Sunday Sermons


Moosup Valley Church UCC

Good Words

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

June 04, 2023

In the chapters leading up to today’s text, Paul is dealing with a division – a power struggle – in the church in Corinth. Paul had founded the church and now others are trying to take over. I imagine they had “had words” with each other – and not such nice ones.  And then, at the end of this painful letter, full of tears, recriminations, rebukes, and self-justification, Paul’s tone changes, and he offers them some advice and a benediction.  He offers them “good words.”

Corinth is one of the most important cities in Greece, and the Apostle Paul had founded a church there. He had had a long relationship with them; he even lived with them for a period of time. He was their resident theologian and moral guide through good times and not so good times, though “thick and thin” as they say.  And they needed him. 

Being the church then was a lot harder than it is today, even without the persecutions.  There were at least three reasons for the internal conflicts: First, Paul reached out beyond the Jewish world to invite Gentiles – Greeks and Romans – into the little house churches that he was founding.  So they were no longer a Jewish sect, and the community had to wrestle with whether one needed to be Jewish first before one could be a Christian. And, second, people flocked to the early church from all walks of life – wealthy people, tradespeople, servants and slaves – those who were used to giving orders and those who were used to taking orders. And third, men and women mixed together, unheard of in the ancient world.  I can picture one husband saying to another, “I wouldn’t let my wife to that!”

So, as you can imagine, these little house churches were not always peaceful and loving places!  People of means working alongside servants, educated and uneducated serving side-by-side.  One’s status in the larger society had no merit next to the teachings of Jesus. Imagine the culture shock they experienced and the confusion and havoc that all these intersections created:  All you have to do is read Paul’s letters: Church fights were common. (There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” Gal:3:28.)

The ideal values of love and community taught within the church – values from the teachings of Jesus brought to them by missionaries – were very different from the brutal, dog-eat-dog, worldly values outside the church.  The Christian communities were constantly being put to the test.  It’s a wonder that the churches survived at all! Paul’s advice is an appeal to order, mutual agreement, and peace – goals worthy of a Christian community – but more easily said than done.  He asks them to come to agreement, to be done with the in-fighting that tears a community apart, to kiss and make up, to live in peace with each other.

And then he offers a benediction, one that is lifted up in our Christian churches on many a Sunday:  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” We are used to a benediction at the end of a worship service, but let’s remember that the word “benediction” means “good words,” from the Latin, “bene,” and “diction,” meaning words.  Good words, words that heal, words that we need in our lives – and in our country – right now.

I’m a supporter of the Southern Poverty Law Center which tracks hate crimes and hate speech and hate websites that incite violence.  Recently, I received a mailing from them with a warning, “The enclosed materials contain disturbing images and language.” And they did.  Here’s a text sent to a Jewish family – one of the mild ones –        “Day of the rope soon for your entire family.” And, “Hickory dickory dock, the ky/ke ran up the clock. The clock struck three and the Internet Nazis trolls gassed the rest of them.” And the 12-year-old son was sent a tweet with the image of an open oven and the message, “psst kid, there’s a free Xbox One inside this oven.” The Alt-Right, white supremacist, claims on his website that he is doing his part “to accomplish the goal Adolf Hitler set out to accomplish.” The family is terrified. 

And the hate goes on and on – and not just to Jews but also to Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, LGBTQ+ people. And others they hate, … or perhaps fear. You can google a list of hate crimes – words acted out – against others, violent incident after violent incident so far this year to: A woman of Chinese descent, A teenager because of his sexual orientation, A fire set in in a synagogue because they are Jews. Attacks against a group of black men in Florida and against whites in Hawaii. A few years ago in Texas, a Republican state representative threatened to shoot a Democratic Latino colleague during a legislative debate. And when a Legislative candidate in Montana attacked a reporter by the neck and slammed him to the ground and began punching him, he was cheered by a Christian right radio host who said,

“The only thing that is going to save Western civilization is a more aggressive, a more violent Christianity.” That’s Christian Nationalism – which, we know, is not Christian at all, not the way of Jesus, an embarrassment to all of us.  And the Apostle Paul writes to his community, “Put things in order, … agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

Words are important.  Behavior is important. They convey understanding, love and respect.  “Seek less to be understood than to understand,” prays St. Francis in his time when Crusades to slaughter the “hated others” were carried out by the church.

When we ban books in schools, we suppress opportunities to learn about each other’s lives, to teach our children to walk in another’s shoes, to instill compassion through the stories. We have all read, and learned about the world from books, from words, “The Diary of Ann Frank” by Ann Frank, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “The Handmaids Tale” by Margaret Atwood, “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White, “The Hate You Give” by Angie Thomas, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, “A Brave New World,” by Huxley, “Of Mice and Men,” by John Steinbeck, “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini. Words that educate, inspire, create understanding, motivate – good words that inspire good behaviors….

So, with what “good words” do we greet each other?  What good words do we offer to our neighbors?  What good words do we send out to the wider community to counter hate and violence and bring about peace and understanding? Paul argued for a return to the values Jesus had taught.  These norms are expressed in the world’s great religions, and they are taught to generations of children in our schools, in our homes and in other institutions.  Once they are cast aside, my guess is that it will be a serious challenge to get them back.”

And so, let us choose our words carefully that they may be good words, that they may bring love and life and hope to others.  May they be as benedictions to those who wait.

May it be so!



Moosup Valley Church UCC

Signs & Wonders

Acts 2:1-21

May 28, 2023

The setting is the Jewish festival of Weeks, celebrating the spring harvest, fifty days or seven weeks after Passover.  The disciples and more than 100 other believers have gathered together in a safe house in Jerusalem. People from all walks of life are there – but heavy on Galilean fishermen and carpenters – as well as women in the inner circle who had traveled with Jesus, his mother and Mary of Magdala.  Visiting.  Praying.  Waiting for whatever it is that Jesus is sending.  Picture the scene.  People coming and going.  Food being prepared and shared.  Jews from every nation, here in Jerusalem, the crossroads of the world.  

Poor Peter, trying to keep order.  They must have been loud, too, because bystanders thought they were drunk.  Singing, perhaps, psalms of exultation, cries for help and thanksgiving for healing.  And yes, prayer:  sometimes murmuring, sometimes shouting, rising and falling above the noise in the street.  Each one, praising God, in her or his own language.  They were out of order, of course, all these different people together, men and women interacting socially in public. 

And then an amazing thing happened!  A rush of wind, the roar of sound, the appearance of tongues of fire resting on the gathered community, symbols of God’s presence.  In Hebrew, ruah elohim, the creative wind of the Lord, has come, to bring life out of chaos. The Holy Spirit has come!  Again.  We first knew the Spirit through the Genesis creation story when God’s Spirit blew over the formless void and breathed life into the world.  Exodus stories tell of the Spirit leading the Israelites across the Red Sea as a cloud by day and a fire by night. And it was the Glory of the Lord, the Shekinah, that streamed out of the temple in Jerusalem, as the prophet Ezekiel tells us, the Spirit who accompanies the Israelites into exile into Babylon. 

It seems that God’s Spirit comes when we need her the most. And not for a select few:  The prophet Joel sees the Spirit being poured out on everyone– women and men, young and old, slaves and free, Jews and Greeks – all humanity. One cutting-edge New Testament scholar notes that Roman coins showed divided tongues of fire appearing over the head of Caesar as a sign of royalty – even a sign of his divinity.  “Caesar is the Son of God,” the coins proclaimed to first century Palestine.[1]  It’s no wonder those coins had to be changed in the Temple to plain coins without the world’s graven image!  But here, in the streets of Jerusalem, on the Day of Pentecost, the tongues of fire rest on Jesus’ followers, just plain folks like you and me!  They, too, at Pentecost are identified with divine power.  Jesus surely turned the world upside down!

Luke, in his Book of Acts, describes the crowds as “bewildered, amazed, astonished, and perplexed.”  “We can imagine them milling around, stepping on each other’s toes, faces red, voices rising.  We can imagine all these people, divided into different language groups as described in the story of Babel in Genesis, coming back together at Pentecost, a mending of the human family.

Pentecost comes to a fractured world.  Instead of widening confusion, there is dawning comprehension.  Instead of separation between people, the Spirit comes with power to unite them.  So, Pentecost presents a building of relationships, vertical relationships between humankind and God, and horizontal relationships within the human family.  Teaching us how to love God and our neighbors as ourselves.

We are taught that the Holy Spirit comes as a still small voice or a faint stirring of the heart, but the Spirit also comes with power.  That first generation 2,000 years ago experienced darkness and distress in the world just as we do today:  the growing gap between the rich and the poor, growing poverty and unchecked disease, divisions between nations and within economies, and growing intolerance of any opinion or ideal other than our own.

I was touched this week by a story told by UCC minister, the Rev. Molly Baskette:

Eighty years ago this spring, during World War II, FDR ordered 115,000 Japanese-Americans into internment camps; most were U.S. citizens. They were told it was for their own protection, but when they showed up in empty lots to board the busses, American soldiers were standing nearby with bayonets. They were tagged like cattle or property.

They had had only a week’s notice to make arrangements for pets, jobs, homes and all their affairs, packing just a few things into one or two small suitcases.

For three years they would live in barracks in some of the most inhospitable places in our country: abandoned racetracks, desert environments far from civilization. Some 1,600 of them died. When they returned home, some would find their houses repossessed and their jobs given away, leaving them without any means to care for their families.

Some of their children and grandchildren would later ask them: why didn’t you resist? They said: what could we do? The U.S. Army was against us! We felt our only hope was to cooperate. The Japanese proverb, “shikata ga nai,” “there is nothing to be done,” rang in their ears.

At my church, First Church Berkeley, one faithful young woman decided that something could be done. “We can do an inhumane thing in a humane way,” she proclaimed, and organized the church ladies to make the church an embarkation point to the camps instead of the empty lot where the government had planned the transfer.

On the day the busses arrived, the church ladies cooked food, fed their Japanese-American neighbors, minded their children while their parents did paperwork, provided clean bathrooms, shelter from the sun. Mine and other churches: took on pets, took cherished heirlooms into safekeeping, even became custodians of left-behind houses and properties, paying mortgages and taxes, mowing lawns, making repairs.

My church’s gesture was a small one, and a complicated one – was it enabling, or exposing, the injustice of the order? But there is always something that can be done, especially by those with privilege.  

This is the kind of Spirit-led work being done by churches right now who are reaching out to refugees on our southern border. This is the kind of work being done right now by congregations that are shedding light on white privilege or welcoming transgendered people into their fellowship.  This is the kind of work being done right now by people of faith testifying before legislatures to reform our criminal justice system, advocate for safe gun policies, end human trafficking.  The Holy Spirit comes to disturb and disrupt, to heal and reconcile, to bring about the righteousness for which Jesus lived and died.  No matter how we look at the Pentecost story this morning, this text in “Acts 2 shows a big God, with a big word at work expanding out into a big world.”[2]  This is the kind of story that reminds us that we are not little people of a little word, but God’s people in all the world.

Come, Holy Spirit, come.  Come with signs and wonders; come with tongues of fire to bring life out of death and hope out of despair in this broken-hearted world of ours. How will it light upon us?

May it be so. 


[1][1] Jana Childers, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, 19.

[2] Ibid.


Moosup Valley Church, UCC

Life Abundant

John 10:1-10

May 14, 2023

One of the most beloved images of Jesus in the Bible is that of Jesus as the “good shepherd.”  If a church has stained glass windows, one of them is most likely to be of Jesus cradling a lamb in his arms.  And what Bible passage is more beloved than the 23rd Psalm?  Even the residents at Woodpecker Hill could say it without much prompting when Pastor Bob and I were there to lead them in worship.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,”

Today’s passage in John’s gospel is intended to tell us that Jesus is the One we have been hoping for – the Messiah – the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy.  It’s interesting, however, that, by Jesus’ day, people were expecting a military leader, one who would overthrow the Romans.  And scholars think that Judas’s so-called betrayal of Jesus was to force Jesus’ hand, finally, to take action.  But in this text, the Messiah comes as a shepherd, like the shepherd king of old, King David, who would, as the prophet Isaiah declares, “gather the lambs with his arm,” and “gently lead those that are with young” (40:11 KJV).

