included some value clarification exercises, and we were divided into small groups and given a task: Each of us was to decide whether we were , a deep pool, a babbling brook, or a swamp. Water metaphors again. Hmmm.

They gave us some time to think about it. A deep pool? What is a pool like? Still? Dark? Quiet? Am I a pool? In guidance class at Warwick Vets, when the teacher said, “It’s the quiet ones we have to watch,” everyone turned around and look at me. A babbling brook? Noisy? Busy? Tumbling? Exciting? Clean? Going somewhere? What is a brook like? Am I a brook? A swamp? Dark? Stinky? Shady? Scary? Sinister? Creepy and crawly? Could I be a swamp?

Who am I really? After some thought, we were asked to share which we were — and why. I still remember what I said. (Although I might have changed….) It was a defining moment for me, when I learned something about myself.
And several months later, when I was being interviewed for the position as Executive Director of the Volunteer Center, several of the Search Committee members who had been there that day, told me they remembered what I said – and it was one of the reasons they hired me. I still think about that day – a defining moment for me. This is who I am, even 50 years later, an introvert, a pool or a swamp…. As we age, I believe we become more so of who we really are.

What are some of the defining moments in your life? Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up? How did you know? What was your family’s story? What was your church experience like? Did you have one? Did someone take you under her or his wing, believe in you, trust you, give you a chance? Who were your mentors along the way? What caused you to be who you are? What shaped you? What were your defining moments?

And, I wonder, do you suppose we can create our defining moments? Surely we do that for our children make their dreams come true if we can. When my oldest granddaughter Marina was 10, I took her to the Florida keys to swim with the dolphins. At the time, she thought it was the best day of her life. And later in college she did research on plastics in the ocean.

As adults, do you suppose we still can create our defining moments? Do you suppose Jesus had this nagging idea that he was destined for more than carpentry? I had this nagging idea for more than 50 years that I was supposed to be a minister. And what of you?

Perhaps the Holy Spirit is waiting to rest on us, hovering over us, ready to say, “You are my beloved, my chosen one, in whom I am well pleased.” Kim wrote a poem for me a few years ago, entitled, “If I Could Be Baptized Again.” The poem ends by echoing poet Mary Oliver’s question, and I ask it of you now: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

And Kim gives us a challenge: “Come. Be baptized with me again, … float along the surface of fear knowing all of us are near, saints of our one wild and precious life, and drown with me forever in God’s love.”

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC
Epiphanies
Matthew 2:1-12
January 3, 2021

Word spread quickly throughout the town. A large caravan was heading their way. Those in the fields and on the road saw them coming. Children climbed to the flat rooftops to watch their arrival. You could taste the excitement along with the dust.
What can it mean? Traders often passed through Bethlehem, situated about six miles S-SW of Jerusalem, near the chief N-S route. They would stop to fill their water bags and buy bread before their final push into Jerusalem, but the size of this group was unusual. And these travelers had an exotic look about them.

Three of them looked to be important by their dress and their bearing, and they were accompanied by all manner of servants – camel handlers, baggage carriers, cooks, and others. Gospel writer Matthew says they are magi, from the Greek, which also can be translated “wise men” or “astrologers.” The word has nothing to do with kings; that was an idea added later to our Christmas story. The magi are a priestly class of Persian or Babylonian experts in the occult, such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams. They are the forerunners of those who compose our daily horoscopes in The Providence Journal. Mine, a Virgo, once read, “Revolt against whatever belief has been holding you back.” I take them all with a grain of salt, but I am intrigued by them. Who writes these? How do they come up with these things? By watching the stars, apparently….

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

An epiphany, according to a standard dictionary, applies to any manifestation or appearance of a deity. In Christian history, we capitalize Epiphany to refer to the manifestation of Jesus as the Christ. But increasingly the word “epiphany” in common usage has come to refer to any insightful or dramatic moment that instills new vision or perspective. A gathering with loved ones during the holidays, even if on Zoom, might be an epiphany for how blessed we are as a family. The illness of a loved one reminds us that money isn’t everything. Our cataracts and joint pains and forgetfulness announce with clarity that we are getting older – much to our surprise! And perhaps in Bible Study, or a line in a sermon, you have had an epiphany that these birth stories are just that – stories, not historical accounts, mythology, not scientific facts – but stories of and by people like us who are trying to find meaning in their lives, and learn something from collective experience.

When do you suppose the people of Bethlehem had their epiphany that something extraordinary was taking place in their village, just across the way, in back of the inn? When had the birth of a child caused so much stir? When had they felt before that their little town in the backwater of the world mattered – to anyone, let alone these strangers? When do you suppose the innkeeper had his epiphany about this poor couple in need of shelter whom he had sent to the barn because all of his rooms were rented? Or perhaps he had no stomach for the moans and smells of childbirth.

When do you suppose King Herod the Great had his epiphany that he was not the most important person in Jerusalem, and that, power held through violence will come back to bite him.

When do you suppose that Mary and Joseph had their epiphany that Jesus was an extraordinary child?

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

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

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

And what of our epiphanies? What will be made clear to us as individuals and families this year? To us as a congregation, a Larger Parish, a country? What will be revealed to us? And how can we prepare for our future on this first Sunday in January, the third decade in this 21st century? What stars do we follow? And where will they lead us?

Amen.

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