Most of us don’t know much about sheep, even if we live in Foster.  But if we were to visit Africa, we might see how the people of a village know each other’s sheep the way neighbors here know each other’s children and each other’s dogs.  In Africa, we could be sitting in the village square, and a person would stop by, “Have you seen my sheep so-and-so,” identifying his own sheep by name. And through the dark night we would hear villagers calling out names.  “They are calling their sheep,” we would be told. “They will all find each other.”

The people who heard Jesus’ words in the first century knew about sheep, like the people in the village in Africa.  So, what do we need to know to make this story come alive for us in 2023?

In traditional agrarian societies across the world, farmers would construct an enclosure for the sheep, often a stone wall adjacent to the house, perhaps topped by branches of thorns to discourage climbing.  To get in and out, there would be one gate which could be locked shut to prevent anyone from coming in to steal the sheep.  Theft was common, and the loss of even one animal could be devastating, since sheep provide meat and milk and clothing as well as a source of trade between farmers. In the story John tells, there also is a “gatekeeper” who guards the entrance, particularly at night. This would imply that the sheepfold was sufficiently large to justify a hired hand as a gatekeeper.  Often several families would agree to pen their herds together.  At night, the gatekeeper would stretch out across the entrance to protect the flock with his own body. 

And so it is that John’s gospel capitalizes on the ancient metaphor of the Messiah as a shepherd, a Biblical narrative that fulfills the ancient prophecy.  The story gives him the platform to declare that Jesus is that shepherd and to proclaim Jesus’ role in God’s plan: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”  As he organizes his material, John places this pivotal “shepherding” story immediately after the contest played out in the preceding chapter.  There, Jesus’ opponents, the Pharisees, have launched an investigation into his healing of a blind man on the Sabbath.  Not only is this against Jewish law, but Jesus also has pulled off an impossible act, they believe, since the man had been born blind.

This gives Jesus the platform to accuse them of spiritual blindness. In these stories, Jesus models a different kind of leadership from that of the Pharisees who have drafted rules for people to follow, rules intended to help people order their lives.  Jesus models, instead, the ancient Hebrew prophet’s vision, the vision Ezekiel (34:1-31) invokes with God as the “shepherd” of Israel.  Ezekiel portrays the people as “sheep” to be led and protected, sharply criticizes the leaders as false shepherds who harm the sheep, and praises David as the true shepherd who will care for God’s sheep. 

The true shepherd, then, is this Jesus, John seems to be telling us, not those who would leave a man blind for the sake of the law, not those who operate only to protect their own position, not those who care more about rules than people. And for Jesus, abundant life is not just life in the “spiritual” sense in which one deepens his or her relationship with the divine and finds meaning or “salvation.”  Jesus addresses life in the concrete here and now:  life that means sight for those born blind, shelter for those without a safe place to live, nourishment for those whose cupboards are bare, education for those who need a hand up.  Jesus was the kind of leader who dealt with real-life issues and real human needs:  He freed people who were captive, fed people who were hungry, healed people who were sick, taught people who were eager to learn, honored people who were marginalized. 

In fact, many of the roles Jesus assumed were roles that women played in the ancient world, and so on this Mother’s Day, we might remember that Jesus displayed both male and female leadership qualities. In the Old Testament, Yahweh (God) speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, with a passage is full of homey images that are reminiscent of raising a toddler: 

Who shut in the sea with doors 

when it leaped tumultuous out of the womb,

When I wrapped it in a robe of mist  

and made black clouds its swaddling bands;

When I marked the bounds it was not to cross  

and made it fast with a bolted gate?

Come thus far, I said, and no farther . . .  Job 38:8-11.[1]

Isaiah portrays God as a nursing mother when he writes,

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for

the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (49:15, NRSV). 

God loves us like a nursing mother – yet, even though a human mother may fail her children, Mother God will never forget her little ones.

And Hosea must have watched the women in his life caring for difficult and disobedient children when he put these words into God’s mouth,

When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 

The more I[2] called them, the more they went from me;[3]. . . . 

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms;

but they did not know that I healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness,

with bands of love.  I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. 

I bent down to them and fed them (11:1, 2a, 3-4, NRSV). 

Isaiah, too, presents a picture of God carrying out maternal roles: 

Listen to me, O House of Jacob, . . .  who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you (46:3a, c-d-4a, b, NRSV). 

Ezekiel must have witnessed a baby’s bath time when he writes, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, . . ” (36:25a,b).  

And in Hosea, God appears as a “bear robbed of her cubs” (13:8a). 

And now in the New Testament, Shepherd Jesus seeks to protect his flock.  Looking out over Jerusalem, both the gospels of Matthew (23:37) and Luke (13:34) report that Jesus lamented that his ministry was rejected:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those

that are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children

together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not


We should not miss that Jesus longed to gather the city under his wings like a mother hen.  I’ve heard the phrase, “Jesus our Brother;” might we, then, think of “Jesus our Mother” who chastises us for our unkind and life-killing behavior toward each other and who invites us, like children, to cuddle in the safety of her wings?

And when hungry people were gathered on the hillside, Jesus divided bread and fish to feed the multitude.  In John’s gospel, Jesus calls himself the living bread, the bread of life, the bread from heaven (6:31-35) – even though we know that, in first century Palestine, it was the women who did the baking.  

And God not only bakes, but she sweeps.  In chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells three lost-and-found stories:  the lost sheep, the prodigal son, and sandwiched between them, the lost coin and the woman who sweeps her house until she finds it.  The writer of Luke is careful to balance his metaphors to appeal to women who are listening – as well as to men.

For the Bible reader who has eyes to see and ears to hear, then, God is portrayed as both male and female – a good message for a 21st century Mother’s Day. We think about maternal love as gentle, sweet and tender.  We are encouraged to say thanks to our mothers with sentimental flowers or candy.  But sometimes a mother’s love is fierce.  I remember the story in the news a few years ago about a mother who threw her body in front of her car to prevent it from rolling into traffic with her twins strapped into the back seat. 

Perhaps this is the kind of love that Jesus is talking about with his “gate” metaphor, the mother’s love that saves lives. And we hear of mothers who give up their children so they can have a better life with adoptive parents or get an education in a different island country, as in the Caribbean.

And sometimes a mother’s love empowers lives.  The ancients, who spent more time studying the sky than we do, knew that it is the mother eagle who decides when it is time for flight practice and pushes the chicks out of the nest. The eaglets struggle to fly, and when it seems that they will surely be dashed on the rocks, mother eagle flies underneath them and lifts them up on her wings. 

My old King James Bible reads, “As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings:  so the Lord alone did lead him, . . ” (Deuteronomy 32:11-12a, KJV). It is unfortunate that later translators changed “her” to “it” or even “his” to accommodate their own biases that God is always “Father.”

It is unfortunate that the church as an institution pushed women to the background.  But we remember on this Mother’s Day.  It is unfortunate, too, that the historic church gradually replaced the image of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” to that of Jesus as the “Ruler of All.”  By the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the shepherd’s crook was replaced by a gilded crozier and the crown of thorns, by the triple tiara of the pope. 

Thank God that Pope Francis is nudging the Roman Church back to a model of “shepherding” rather than a position of ruling.  

Today’s lesson is of the “good shepherd” – who leads us like a mother as well as a father, and who takes us from our separate lives and brings us together as a community – where everyone is safe and cared for and nurtured – that we may have life abundant.  This image of the Good Shepherd also calls us back to a time of simplicity, sacrifice, and solidarity – needed in a world where so many have lost their way.

May it be so!  Amen.

[1] A particularly lovely translation used by Mollenkott but one that is worded slightly differently in both the KJV and the NRSV.

[2] In the footnotes, the NRSV offers “they” from the Hebrew instead of “I.”   Is God here plural?

[3] Ibid., and here, “me” can be translated “them.”


Mt. Vernon Larger Parish

How Can We Know the Way?

John 14:1-14

May 07, 2023

Today’s passage in John’s gospel has been referred to as “The Long Goodbye,” Jesus’ farewell speech.  It is offered as a set of instructions for his disciples after he is gone.  It’s a classic example, of what great leaders in the ancient Near East do when they bid farewell.

By the time John’s gospel is written, Jesus has been gone for decades, but the writers of John have been looking back and picking up snippets from the past to include in their story.  This is a classic feature of a farewell speech.  Moses, himself, made this kind of “goodbye” speech to his people in Deuteronomy, in the Torah, and Jesus’ words at the Last Supper in Luke’s gospel serve this same function:  which is to announce his imminent departure, console his followers, give them directions for the future, and promise to be with them again.

The writers of the Gospel of John have filled it with a treasure-trove of familiar scriptures and theological ideas, i.e., “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” a staple at our memorial services. And such phrases as, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places.” “I go and prepare a place for you,” assuring the faithful that no matter where Jesus is, they will be with him.

Thomas is baffled about where Jesus is going, and so he asks: “How can we know the way?” The disciples want to pull up the “Maps” app on their phone; but they don’t know what to plug in for their destination. And we have “Maps,” but we don’t know either…. Jesus has been a mystery to the disciples all along, and sometimes to us.  He says one thing – and means another. 

The disciples had been expecting a military overthrow of Rome, a Messiah in battle gear, and restoration of their homeland by Jesus – and now he has been killed by the Romans. Another failed uprising to regain their independence.

And Jesus’ answer to them, and us, is not much help: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” While this response might be helpful to new Christians who are looking for encouragement to follow Jesus, it can be problematic because it can be understood – and has by many – as an invitation to worship Jesus, to put him on a pedestal and bow down, rather than an invitation to follow him, to being compassionate like Jesus is.  

“No one comes to the Father except through me,” has been used by some churches to declare that Jesus is the only way to the Holy. It was used by the Catholic Church to justify the Crusades in the Middle Ages and the Inquisition in the 16th century. The Inquisition was famous for the severity of its tortures and its persecution of Jews and Muslims, and later anyone who deviated from the official teachings, under the guise of “saving souls,” a good thing, those monks believed! And in Germany, it was used by the Nazis to commit genocide against the Jews in my lifetime and many of yours. It’s easier to kill people when we think they are less than human, to enslave them when we think they are an inferior race, not “chosen,” not favored by God.

And “No one comes to the Father except through me,” is used today by Christian Nationalists who, although we don’t condone burning heretics at the stake, we tolerate their banning books and enacting laws that discriminate against those who           understand scripture differently from their narrow reading.  Under colonialism, the Pope’s Doctrine of Discovery, was used by explorers like Christopher Columbus to take the land they “discovered” even if people were living on it, and if they weren’t Christian, to kill any indigenous people who didn’t instantly convert to Christianity.

So, given, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” how might we understand the Christian church’s relationship with other faith communities today? In three ways:

Exclusivism says that the only way to salvation is through faith in Christ Jesus and that all others are condemned. Exclusivism says that Christians replaced Jews as “God’s chosen people,” and justifies violence against others. Exclusivism says God loves only us – and not people of other faiths or people of no faith. And only people who have been “saved,” who belong to the right church or faith group.

Inclusivism says that there are non-Christians who are Christ-like, good Hindus like Gandhi, and non-believers, agnostics and atheists, who are compassionate, who will be saved. We all know people who are Christ-like, loving, who never enter a church’s door.

Pluralists say that there are many ways to God, and while Jesus may be my way or your way, we understand that there are other ways for other people who have come out of different cultures. While Charles took an oath to defend the Church of England during his coronation yesterday, religious leaders from other faiths – Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism and Judaism – played a prominent part in the service at Westminster Abby. Yet, I remember how thousands of British subjects were tortured and died in the battle between Catholics and Protestants over which branch of Christendom would be on the throne after Henry VIII broke ties with Rome.

This is what Tracey has discovered in these past two years: that there are many paths to the Holy, and she has been studying them as she prepares to be an interfaith minister. And Tracey heard Rabbi Wayne Franklin, at the Council of Churches’ Heroes of Faith event last fall, say that his interfaith relationships have enriched his own understanding of Judaism. We learn from each other and grow stronger and more faithful when we dialogue with people who have different experiences. The more we interact with those of a different persuasion, the more we get a handle on what we ourselves believe.

So what is a more helpful – and faithful – way to understand the instructions, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”? Jesus never asked us to worship him, as much as we may love Jesus as our Savior.  For me, Jesus is the one who taught me how life is to be lived and cared for. 

Unfortunately, this passage has been used by some churches as a litmus test to reach God, as if Jesus were some kind of a “bouncer,” standing by to say whether we are “in” or “out,” whether we “pass” or “fail,” whether we are saved – or not. But being a Christian is not about worshipping Jesus – but about walking in his footsteps, following him, wherever he may take us.  And sometimes he takes us where we may not want to go.

We see that Jesus deliberately engages with others of different backgrounds and gives them legitimacy: He goes out of his way to travel through Samaritan territory. He crosses the lake to the Gentile side. He, cures women and children who have so social standing. He embraces the work of compassion and invites us to join him wherever he is. 

When I was asked the surprise question at my Ecclesiastical Council in 2008, “What was Jesus’ greatest gift?” I had to think fast, and what I said was, “Compassion,” even though it wasn’t one listed in the key “gifts” texts – I Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4. Afterwards, Rev. Rick Taylor said that was what he had said when a Search Committee asked him once, compassion.

I often think of the story of St. Albans Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina, where there is a religious statue of Jesus as a vagrant sleeping on a park bench in front of the church.  Jesus is huddled under a blanket with his face and hands obscured; only the crucifixion wounds on his uncovered feet give him away. At first the people in the neighborhood were upset to see what looked like a homeless person in their upscale neighborhood. One woman even called the cops on Jesus.

Others thought the statue insulted the Son of God – that he should be dressed in purple robes and adorned with gold. But now the neighbors have gotten used to him; people come and sit on the bench, rest their hands on the bronze feet, and pray. The statue reminds them – and us – that the Christian faith is expressed in concern for the marginalized of society. When we do it to one of the least of these, Matthew says, we do it to Jesus.

All the world’s religions have something akin to the Golden Rule, something akin to our scriptures about caring for the least and the lost, a teaching about caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, being kind to one another. Religious historian Karen Armstrong is attempting to unite us all under “The Charter of Compassion,” because compassion is the heart of all truly religious and ethical systems – whether we are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or other faiths.

How can we know the way that Thomas is seeking?  It’s right under our noses. It’s where we care for each other, where we are kind, and we don’t need a “Maps” app or directions. We only need to open our eyes to a broken-hearted world and follow Jesus.

May it be so! Amen.


Moosup Valley Church UCC

Staying Connected

Acts 2:42-47

April 30, 2023

The Book of Acts is the fifth book in the New Testament, connecting the four gospels to the collection of Letters of the Apostles.  Scholars agree that Acts was written by Luke, a Gentile, not a Jew, as a sequel to his Gospel, late in the first century.  In compiling Acts, Luke uses a mixture of traditional information that he uncovers by his own investigation about how events unfolded in Jerusalem, and then he fills in the details from his own imagination.

While the Gospels are the stories of Jesus and his mission and ministry, Acts of the Apostles is the story of the Early Church – actually more the story of the Jesus Movement before it became the early church.  But Acts tells us what happened to the disciples after the crucifixion and resurrection – what they did when they did not go back to fishing – and how the Holy Spirit rested like tongues of fire on them on the Day of Pentecost.

Our text today immediately follows that Pentecost experience and gives us a window into the life of that primitive church: how they gleaned everything they could about Jesus from those who had first-hand knowledge of him; how they shared everything they had with anyone in need; how they prayed together in the temple every day; and how they broke bread together in their homes. And their joy was so great, the text tells us, that they attracted everyone around them, and their numbers grew by leaps and bounds! The Teaching Assistant in my New Testament class described Acts as a “romantic novella,” a little novel.  There is history in it, of course, just as there is history in James Michener’s novels like “Hawaii” that I used to read – but history loosely held together. 

What was tightly held together, apparently, was their relationship with the life and ministry of Jesus as told by those who had spent three years with him on the mission front – stories about how he loved life, how he cared about people, how he healed them when they were sick and fed them when they were hungry. How Jesus treated everyone with love and respect – even if they were of a different race or class, even if they were a woman or child or slave who had no social standing, even if they were engaged in shady businesses like collecting taxes.  No matter who they were or where they were on life’s journey, Jesus welcomed them into his company, into a place of shalom.

The early church feasted on these stories of Jesus, his love for the “least of these” and his works of mercy, and they connected to a vision of how life is meant to be lived and cared for. This, before the church was corrupted by power and the need for control. The text describes a church that stayed connected to Jesus and began a movement that changed the world.

I remember one of the UCC’s “Daily Devotionals” which captured the essence of what I imagine the early church was experiencing in being connected to Jesus. Entitled “Enough,” Tony Robinson reflects on the 23rd psalm, another one of our texts for today, and expands our understanding of the words “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  He writes,

          The 23rd Psalm is such a fixture at funeral and memorial services that we may associate

it first and most with grief and occasions of mourning. Which is fine.  But it is too rich

for one setting or a single meaning. Another [meaning] is suggested by the Jerusalem

Bible’s translation of the familiar, “I shall not want,” as “I lack nothing.” “I lack nothing.”

I have enough. With God, I am enough. Right now. Right here. 

And he continues,

A lot of missteps in life can be traced to a gnawing fear, a corrosive feeling that, “I am not enough.” Inadequate, lacking, insufficient, overlooked and under-valued — not enough.  If I get this, then I’ll be enough.  If I attain that, then I’ll be enough.  If they honor me, then I’ll be enough. All sorts of voices — parent’s voices, advertiser’s voices, coach’s voices, the devil’s voice — whisper to us, hiss at us, and play on our fears — “You are not enough.”

These are lies. With God, you are enough. 

“I lack nothing,” sings the Psalmist. What boldness, joy, life. With you, O Lord, I am enough, and more than enough. My cup is full to overflowing.

By the grace of God, you are enough. Just as you are. Trust this, rise up and live.

And the members of the early church did rise up and live.  They were often called “People of the Way,” people who followed the revolutionary “way” of Jesus, the “way” that gave them worth and dignity and value in God’s eyes.  And everyone who heard about them wanted a piece of that action!

And they not only stayed connected with the revolutionary way of Jesus, they stayed connected with each other.  This is a good thing to remember in our world of technology and busyness, where emails and texts and tweets take the place of relationships, where we have lost the art of conversation and letter writing, where the list of errands squeeze out time for tea with a friend or a rock on the front porch with a neighbor.   

In his article in The New Yorker back in 2017, Joshua Rothman shared the story of the blogger Rod Dreher who grew up in the small Louisiana town of St. Francisville.  His family had been there for years, but Dreher never fit in.  While his father and sister went hunting, he stayed in his room and read and dreamed of Paris. And as soon as he could, he left and became a writer.

He was alienated from his family that never forgave him for moving away, for his success in the eyes of the world, for the money he made.  On one visit he made bouillabaisse for his parents and his sister, but they refused to eat it, preferring country cooking, not city cooking.  He longed for their approval.

When his sister was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer on Mardi Gras in 2010, when she was 40 and the mother of three daughters, he began visiting St. Francisville as often as he could. And he discovered that his sister was a pillar of the community: She gave Christmas gifts to the poorest neighbors and mentored the most difficult kids in school. She was a joyous presence at bonfires, creek parties, and crawfish boils.  When friends threw her a benefit concert, one thousand people came.  And Dreher wondered, “Why does she like everyone but me?” 

When she died, the pallbearers “carried Ruthie to her grave across the damp cemetery grounds in their bare feet,” because she often went barefoot. And he wrote in his blog, “The love he had seen was ‘of such intense beauty that it was hard to look upon it and hold yourself together.’”

Her death and the deep roots he had witnessed in St. Francisville caused him to wonder about his own life.  He began a search for a place and a life where “faith, family, and community form an integrated whole.” 

And his search took him to the early Christians where they knew they were loved by God and lived “sacramentally, as though the world itself    were charged with God’s presence.”[1] Perhaps this is what our modern world needs, an appreciation for quiet and contemplation and kindness.  A life that isn’t directed by television or computers or money, a life where the welfare of those around us is as important as our own, a life where we are in touch with the rhythm of nature and the simple moral guidance of the church.

We are fortunate to live here in Greene and Foster, in our villages and in our valley, with our history of shared living and caring for our neighbors, and for this scripture from Acts about the first Christians which is easier to understand in the country than anywhere else.

May it be so!


[1] Joshua Rothman, “The Seeker,” in The New Yorker, May 1, 2017, pp.46.


Moosup Valley Church UCC

When All Seems Lost

Luke 24:13-35

April 23, 2023

The tornado takes the roof off the house.  The doctor calls to say we have three to six months to live.  The boss emails that our job has been downsized.  The operation leaves you with a $100,000 debt.  The police at your door at 2 o’clock in the morning.  And you don’t know where to put yourself, what to do, how you will go on.

Your best friend, your beloved leader, your only hope for your beloved Israel, has been killed by the Romans:  You watched his suffering, how he cried out to God, “Why have you forgotten me!”  And you don’t know where to put yourself, what to do, how you will go on.  And so you hit the road to Emmaus. A walk will give you a purpose, occupy your mind, calm the restlessness.   Theologian Frederick Buechner suggests that Emmaus is probably not an actual, physical village, even though it may show up on a map in our Bible.  He suggests instead that Emmaus is the place where “we throw up our hands and say ‘Let the while damned thing go to hang.  It makes no difference anyway.’”[1] 

It’s the place of desolation.  It’s the young mother holding her stillborn baby, as she count her oes before handing her over to the hospital morgue.

And then a stranger joins the disciples on the road, falls into step, engages them in conversation.  They fill him in on the latest events, how their leader Jesus was crucified by the Romans, and how, this very morning, his body was found stolen by women who had gone to the tomb to anoint him.  

The stranger takes this news in stride.  Says it was foretold by the prophets.  He walks them through the scriptures.  They relax in his company, whoever he is. Night begins to fall, darkness gathers around them.  It’s not safe to be on the road, they know.  Where is the stranger going?  “Stay with us,” they urge him.  Friends have a meal awaiting them nearby, and they know their Jewish obligation is to offer hospitality to strangers. 

The stranger accepts and sits with them at table.  He needs no invitation to assume his rightful place among them.  He takes up the loaf of bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them.   And with that simple action – one they had witnessed so many times – they recognize him!  And not just around the table had they watched him take, bless, break, and give.  They had seen him take a child on his knee.  Bless her.  Break the fever that was killing her.  Give her back to her parents, healed.  They had seen him take the hand of the man possessed.  Bless him with his presence, break the demon’s hold, and give him back his life. They had seen him approach the money changers in the temple, offer a prayer, break down their table where they cheated the people, and give the pieces back to them – promising he would do this, and more, in the days to come.

They didn’t understand then, and they don’t understand now.  But they have seen this pattern before.  Take.  Bless.  Break.  Give.  They must have, because in this moment they look up from the table, their eyes are opened, and through their tears, they recognize him. He had been with them all along.  On the mission journey these past three years.  A Presence on the walk to Emmaus, when all seems lost.  Especially when all seems lost.  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” the psalmist sings, “thou art with me.”  “Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone,” write Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Is this not the way the Holy enters our lives?  Not in the miraculous, but in ordinary taking, blessing, breaking, giving.  In the hug of a long lost friend, in a note to the widow to offer support, in a hand with sprucing up the church, in our gifts to the food pantry, in the blessing of an evening meal together, in the talk around the fire to the call of the peepers,

With our eyes opened in the midst of our everyday lives, we are reminded that all is not lost.  We are not defeated or alone.  Love always wins.  Easter is here to stay.  

May it be so!


[1] Quoted in Christian Century, April 12, 2017, page 20.


Moosup Valley Church UCC

God’s Breath

John 20:19-31

April 16, 2023

Today’s text immediately follows the Easter story of Mary Magdalene’s coming to the tomb and finding it empty. It is part of the Great Fifty Days, the period between Easter and Pentecost.  Ages ago, preachers used this period to explain the mysteries of the faith to those newly baptized at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday.  In these 12 verses, we find two stories:  the familiar one about “Doubting Thomas” which has two parts and takes place over a week’s time, and a second story about the Holy Spirit which is embedded in the first story.  I will begin here, with the second story, before I look at doubt.

Because scholars thought that this was the final chapter in John’s gospel, and the last one was added later, it is important to pay particular attention to what Jesus said and what he did in today’s reading.  Remember his words to the disciples, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then, he breathes on them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

If you had grown up in Sunday School, you would have learned that Pentecost is the story in the Book of Acts (written by Luke) of the coming of the Holy Spirit with a violent wind and tongues of fire and Jews from all over the world hear what is spoken in their own languages. But in his gospel, John doesn’t wait for Pentecost.  He has the gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon the disciples by Jesus himself so that the final action in Jesus’ earthly mission might be accomplished. We might think of it as Jesus’ “succession” plan. 

Just as we read in Genesis that God breathed over the waters at Creation, Jesus breathes God’s breath, the Holy Spirit, into the disciples – and by extension, into you and me – to create us anew, to empower us to minister in Christ’s name, to provide the comfort, advocacy and peace that the world needs so desperately.

Now, you and I might protest that we are not qualified for such an assignment because we have doubt.  So let’s take a look at “doubt.”  While Thomas has carried the burden of being the “doubter” through the centuries, he’s not the only one: They all doubted. Death changes us all, and Jesus is changed!  Not even the closest to him, knew it was Jesus! Resurrection is not simply resuscitation!  There were clues:  a voice, a name, a wound,…  Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize Jesus until he spoke her name in the garden and she had a personal encounter with Jesus.  The disciples dismissed Mary’s breathless “I have seen the Lord” – she is a woman, of course, not to be taken seriously – until Jesus came to where they were hiding in Jerusalem, until they had a personal encounter, saw him with their own eyes…. 

And, of course, we doubt.  Two thousand years later, we are not able to see for ourselves as the disciples did.  We have only a second-hand encounter with the Risen Christ.  We do not have an opportunity to hear and see and touch, so, it’s no wonder we doubt!

Garrison Keillor of “Prairie Home Companion” speaks for a lot of us when he writes,

     I came to church as a pagan this year, though wearing a Christian suit and white shirt, and

     sat in a rear pew with my sandy-haired gap-toothed daughter whom I would like to see

     grow up in the love of the Lord, and there I was, a skeptic in the henhouse, thinking

     weaselish thoughts. [Doubt] often happens around Easter.  God, in [a] humorous way,

     sometimes schedules high holy days for a time when your faith is at low tide, a mud flat

strewn with newspapers and children’s beach toys, and, while everyone else is all joyful

and shiny among the lilies and praising up a storm, there you are, snarfling and grumbling. 

Which happened to me this year.  God knows all about it so I may as well tell you.

     Holy Week is a good time to face up to the question:  Do we really believe in that story or         do we just like to hang out with nice people and listen to organ music?  There are

     advantages, after all, to being in the neighborhood of people who love their neighbors.  If

     your car won’t start on a cold morning, you’ve   got friends.

     There is comfort for the doubter in the Passion story.  You are not alone.  Jesus’ cry from

   the cross was a cry of incredulity.  The apostle denied even knowing Jesus three times. The

   guy spent years with Jesus, saw the miracles up close, the raising of Lazarus, the demons

   cast out, the sick healed, the water-walking trick, all of the special effects, but when the

   cards were down, he said, “Who? Me? No way.”[1]

Human beings, all of us, like certainty, to have the world around us conform to expectations, to have the universe behave in a way that we think it should.  Our minds search for order; we want to make sense out of our world, to organize the information that our senses bring to us – what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch.  And when it doesn’t, we doubt.   

Doubt is good! It is the impulse that pushes us toward scientific discovery.  It is at the core of legal argumentation and forensic debate.  Doubt is a sign that we have critical thinking skills: 

If the earth is flat, why don’t we fall off?  Why do some people get sick and others do not?  If the dealership tells you that your steering wheel needs to be replaced and you haven’t had a problem, you doubt, and you get a second opinion (which is what happened to Kim) form another dealership.  Doubt moves the world forward.  Doubt is a gift of God.

And, then, there is reason.  How do we understand a first century text from our 21st century perspective?  Does this make sense to us?  How is it relevant to our lives?  John Wesley, founder of Methodism in the 1700s, said that we needed to include “reason” in our faith journey as well as scripture, tradition, and experience.

Now, the disciple Thomas is confused, skeptical, grieving.  His beloved teacher has died.  Yes, he had been told that Jesus lives, but that news is too good to be true, it is not reasonable.  And so he doubts.  But Jesus doesn’t seem to mind that Thomas needs first-hand evidence.  “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”

Jesus did not despise Thomas for doubting.  He meets Thomas where he is – just as he met Mary where she was and the hidden-away disciples where they were.  So, if Jesus is not troubled with the doubt of his closest disciples, who experienced him in the flesh, he surely can’t have a problem with our doubt two centuries later!  

Here is a more helpful way to look at this text:  In his gospel, John sets up a forced choice for Thomas (and us): “Do not doubt but believe.” Doubt versus belief, one or the other.  John is writing to followers in the early Jesus movement, spread across the empire, writing to convince them that something important has happened, telling them about Jesus. And he wants them to believe this incredible story.  It must seem like a fairy tale to them!  They are going to doubt, question, ask for proof.  But the opposite of doubt is not belief.  It’s unquestioning acceptance, “blind” faith.  What if faith is strengthened by doubt, by openness to new ideas, to learning? After all, in the UCC we claim that “God is still speaking.”

So I have trouble with the “doubt” versus “believe” challenge.  So I looked up the original Greek phrase and discovered that wasn’t how John’s gospel read.  Not “do not doubt but believe,” but “be not faithless but faithful.”  The Greek verbs in the text have to do with trusting and loving and holding dear. So, a more helpful understanding of the scripture is Jesus’ is saying to Thomas, “I’m still here with you and loving you; keep loving me.” Somewhere over the centuries, faith, which is about “love,” has been translated as “believe,” and here’s the problem.

Historically and linguistically, these are not the same.  Beliefs are sets of theological ideas, principles to live by, rules for living, ways of understanding the world.  We think about beliefs.  Beliefs are important as guides in our lives, but they are not the same as faith

In his research into the original meaning of the word “belief,” British theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith discovered the Anglo-Saxon “byleue” in its medieval, early English connotation had to do with holding in high esteem, cherishing.  “To believe” was the verb form of the noun “faith,” and it meant “to hold dear,” “to prize,” “to give allegiance,” “to be-love.” So even belief is not about ideas we hold as true but about what we love. John could have said, Do not doubt – but love, have faith!

John, then, is asking us and the early followers to choose love.  He could have described “believe” as “faith-ing.”  Faith is a feeling, not a list of theological ideas.  We can love the story even though our 21st century experience and our God-given ability to reason cannot accept it as literal truth or scientific fact.  In the United Church of Christ, we say that “Our faith is 2000 years old; our thinking is not.”  We do not need to check our minds at the door when we enter our churches.  Faith is what we love, not what we think!

There is no reason for us to feel guilty, thinking we don’t have faith, because we don’t ascribe to a particular set of theological ideas. Faith is not about evidence but about assurance, what Thomas received.  What Mary and Thomas and all the disciples received. What the human heart, the part of us that loves, needs:  assurance. Assurance that Jesus is still with them. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine….”

The resurrected Jesus cannot be stopped by locked doors or even locked hearts.  Thomas received this assurance in Jesus’ presence, just as we do through the love we experience in our church community as we hear the stories, share our prayers, and gather around the table. 

So it is in this passage in the Gospel of John, as the Holy Spirit is breathed into us, that Jesus passes the “ball,” the “baton” in the race called life, the responsibility of carrying on his ministry to us – to you and me – of all people!  May the Spirit remind us that our lives matter and have purpose, that we are called simply to love the world as Jesus did, and that will be faith enough.

May it be so!  Amen.

[1] “A pagan’s thoughts at Eastertide,” The Old Scout blog entry of March 18, 2008.


Moosup Valley Church UCC

Do Not Be Afraid

Matthew 28:1-10

April 09, 2023

Of all the gospel writers, Matthew is the best storyteller.  Mark’s account, the first gospel written, is spare and ends abruptly.  Luke’s version fills in some detail, with the angels tying the resurrection to things Jesus had predicted.  John’s resurrection story takes its own course, with Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene alone but not offering much detail.

In Matthew’s gospel, on the other hand, all heaven breaks loose. And in great detail.  Just as the sun is coming up, Mary Magdalene, the leading disciple, and another Mary – is she the mother of Jesus? we are not told – appear at the tomb.  No sooner have they arrived than an earthquake shakes the very foundations of what is real.  An angel, dressed as in snow and appearing like lightning, descends and rolls away the stone, then sits upon it, as if to say, “So much for death!” 

Matthew tells us the military guard on duty is incapacitated – shaken — with fear. Are they terrified by what they have witnessed?  Or of the angel?  Or by what will happen to them when they report this to headquarters?  And, indeed, Matthew tells us in the very next verse,       that the guards, when they do report, are bribed by the religious leaders to say the disciples had stolen him away in the night.  We can only imagine the fear in high places!

The quiet of the dawn has been interrupted by the earth’s quaking.  And now the angel tells the women he knows what they are looking for, invites them in to see where Jesus’ body used to be, and explains the obvious, “He is not here, for he has been raised,…”  Most interesting, however, is what the angel says to the women: “Do not be not afraid.” 

This is not the first time we have heard these words:  The angel Gabriel uses them three times in Luke’s birth narrative, first when he confronts Zechariah in the temple, then when he tells Mary that she has found favor with God and will bear a son, and finally to tell the shepherds that Jesus has been born.  These are the same words that Matthew’s angel uses to reassure the women, words that Jesus also uses as he meets the women.  And so the entire gospel narrative – the story of Jesus from cover to cover, from birth to resurrection – is wrapped up in these words, “Do not be afraid.”

When was the last time someone said this to you, and you believed it?  If we have been parented adequately, we might have when we were children.  As a child, I had dreams of being on the wrong side of a fire, and when I told my mother, she said, “Don’t be afraid.  Daddy will come and get you. And once when I thought I had done poorly on a test, I made it home to the front yard where my mother was raking leaves before bursting into tears; she wrapped her arms around me and said, “It will be all right. You can go to summer school if you need to.  Like I did….”

And if we were good parents, we gave comfort, too. “It’s okay, I’m here. You don’t need to be afraid.”  A Methodist minister told me once he had been very fearful as a child, so his mother would put notes in his lunch box.  Under his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he would find:  “You have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  We check under the bed and open the closet door: “See?  No monsters,” we tell our children. 

But as adults, we know fears can be more complex and dangers can be more real.  Loved ones die.  Planes drop bombs.  Parents lose jobs.  Neighbors are deported.  Health benefits are lost.  There are monsters – and they are real!  Ernest Hemingway says, “life breaks everyone,” and we know this is true at some time or another, or, at the very least, life wears us down.  Bad things do happen to good people.  Words of assurance are harder to come by.

But the angel says to the women – and to us, “Do not be afraid.”  This is what angels come to say in Scripture and occasionally in our lives: “Do not be afraid.”  Peace is their “calling card.” But this does not mean that nothing can go wrong. Things often go wrong.  Not everything turns out for the best, no matter how hard or how often we pray. I wonder, did the angel who comforted Jesus in the Garden whisper to him, “Do not be afraid.”?

But consider this: “Do not be not afraid,” is not the same message as “Don’t worry, everything will be all right.”  Because, clearly, in our unpredictable world, not everything will turn out as we would like. 

What does this mean when confronted with an empty tomb? We live in a scientific world, trained to be skeptical, and so we ask Mary’s question of Gabriel, “How can this be?”  And we miss the lesson. But surely the women – and then the disciples and then all the rest – understood. Death is not the end … but simply a mystery to be awaited.  The Eternal, the Spirit of Life, cannot be snuffed out by the forces of evil and indifference. The tomb of captivating lies that perpetuate suffering cannot hold Love for long. Nor can the pain we’re loath to face or the truth we try to avoid. The Holy One cannot be contained in a tomb – neither one carved out of rock nor one contrived in our imaginations.

“Go and tell,” the angel sends the women running to be witnesses to the resurrection, and they go with great joy.  And suddenly, Jesus is there with them.  “Do not be afraid,” he says.  I will meet you in Galilee where it all began.  And, together, we will continue the ministry – where I called my first disciples, taught the crowds, healed the sick, appointed the Twelve, showed compassion on the suffering, offered rest to the weary, where I spoke in parables, fed the multitudes, blessed the children, challenged a rich man, and taught about a Messiah who would suffer. 

And, yes, we all suffer.  But we do not suffer alone or without understanding. And we do not need to be afraid.

May it be so! 



Moosup Valley Church UCC

Who Is This?

Matthew 21:1-11

April 2, 2023

As the moon grows fuller, the excitement mounts.  Pilgrims begin to crowd into the city,

swelling its population by another 200,000.  Many have been walking for days; for some, this is the trip of a lifetime.  Preparations are being made in the temple.  The high festival of Passover is about to begin.

All Judea is under Roman occupation.  Jerusalem – a crossroads in the ancient world – is essentially under lockdown at this time of year.  Rome allows these Jews some freedom to worship their One and only God – backward as they think they are – as long as they don’t make trouble.  To make sure of that, Pontius Pilate will ride in on his warhorse from the coast, to the west, something he does every year to keep the peace.  It’s the spring of the year 30. 

There lingers, in the memory of the Jewish people, a prophecy, an expectation, that a Messiah will come to save the people, a King in the line of David.  Zachariah had proclaimed it a half century earlier:  “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, …  He will . . . cut off the war-horse from Jerusalem . . . and he shall command peace to the nations; . . .” (9:9-10) But that was ancient history, a forgotten dream.  Now there is only poverty and hunger and oppression for the masses.  Now there is only the delicate balance for the religious leaders.  Now there is only order to keep and Rome to satisfy.  Let this Passover be over quickly – and without trouble.  Who expected the turmoil that was about to erupt?  The wild swings of emotion?  The drama about to unfold, as the moon rounds to full.

An itinerant preacher gathers with his disciples at the Mount of Olives, on the eastern side of the city.  He sends his disciples into the village of Bethphage to bring a donkey. 

This is not simply a mundane act of borrowing a “ride” from a local villager. This is fulfillment of Zachariah’s prophecy.  When the disciples return, he mounts and turns the colt’s head toward Jerusalem.

Not everyone has gone to watch the Roman battalion ride in from the coast; some had stayed behind to notice this lone man, seated purposefully on a donkey, clip-clopping along toward the gates of Jerusalem. “Who is this?” they ask.  The religious authorities know.  They have been keeping an eye on him, infiltrating the crowds, protecting their positions.

“This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”  The word travels like electricity through the crowd, the words of Psalm 118 on their lips.  They know this Jesus, have heard him preach in the fields, have been fed and healed and lifted up by the Spirit that pours through him.  “Hosanna!” they cry out. Save us!

Matthew reports that when Jesus enters Jerusalem, “the whole city was in turmoil.”  This is no Fourth of July parade to launch Holy Week with flags instead of palms.  “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” is the church’s marching song, one we sing to Jesus our “redeemer king,” more akin to “We Shall Overcome” than to “God Bless America.” 

Jerusalem is in turmoil.  The Greek word for “turmoil” literally means “was shaken” or “trembled,” the root word of “seismic,” the shaking of the earth, associated by the presence of God.  Jesus continues, a lone figure riding, triumphant and humble, as the people create a carpet of cloaks and branches for the donkey’s hoofs.  Theologian Marcus Borg notes,

“[Jesus] is a remarkably free person. 

Free from fear and anxious preoccupation,

he is able to see clearly and to love. 

His freedom was grounded in the Spirit,

from which flowed the other central qualities of his life: 

courage, insight, joy, and above all compassion.”[1]

It is Jesus’ compassion that drives him into Jerusalem for the Passover, into a world which worships power and prestige, a world where the well-born, the well-connected, and the well-paid hold the strings. Jesus rides for the poor, the lepers, the marginalized and the ostracized, all those whom he calls “children of God.”  Jesus rides, like the prophets before him, against the blindness, injustice, and idolatry that cause human suffering.

This Wednesday at sundown, our Jewish friends and neighbors begin their celebration of Passover, the remembrance of their ancestors’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt.  They will read in the Haggadah, the Passover liturgy,

It was not only our fathers whom the Holy One,

Blessed is He, redeemed from slavery;

we, too, were redeemed from slavery; . . .

Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise, pay tribute, glorify,

exalt, honor, bless, extol and acclaim Him

Who performed all these miracles for our fathers and for us.[2]

“Our [Christian] Holy Week liturgies are rooted in this strong Jewish sense . . . of God’s ongoing, liberating action.”[3]  Action, not only in the past, but also in the present.

Who is this?  Someone asks.  For today, for the crowd, he is the redeemer.  And for us?  Who is this Jesus for us? 


[1] Marcus J. Borg, Jesus A New Vision:  Spirit, Culture, and The Life of Discipleship (San Francisco: Harper & Row, c. 1987) 191.

[2] The Family Haggadah (NY: Artscroll/Mesorah, 2008) 45, 47.

[3] John Rollefson, writing in Feasting on the Word (Year A, Volume 2) 157.


Moosup Valley Congregational Church

Jesus Weeps

John 11:1-45

March 26, 2023

“Jesus began to weep,” the writer of John tells us.  In this long passage, filled with action, with all the comings and goings, threats and sorrows, and the miraculous resurrection of someone dead four days, we read that Jesus weeps.  Is he perhaps regretful that he didn’t come sooner?  Heartbroken that he let his friends down?  Grieved that his friend has died?  Stung by Martha’s tongue-lashing?  “If you had been here….” 

Why does Jesus weep?

John’s gospel is written at the end of the first century, generations after Jesus’ death, the last of the four gospels in our cannon.  Was the raising of Lazarus part of an oral tradition, circulating in the early church for decades before the writer of John committed it to written word?  Why preserve this little bit of the story – or perhaps he added it – this account of Jesus’ weeping, this very human reaction, to the dramatic and miraculous events in Martha’s home in Bethany.

Regardless of what we think about the nature of Jesus, whether or not he is human or divine – or both – his weeping surely speaks to his humanity, makes him one of us.  Who amongst us has not experienced the death of a loved one, even the death of a beloved pet, perhaps even a death that might have been prevented by timely intervention?  If only she had stopped smoking; if only he had listened to his doctor; if only the kids hadn’t been drinking; if only the security had been better.  We cry for the waste of a life. 

And so Jesus weeps.

Surely, Jesus has much to weep for.  He has stood against the powers-that-be for three years now, stirred up and won over the oppressed, set his face toward Jerusalem and his certain death. Any one of us would be feeling fragile, tears close to the surface.  And now, Lazarus has died, and just as we might, Jesus acknowledges our human need for friendship and our grief at the loss of a friend.

“See how he loved him,” the onlookers say.  The Greek word John uses for love, however, is not “agapē,” selfless, self-giving love, God’s love of which John is so fond in his gospel, but “philia,” the common, everyday word for “friendship,” “human affection,” or “deep feeling,” the ordinary human love we have for our friends.  “Greater love hath no man than this,” John writes in Chapter 15, “that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

That Jesus would die for his friends is apparent here because his raising of Lazarus has caused such a scene that it is the final nail (figuratively speaking) in Jesus’ coffin.  The fragile relationship of the chief priests and Pharisees with their Roman occupiers is at risk.  High priest Caiaphas, sounds the alarm: “… it is better . . . to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed . …”  Or, as one translator says, with a more politically ominous tone, “It is expedient.”  Jesus’ love for Lazarus sets in motion plans for his execution.

As I studied the text, I was captivated by the image of a very human Jesus weeping at the tomb of a beloved friend, tears on his cheeks, chest heaving, sounds of grief.  And I am captivated by the image of a Jesus who, for us, embodies God’s love, weeping with families digging through mud in Pakistan, searching through concrete for in Turkey, burying their children in Texas.  I am captivated by the image of Jesus who weeps over us in all our sinfulness and all that is death-making in our world:  poverty, war, greed.

The disciples had not wanted to make this trip to Bethany, afraid that Jesus would be in danger.  Thomas says in the text we just heard, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  

But not yet. 

Instead, more people come to believe, come to recognize Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, disciples Jesus recruits in this business of resurrection as Lazarus comes forth from the tomb, bound by strips of cloth.  “Unbind him, and let him go.” I am captivated by a Jesus who weeps over us and enlists our participation in bringing life out of death for all those who are entombed in prisons of their own and society’s making.  

I have heard the homeless described as “throwaway people,” children as “illegitimate,” the poor as “undeserving,” immigrants as “aliens,” the abused as “asking for it,” the hungry as “lazy,” the ill as “punishment for our sins.” Jesus weeps for all of us who are bound by the grave cloths of self-doubt, depression, fear, and isolation.  Jesus weeps for all of us who are marginalized and oppressed. 

On this fifth Sunday in Lent, let us weep, too, for all the brokenness in our world, and seek ways as congregations to participate in the unbinding of each other.  Let us cultivate the capacity and the will to participate in the resurrection. 

May it be so!



Moosup Valley Congregational Christian Church

Living in the Light

Ephesians 5:8-14

March 19, 2023

This letter is named for the people to whom it is written, the little house church in Ephesus, a major city on the coast of the Aegean Sea, a place where the Apostle Paul spent quite a bit of time. But it probably wasn’t written by Paul himself but by a Jewish-Christian admirer of Paul late in the first century. The letter seeks to bring everyone together – Jews and Gentiles – in this new Christian movement which was out of step with the world around it.

We can only imagine the difficulty of bringing together people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds,           some wealthy, some poor, men and women together, but we get a glimpse of it in the instructions in a section that preceded today’s scripture: 

                     “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger

and wrangling and slander, together with all malice,

and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one

another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (4:31).

The letter was also written in a time when persecution was mounting from the outside, and the people were being asked to conform more to the cultural expectations of the society around them, so we read such instructions as: 

                     “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.

For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of

the church, the body of which is the Savior” (5:22-23).

So there is tension internally – between the members themselves – as well as tension externally – between the membership and all their neighbors in the surrounding community.

Whenever we read in these letters that people are being told NOT to do something, it means they probably are doing just that.  For example, when women are told to “keep silence in the churches” (I Cor. 14:34), it’s likely that they were being anything but. They were leading and preaching and teaching, as well as serving in the kitchen. 

That Jesus was a “feminist” and who held a long theological conversation with a Samaritan woman at the well (which we discussed last Sunday)     is problematic to his early followers. They are keeping their heads down, trying to keep from being thrown to the lions.  So trouble everywhere, danger to cohesiveness in the church by their wrangling with each other and danger in the larger community because they didn’t “fit” in with cultural expectations.

And here they are being told in this letter to put aside the darkness and to live as children of the light.  And, of course, that’s more easily said than done! Like all of Paul’s letters, the ones scholars are certain he wrote himself, as well as those written by his followers who emulated his style, there is a theological reflection about darkness and light, say, and then some ethical injunctions – “wives be subject to your husbands” and “slaves obey your masters” – that follow.

And so this raises questions about how beliefs and actions are connected and how we are to know what is right. We know from our personal history and experience, our education, our relationships, and our culture that there’s a lot in the Bible that is hard to swallow – and maybe we shouldn’t. So let me offer some context that is helpful to me.

I generally preach on the Gospels because I love the stories about Jesus. Jesus asked his disciples to follow him. To care like he cared, to be compassionate, “to go and do likewise,” as he instructed in the Good Samaritan story. Jesus was the prototype of how human life is to be lived and cared for.  And the way we learn what that means is in the Gospels. (Note that Jesus never asked anyone to worship him, only follow him.) But Jesus was a challenge to the culture around him. He was hard to follow, hard to understand, hard to emulate. 

When I want to know what was happening after Jesus was killed by the Romans, I read Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters to the little house churches which sprang up around the Mediterranean. And they were having trouble – lots of division among them, lots of church fights. They came from all walks of life, people who had been brought together by the preaching of the missionaries about Jesus, but had little in common with each other. And they rubbed each other the wrong way.  Paul, himself, writing to the Galatians addresses this with this well-known verse,

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer

male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ,

then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:27-29).

It was a new idea to me when I went to divinity school that the church as we know it today wasn’t born for several centuries. In the historical exploration, After Jesus Before Christianity, by the Westar Christianity Seminar scholars, we learn …

  • That there was no religion called Christianity before the 3rd century.
  • That there were multiple Jesus movements.
  • That there was a lot of flexibility and diversity within the Jesus Movements, including understanding of gender, sexuality, and morality.

They write, “When we survey the first two centuries of the C.E., we find a great variety of people who are loyal to Jesus in different ways and to different degrees, addressing Jesus with a variety of titles. These people organized themselves into communities, clubs, groups of followers, and schools. Meals were their primary social engagement.  (Pot luck suppers.) They called themselves a variety of names: the Enslaved of God, the body of the Anointed, brothers and sisters, the Way—the list is extensive.”  Some of the things we know about them are…

  • They resisted the Roman power structure and its violence.
  • They bent the rules for men and women.
  • They made new chosen families – and became family to each other.
  • They organized themselves as appropriate for their situation.
  • They developed oral traditions.

The “church” as we know it was always emerging and is still emerging. We may think we don’t have enough people, or enough money, or our bylaws are out-of-date at the First Church of Coventry, but that’s not new.  What matters is that we care for each other, and respect each other, and live into the light – just as Paul urged his followers – by showing the (9) fruits of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22).

This is the way that we live in the light. This is the way the little house churches survived and thrived and eventually became the church as we know it. This is the way Christ shines on us and through us to the world.

May it be so!



Moosup Valley Church UCC

The Woman, the Well, and the Water

John 4:5-42

March 12, 2023

This is the third Sunday in Lent – a season of reflection and self-discovery.  This year, the lectionary focuses on Biblical characters who are engaged with Jesus in such a way that we learn from their encounters something about ourselves and what we are called to be and do.  Two weeks ago, it was Jesus, himself, who came to grips with his own power and God’s mission for him.  Last Sunday, it was the Pharisee Nicodemus, a learned man, living inside the circles of power, who came to Jesus in the night to be challenged to be “born anew.” 

Today it is the foreign, uneducated woman who comes to Jesus at noontime.  What is noteworthy about this story?  Although you have probably heard it many times, I’d like you to try to hear it for the first time this morning.  I’d like you to hear it from the perspective of first century Palestine, and then what it might mean in 21st century America, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see. 

First, the woman:  What is Jesus doing talking with her?  She’s a “nobody,” without even a name.  Plus, rabbis didn’t talk with women in public, not even to their wives, but Jesus does.  He asks for a drink because he is hot and tired and thirsty.  The woman realizes that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, and she challenges him: “Why are you asking me for a drink?”  She sees that something is wrong with this picture:  She’s a woman, a Samaritan, and he is a Jew.  Jesus responds to her challenge, “If you knew who I am….”  And then they are engaged in theological conversation. 

If she hadn’t challenged him, simply poured him a drink without comment, would they have engaged in this give-and-take?  The woman is knowledgeable of her people’s history, sure of herself, willing to risk debate with this stranger.  She may be a woman, but to Jesus not property, which is what women were considered; she’s a human being whom he treats as worthy of his time and attention.

Some of us were taught in Sunday school as children that the woman was probably a prostitute because she has come to the well at noontime, in the heat of the day, to avoid the other women who would have come early when it was cool.  And this unsavory notion would have been reinforced by Jesus’ observation that she has had five husbands and is not married to the man she is with now.  But he doesn’t chastise her:  Her marital relationships do not concern Jesus. 

But her relationship with God does concern him, and so he takes this unexpected opportunity to reach out to this bright woman – and not just to her – but to her family, friends, and neighbors – foreigners.    

And what of the well?  Jesus and his disciples have cut through Samaritan territory on their way to Jerusalem.  Samaritans and Jews shared the same history if you go back far enough, but in Jesus’ day they were estranged.  The Samaritans were the people who had been left on the land – the farmers, the peasants – when the upper crust was captured by the Babylonians hundreds of years earlier.  These elite – priests, patriarchs, the ruling stock – had returned to their homeland 50 years later with a sense of being “Jewish.”

Given three generations of exile in a strange land, they had developed their sense of a Jewish people with a history, with their writings and practices influenced by the Babylonians.  Worship for the Jews was now reserved for the temple in Jerusalem, not for the Samaritans’ “temple” of the countryside. 

And what of the water?  It is early in his ministry, but Jesus steps out of thinking about the world the way everyone else is thinking about the world.  He stops seeing “the way things are” as normative, the way society decides the way things should be, the order of how the world works and the roles people play.  Instead, Jesus sees a new way, God’s way for humankind, the way God wants us to live and care for one another.  Jesus has a different mindset, a different vision for the world.  It’s hard for us to understand how counter-cultural he was.  It’s no wonder they crucified him.

What is this “living water” that Jesus offers?  We don’t really know except that – as we travel through this Lenten journey – something is empty in us, a dry bucket waiting to be filled.  We go about our ordinary lives, sitting on the edge of this well, longing for water that quenches our own thirst, longing for a sense of fulfillment and peace, longing for a life that matters.

The disciples come back from town with lunch, but Jesus has lost his appetite in the excitement over his conversation with this woman who meets Jesus with a cup of cool water, who becomes a witness to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, who confirms his identity as “the way, the truth, and the life.”  The gospel of John captures this truth and proclaims the good news as the early missionaries move out beyond the Jewish homeland to the Greeks and Romans:  “For God so loved the world,” not just Jerusalem!

So, what does this story mean to us in 2023, especially this month, Women’s History Month?  What does it mean to women who are still treated as second-class citizens in America?  It was only 100 years ago this year that the 19th Amendment was passed, and women won the right to vote – a long, hard battle, fraught with violence.  According to a new book by Ellen Carol Dubois, the reasons men, and some women, opposed suffrage were that women might vote against child labor, so mill owners were against it; women would close down the saloons; women would vote for socialism and pacifism. Other opponents blatantly declared that women were inferior, not mentally fit to vote, not as smart as men. Even that they would turn into men. And on and on the list went – a mishmash of misogyny and politics.

It is shocking to read about how women were treated. They were attacked for marching peacefully down Pennsylvania Avenue. They were arrested for picketing and sent to a brutal workhouse in Virginia or housed at the D.C. city jail and force-fed inedible food, deprived of soap and toilet paper, and interrogated by a psychiatrist. After all, a woman agitating to vote must be insane, no? Even after suffrage passed, after a 70-year struggle, some die-hards continued to fight it in the courts until the Supreme Court affirmed ratification in 1922.

Not long after, the first Equal Rights Amendment was considered, but not until the 1970s was it approved by both the House and the Senate and sent to the States for ratification.  It needs 38 votes,        and while it now has them, not enough ratified it within the deadline for it to become law.  (Note that Rhode Island has not ratified it.) So the question now is, can the deadline be extended and the ERA added to our Constitution, giving women legal equality to men in this country – something women in many European countries enjoy?

Does it matter that Jesus treats the woman at the well as bright and open, ready to learn and accept responsibility, able to be a witness to a new reality?  Does it matter to us as Christians that Jesus treats women with respect, as full persons – and our society does not? What does it mean when we make decisions about access to health care, affordable education, and water quality in our poor cities?  What does it mean to us that the faith that Jesus re-envisions is neither that of the Samaritans nor that of the Jewish leaders – but something new, like living water for thirsty people? 

There are still people at the well in the midday heat, written off by society.  It is not enough that we think of them as loved by God.  They must be loved by us as well. As Saint Teresa of Avila said, “Jesus has no hands and feet but ours.” So Jesus entrusts us to carry on his work, as best we can.

This is what Lent is all about, a season to wrestle with these questions, a time to take our faith seriously, a time to be changed by Jesus and the life-giving water he offers that satisfies not only our own thirst but also that of our equality-challenged world!

May it be so! 



Moosup Valley Church UCC

Night Blessings

John 3:1-17

March 5, 2023

The city was dark with just a sliver of a moon hanging in the sky.  A dog barked in the distance and another answered nearby.  The sound of a baby crying could be heard, and a soft voice crooning, lulling it back to sleep. 

A well-dressed man stood hesitantly at the head of the street, looking out of place in that neighborhood.  He began walking, making a cautious way, staying in the shadows of the rough-hewn houses.  At one point, the man seemed lost, and he knocked hesitantly at a house where dim light showed.  The door was opened a fearful crack and a hand emerged, pointing the way.  The man stumbled on, seeming unsure but determined.  A sleepy rooster, startled, crowed at his footfalls.  Eventually, the man knocked, relieved, on another door, where candlelight spilled out. Jesus himself, expectant, curious, opened the door and welcomed him in.

Nicodemus was out of his element.  Men of his stature didn’t venture beyond their well-furnished quarters, especially not in the middle of the night.  He was a Pharisee, after all, a scholar, a Pharisee, but not an antagonistic one.  And he didn’t go slumming, especially at midnight.  But he had to meet this self-proclaimed prophet whom he had been watching for some time, this man, whose preaching had been tantalizing and astonishing the crowds.

Nicodemus was torn:  This Jesus from Nazareth could upset the precarious peace that his ruling class negotiated with the Romans; they have “gone along to get along.”  Jesus could be trouble, big trouble.  Besides, Nicodemus was used to making the rules on his terms; he was used to being right, making the important decisions.  Jesus troubled him – but he didn’t quite know why.  He needed a face-to-face meeting.  But he’d have to be careful.  His colleagues couldn’t know where he’d gone.  It would have to be in the middle of the night.  He made some discreet inquiries about where Jesus was staying, let one of the disciples tip Jesus off that he, Nicodemus, would come after dark, in the night.  And here he was, hungry for something, he knew not what. 

Nicodemus addressed Jesus as “rabbi,” treating him as an equal, a big concession: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Nicodemus confesses a private faith in Jesus’ words and deeds, but he is not willing to go public, to declare himself a follower of Jesus, not yet.  He and Jesus huddle together in the small room, a candle sputtering on the table. 

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus challenges him.  What is this nonsense that Jesus is talking?  Nicodemus is used to literal interpretations; he misses Jesus’ spiritual invitation:  “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus is used to having truth nailed down, clear, obvious to the one who hears.  Jesus is a mystery, one who speaks in riddles. 

“From above,” anōthenin the Greek, can be translated three different ways – “again,” “anew,” or “from above.” For me, born anew is more helpful than born again.  It speaks to our need to go beyond the simple belief system of our Sunday School years to a more sophisticated adult faith, a faith that keeps up with the suffering in our lives and the complexity of the times we live in.

It is no accident that Nicodemus comes in the night.  Light and dark are common themes in the Gospel of John, and Nicodemus lives in the darkness.  Yet he hungers for the light, to know for himself, to see, to find a faith that speaks to him beyond his limited experience, beyond the law, a faith that means something beyond self-preservation. What does “born anew” mean to you and me in the 21st century?  Surely, when we lie awake in the dark of the night, we know that something in us needs to be born anew, needs to be changed, needs to let the Spirit, who comes like a wind from out of nowhere, to find us – and bring us home.  Like us, something is restless in Nicodemus.  He needs a new vision, a new vocation.

Is this peasant from Nazareth going to be the key to a new Nicodemus?  What would becoming a disciple of this upstart Jesus mean for his position in the Sanhedrin, as one of the Pharisees?  No, he will play it safe and hide his relationship with God. Nicodemus knows that God intends for him to be a blessing, but he is not ready to go forth to a strange new place, no, not yet.  But the Spirit tears at his confidence, lifts up the edges of his comfort, urges him to trust this Jesus.  Nicodemus wants to be as a child and stay safe in his mother’s womb, but Jesus invites Nicodemus to grow up, to let God work in his life. 

This, my friends, is the Lenten journey:  to come out of the spiritual closet, to renew our relationship with God, to grow in our Christian faith – a faith that is as much about doing for others as it is about believing, a faith that ignites our hearts to be a blessing to others.  We realize this when we look beyond today’s lectionary reading which stops just short of the rest of that passage and this truth, these words, “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” 

Like Nicodemus, we stumble down dark streets in search of the Holy, in search of the Word that will save our lives, in search of the Spirit that will come to rest upon us and lead us into the light.  This, then, is our Lenten journey.  Our lives and our communities depend upon the path we take.  Jesus shows us the way.

May it be so!



Moosup Valley Church UCC

The Temptation of Power

Matthew 4:1-11

February 26, 2023– First Sunday in Lent

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, the season between Ash Wednesday and Easter, a time for self-examination, prayer, fasting, and good deeds which begins, in most churches, with the imposition of ashes. The lectionary takes us to Matthew’s story of Jesus’ experience in the wilderness.  In the previous chapter, Jesus had just been baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan, where the Spirit of God descends on him and a voice out of the cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” “Beloved” also can be translated as “chosen,” and Jesus must have felt the need to go off by himself to sort this out – chosen for what? We don’t know if he understood his emerging ministry at this point, where his passion was going to take him. Before he was healer, teacher, and liberator, he needed time for self-reflection. This is what Lent offers us!

During these 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus is confronted by the voice of evil three times:  first, to turn stones into bread to end his hunger, second, to throw himself from the top of the temple in Jerusalem, forcing God to save him, and third, to sell his soul for all the power in the world.  Jesus resists these temptations, unworthy of a beloved of God, and in each case he defers to God: “One does not live by bread alone,..,” “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” and “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” Actually, the three temptations are essentially the same temptation; the devil has a one-track mind. They all are about the temptation to assume the power that rightfully belongs only to God. 

The devil’s first temptation is to satisfy Jesus’ hunger, but he doesn’t offer to bring in a picnic basket. No, he wants Jesus to flourish his magic wand and turn the stones into breakfast.  But Jesus knows that God-the-Creator didn’t design the world to work this way, the world that God pronounced “very good” in Genesis, so Jesus respects the laws of nature and declines. Besides, Jesus will not eat when others are hungry!

In the second, the devil tempts Jesus to go for celebrity status. Throw yourself from the temple, make a splash, we’ll put you on the front page of “The Jerusalem Times,” he offers. In the face of the Roman occupation, the people need a hero. So throw yourself down, won’t you? But Jesus knows that media triumphs aren’t what God wants.  God wants changed hearts, not heroes. So Jesus declines the publicity stunt as well as the magic trick, refuses to feed his own ego.

The third is similar in that the devil tempts Jesus with all the power in the world, with ultimate power, with dominion over all the nations.  Good people have always struggled with this temptation, have sought to cozy up to the powers-that-be, to have control. We see it as Putin invades Ukraine. We see it as lobbyists influence politicians with money. We see it as a train in Ohio derails and burns and spews toxic chemicals that destroy a community when they spurn safety for profit. When Turkey relaxes building codes, and 50 thousand die in an earthquake.

The gospel of divine love which Jesus preached has, too often, been corrupted by a bid for power-over-many by a bid for power-of-the-few who claim the gospel for themselves.  It’s been this way for a long time…. Consider the Crusades and the Inquisition in centuries past, not to mention the current debates in Washington today.  But Jesus cannot be bought by riches; for the third time, he declines the devil’s offer.

Temptation comes to us in the form of pride and selfishness and apathy. Temptation comes when we look at what others have and feel insecure that we don’t have enough.  Temptation comes when we think our way is the only way. Temptation comes when we look away from those who are in need and remain unaffected by poverty and disease and war. Temptation comes when we justify self-serving lies and racist jokes, when we gossip about each other. 

Yes, the devil tempts us, too – and his ideas are very attractive. We all want to be powerful, to have control, to be celebrated. Yet Jesus, our role model, the one who teaches us how life is to be lived and cared for, chooses holiness over temptation.  He declines the power that serves only himself, power that puts him on a pedestal, power over others, instead of power with and for others.    

Forty days alone with God in the wilderness, and Jesus emerges a new man, one clear about his mission, God’s mission, for what he has been chosen.  Lent is a time for us to reflect on who we are, and whose we are, and what we are called to be and do.  Lent is a time to overcome the temptation to think that we are the center of the universe, that the world owes us a living, that God cares only for us.

And so Jesus gathers his cloak around him, convinced, now, that God has a mission for him – to bring God’s light and life and love into the world – ready for this ministry, whatever it may bring, even death on the cross. And with angels by his side, Jesus ends his time away and begins his Galilean ministry. The people are hungry for him, in the words of Isaiah, “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the year of God’s favor.”

In Luke’s telling of this story of Jesus in the wilderness, he ends with, And the devil “departed from him until an opportune time.” These forty days of hunger, fear, and temptation are just a foretaste of the long haul ahead. They remind us that our journey is uncertain and hard – and won’t automatically end on Easter Sunday. They remind us that we need God, not only in Lent, but in all the seasons of our lives.

The moving, ancient ceremony of receiving ashes as a sign of penitence and confession with the words from Genesis, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” reminds us of our mortality, and our need for God in this broken-hearted world of ours. [Distribution of ashes during the hymn, “Lord Jesus, Who through Forty Days” ….]


Moosup Valley Church

An Eye for an Eye Makes Everyone Blind

Matthew 5:38-48

February 19, 2023

This is the fourth Sunday that we are reflecting on Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount chapter.  First the Beatitudes; then on Jesus’ urging us to be salt and light; and last week on the “hot button” issues of murder, adultery, and divorce.  

Today we reflect on Jesus’ advice to turn the other cheek, and if someone takes your coat, give away your cloak too, and if you are forced to go one mile, go the second mile as well, and be perfect as God is perfect.  Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? In one of the commentaries I read in preparation for today, a pastor tells this story:

Stumbling into the kitchen after a long day of work, I put down my groceries and pressed

the voice-mail button.  It was my (then) ten-year-old daughter Erin.  “Dad, I’m the lector

at church Sunday, and I have that passage where Jesus says, ‘Turn the other cheek.’  You

know that passage, right?  Do the other Gospels have that same passage?  Is it different in

the other gospels?  Could you let me know, because . . . no offense, Dad, but I think Jesus

is wrong.”[1]

What do you think?  Is Jesus right or wrong?  We live in a culture that says, if someone hits you, hit him back harder.  We live in an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth society.  But Jesus advises us to turn the other cheek.  Does Jesus want to make us into wimps?  Cowards?  Victims?  If we don’t stick up for ourselves, won’t that just embolden the bullies and increase the violence?  If I am too nice, won’t I be seen as weak, a pushover, a doormat?

Jesus knows that violence that is answered with violence is a never-ending cycle.  Your child hits the ball into the neighbor’s yard.  He throws it back and swears at your kid.  You go over to punch him out for using that kind of language.  He meets you at the door with a gun.  And pretty soon someone is dead.  It happened in Cranston several years ago.  A car cuts another off on route 95.  The other driver gives him the finger.  That rude gesture leads the first driver to rev up his engine and tailgate.  So the second car speeds up and nudges him over . . .   and pretty soon someone is dead.  It happens every so often somewhere in Rhode Island.  The police stop a car for a minor infraction – or perhaps no infraction – because the driver is black, and it’s a white neighborhood.  Everyone is afraid, and too often someone is dead. A neighbor threatens a neighbor with a gun for stepping on his land, driving on the edge of his property to let another pass.  It’s happened a while back in Foster.

It happens on a grand scale around the world.  Israel builds more settlements in historic Palestinian territory, which leads to more suicide bombers, which causes Israeli soldiers to shoot to kill, which leads to more deaths from suicide bombers, to which Israel responds by building a wall so Palestinian farmers can’t get to their olive trees, and more suicide bombers are recruited. And lots of people are dead . . ..

Jesus knows that violence leads to more violence.  And “an eye for an eye” makes everyone blind.  Some of the world’s greatest heroes in modern times have read the gospels and thought Jesus was on to something – and put it into practice:  Mahatma Gandhi who freed India from British rule, Martin Luther King who led the Civil Right Movement, and Nelson Mandela who unified South Africa.  Their aggressive nonviolent movements with the people overcame oppression and minimized death and destruction!

In ancient Israel, violence was a part of daily life.  The Jews to whom Jesus was preaching were a conquered people, slaves, really, to the Jewish elite and the Roman occupiers.  The Bible is clear that they were a people under savage persecution.  Some were eager to rise up and overthrow Roman rule.  But this would mean crushing defeat and widespread bloodshed.  They longed for a messiah, a military leader.  But what they get is Jesus – and a lesson they – like us – might not want to hear.  “Do not resist an evildoer,” Jesus says.  “BUT . . . .”

Jesus’ listeners would have understood his teachings better than we do, because they know the context.  And Jesus’ instructions must have brought not only understanding – but also lots of laughter!  How so?   Biblical scholar Walter Wink[2] sheds some light on these for us.  They are all tied up in the codes of honor and shaming and submission in the ancient world.  Codes that still exist in some cultures – although not in mainstream America. 

Let’s look first at turning the other cheek.  Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek.”  Let me demonstrate:  Since the left hand can be used only for unclean tasks, only the right hand can be used for hitting, and for slaves, women and children, it would be a backhand, a degrading blow. The action of turning other cheek, then, forces an assailant to use his right hand, not a backhand, because when one turns the other cheek, his or her nose is in the way.  This presents a problem for the hitter.  The right fist is only used to fight equals . . .   so the “inferior” person is saying, I am a human being just like you.  I will not cooperate with your humiliating me.  She or he has neutralized the situation.

Now let’s look at “losing your coat.”  To understand this teaching we need to remember how destitute the people were.  Why?  Not because they are poor money-managers!  They were poor because of the ruling class’s economic policies that forced them off their ancestral lands and because of high taxes that were leveraged to pay tribute to the Romans.  (That’s why so many of Jesus’ parables have to do with absentee landlords, day laborers, indebtedness, and tax collectors.)   So the advice Jesus gives is in direct response to their predicament:  They have lost their lands, and all their goods, and are down to the clothes on their backs – and are being sued in court even for those.  “…if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well.”  In other words, take it all off and walk out of court stark naked!  Picture it!  Who would be the most embarrassed?  In Jewish law, more shame would rest on the one who caused the nakedness than on the naked one.  This action on the part of the one who gives everything he has to the creditor, makes a mockery of the court, and empowers the one who is oppressed.    

Walter Wink tells this story about action taken by a few women not too many years ago, just before the fall of apartheid in South Africa:  It seems that bulldozers were about to demolish a squatters’ camp.  When the police arrived, they gave the women a few minutes to gather up their things.  What to do?  Sensing a way to overcome their persecutors, and imagining that their rural Afrikaners had a puritanical streak, the women stripped naked.  The police fled – and, as far as Wink knows, their shacks still stand.[3]  What is ultimately found to be really naked is the system that exploits people.

Jesus’ third teaching is to “go the second mile.”  Compulsory service was a common practice.  Roman soldiers could commandeer anyone found on the street to carry their packs – but only for one mile.  This was the law.  After that, they had to find someone else.  But Jesus says, go the second mile.  Doing so breaks military code, puts the soldier at risk of being disciplined by his commander.  And it’s so confusing for the soldier who expects resistance!   Should he force the Jew to give him back his baggage?   Jesus’ listeners must have seen the absurdity of this.  Suddenly they have the upper hand.  They must have been rolling on the hillside with laughter!

In all of these situations, Jesus is saying to those at the bottom of the social pyramid – you have worth, you are somebody, you have dignity.  So, no, Erin, Jesus doesn’t have it wrong at all!

And then Jesus tells his followers to respond to danger with love, to love their enemies and to pray for their persecutors.  It is said, “An enemy is someone whose story you have not yet heard.”  Jesus rejects the principle of retaliatory violence – because “an eye for an eye” makes everyone blind.  Love seeks the welfare of the other person, no matter the evil she or he has perpetuated.  Love changes the situation.

Let’s not be confused by Jesus’ commandment to love those who persecute us.  Either we ourselves, or people we know, and likely some of you here this morning, have been harmed and have experienced suffering – or will at some point in your lives.  Jesus is not advising us to accept our wounds and embrace our assailants.  He is advising us not to cooperate with harm – just as he advised the disciples to turn the other cheek, changing the dynamics of the situation, and the human relationships. We are not expected to suffer in silence, to be martyrs.  If we are angry, we need to understand what made us so and find some peace.  If our work environment is killing us, we need to find another job.  If we are bitter that our lives aren’t what we had hoped, e need to learn to forgive ourselves and our circumstances.

If we are victims of domestic violence, we need to talk with a professional.  If our neighbors are discriminated against, we need to advocate for them.  If we are growing older, we need to seek out supportive services.  If our community is full of conflict, we need to resolve our difficulties and bring us back into fellowship. 

“Be perfect,” Jesus says, “as [God] is perfect.”  This is the stuff of discipleship.  It’s not supposed to be easy – but it’s the only way that leads to health and wholeness and holiness.  Jesus shows us the way. 


[1]Carey, Greg in Feasting on the Word:  Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1, page 381.

[2] Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be (New York: Doubleday, 1998) pages 101-111.

[3] Ibid., pages 105-106.


Moosup Valley Church UCC

Beyond the Law

Matthew 5:21-37

February 12, 2023

We continue today in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew that scholars have divided into readings for four different Sundays.  Two weeks ago, the focus was on the Beatitudes; last week Jesus tells those gathered to be “salt” and “light.” He adds these qualities to the 10 commandments.  In addition to not killing or stealing or bearing false witness, we need to use our “saltiness” to make the world better, and we need to shine our “light” into all the dark places in our world, including into our own selves.

This week is similar.  Jesus fleshes out some of the most contentious of the Ten Commandments for his disciples:  murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing.  These four are the “hot button” issues of his day – just as health care and abortion, racism and immigration are our issues today. 

And just as in last week’s text, Jesus is not overturning the law in the Hebrew Bible; he is not contradicting the Ten Commandments but transcending them; adding meaning to the law, taking it beyond a checklist of behaviors, a list of dos and don’ts.

What he is adding is love, the overarching commandment – the big umbrella commandment – over all the others.  Ultimately, the commandments are about loving relationships.  We should not be surprised:  Remember the Greatest Commandment?  When Jesus was asked the trick question of what is the greatest, he responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength.  And the second is like it:  you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Why is love so important?  Because love leads to abundance – for everyone.

And now Jesus gets down to specifics:  The first issue he addresses is murder, and he redefines murder as all the little ways we hurt each other with our anger, all of our little cruelties, sarcasm, slights, and meanness.  We squeeze love and life out of each other little by little, don’t we?  Until too many people don’t think they are worthy of love. Let me demonstrate with this “IALAC” sign:  We all have one, and we walk around with it on our chests every day.  And each time we are hurt or experience a “put down,” a little piece is torn off. 

For example, in nursery school, we knock over the tower of blocks we have built painstakingly, and the teacher says, “My, aren’t we clumsy today!”  [Tear]  You’re sound asleep and your father walks into your room and says, “Get your lazy ass out of bed!  You’re going to be late for school.”  [Tear]  You have a bout of illness [tear],or your parents divorce [tear], or you are abused, heaven forbid [tear], or your family is homeless because one of your parents lost a job or got sick [tear] – and you think God is punishing you for something.  Your spouse tells you she or he is unhappy in the relationship [tear] or your boss tells you the company can’t afford you anymore [tear] or the government says you can’t use the restroom that matches the gender you know you are [tear].

Life is full of trouble.  And we all walk around with an IALAC sign on our chest.  And every day when we wake, our IALAC sign is a little smaller because of the abuse we’ve suffered the day before.  What does this stand for?  I Am Lovable And Capable.   When we are loving toward each other – in our families, in our churches, in our workplaces and in our communities – when we are kind and helpful, supportive and encouraging, we create abundance.  Love is the greatest commandment, and we increase love, or decrease love, by the way we treat each other.

Next Jesus turns to adultery and divorce.  Now, the love Jesus is advocating is not romantic love.  That’s a fairly new invention in human affairs.  Marriage in the ancient world was not about romance but about blood lines, property, and creating alliances. Traditional marriage was between one man and many wives.  But even there, relationships are important, love is important.  Jesus says that adultery starts in one’s heart – and we need to weed it out – because it leads to broken relationships and works against love. 

Today we might well consider expanding our understanding of adultery to a marriage in which one partner is stifled or controlled or manipulated by the other partner, any relationship in which one does not have the opportunity to learn and grow and flourish. 

In Jesus’ day, divorce was a death sentence for women.  A woman who was thrust out of the extended household had no means of protection and support.  She becomes immediately homeless and hungry – and is left with the community’s condemnation because they assume she is an adulteress.  So here, as he so often does, Jesus is taking a woman’s side – arguing that a wife should not be divorced because her husband is tired of her or has another women he wants to wed.  She should not be divorced without cause. 

These days divorce is not a death sentence, especially for a woman who has an education and a good job.  And if a couple is not happy together, most of us would support their right to divorce – although less so if there are children involved and they are able to resolve their differences.  But we all know women who are in abusive relationships – and sometimes a divorce is the only way to have a life free of fear, or to raise the children in a loving environment, or to give the two parties a chance to begin again with someone with whom they are more compatible.  In 1943, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this bit of wisdom to a young couple about ready to marry, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, . . .  but the marriage that sustains your love.” 

For Jesus, supportive relationships were more important than the “law.” Remember he admonished the Pharisees with “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” when they criticized him for allowing his disciples to pick some grain on the Sabbath, making the rules more important than human need.  Jesus knows that love makes the world go round; love builds relationships and sustains communities.  We need to love each other, because . . .  Loved people love people.  Freed people free people.  Accepted people accept people. 

But loving is more easily said than done.  We all carry a lot of hurt around with us; we are all damaged.  And sometimes we need to untangle the hurt, and free ourselves from our old baggage in order to make room for love.  We need to be intentional about love.  Let me show you what I mean …. First, I need to call for help….

Instructions for Installing Love on the Human Computer:

May 29, 2010 at 5:31pm

[Customer Betsy makes phone call ….]

Tech Support Karen: Yes, how can I help you?

Customer: Well, after much consideration, I’ve decided to install Love. Can you guide me through the process? 

Tech Support: Yes. I can help you. Are you ready to proceed? 

Customer: Well, I’m not very technical, but I think I’m ready. What do I do first? 

Tech Support: The first step is to open your Heart. Have you located your Heart? 

Customer: Yes, but there are several other programs running now. Is it okay to install Love while they are running? 

Tech Support: What programs are running? 

Customer: Let’s see, I have Past Hurt, Low Self-Esteem, Grudge and Resentment running right now. 

Tech Support: No problem, Love will gradually erase Past Hurt from your current operating system. It may remain in your permanent memory but it will no longer disrupt other programs. Love will eventually override Low Self-Esteem with a module of its own called High Self-Esteem. However, you have to completely turn off Grudge and Resentment. Those programs prevent Love from being properly installed. Can you turn those off?

Customer: I don’t know how to. Can you tell me how? 

Tech Support: With pleasure. Go to your start menu and invoke Forgiveness. Do this as many times as necessary until Grudge and Resentment have been completely erased. 

Customer: Okay, done! Love has started installing itself. Is that normal? 

Tech Support: Yes, but remember that you have only the base program. You need to begin connecting to other Hearts in order to get the upgrades.

Customer: Oops! I have an error message already. It says, “Error – Program not run on external components.” What should I do? 

Tech Support: Don’t worry. It means that the Love program is set up to run on Internal Hearts, but has not yet been run on your Heart. In non-technical terms, it simply means you have to Love yourself before you can Love others. 

Customer: So, what should I do? 

Tech Support: Pull down Self-Acceptance; then click on the following files: Forgive-Self; Realize Your Worth; and Acknowledge your Limitations. 

Customer: Okay, done.

Tech Support: Now, copy them to the “My Heart” directory. The system will overwrite any conflicting files and begin patching faulty programming. Also, you need to delete Verbose Self-Criticism from all directories and empty your Recycle Bin to make sure it is completely gone and never comes back. 

Customer: Got it. Hey! My heart is filling up with new files. Smile is playing on my monitor and Peace and Contentment are copying themselves all over My Heart. Is this normal? 

Tech Support: Sometimes. For others it takes a while, but eventually everything gets it at the proper time. So Love is installed and running. One more thing before we hang up. 

Love is Freeware. 

Be sure to give it and its various modules to everyone you meet. They will in turn share it with others and return some cool modules back to you. 

Customer: Thank you, God. 

CREATOR, aka, Tech Support: You’re Welcome, Anytime. 

A reporter without a lot of patience once asked Swiss theologian Karl Barth for a brief summary of his 12 thick volumes of church dogmatics.  Barth could have given him a profoundly intellectual reply.  Instead he simply said, “Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” 

Yes, indeed.  Jesus loves me – and you – and everyone in this church – and those who have never entered a church – and those who are afraid to enter a church because they don’t think they are good enough – or think you won’t think they are good enough . . .. Yes, Jesus has reminded us of the ancient commandments, but the purpose of these commandments is to build love. 

And, yes, buy your sweetie a card this Valentine’s Day, but remember your obligation to love goes far beyond your spouse, your family, your friends, your coworkers to the ends of the earth.

May it be so.



Moosup Valley Church, UCC

Bringing Out the Blessings

Matthew 5:13-20

February 5, 2017

“You are the salt of the earth;…” Jesus tells the people gathered around him.  Why does Jesus choose salt?  We know we need some – especially on a hot summer’s day – but our doctor may tell us to go easy on salt.  Not good for our blood pressure!  But what would popcorn be without salt?  And how would we manage on slippery roads and steps without salt? 

In ancient times, salt was not wasted on the roads!  Its importance is emphasized by the Israelites who used salt as a sign of the covenant:  in the Torah, in the Book of Numbers, we read: “It is a covenant of salt forever, before the Lord,” and later in Chronicles, “The Lord God of Israel gave the kingdom over to David forever, even to him, and to his sons, by a covenant of salt.”  Even today, on Friday nights, our Jewish neighbors dip the Sabbath bread in salt, keeping the agreement between God and God’s people.

So, salt was a precious commodity in the ancient world; people traded in salt, like we would in gold or cash.  Salt caravans were among the earliest commercial enterprises. It was needed then, like now, for health, to sustain life.  Salt preserves food and alters its taste, bringing out the goodness.  So it’s no wonder Jesus chooses salt to describe his closest followers.  Being called “the salt of the earth” was no small thing! His listeners must have been astonished that they held so much value!

And then Jesus uses another metaphor: “You are the light of the world.”  This, too, is a common reference for his audience, all those people gathered around.  They know that the prophet Isaiah years before told his people that they are to be, “a light to the nations” (42:6). And in one of this week’s lectionary readings, Isaiah (58:1-12) says, “Ifyou remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, ifyou offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, thenyour light shall rise in the darkness . . ..”

Out here in Foster and Greene we know how dark it can be at night. But Isaiah is not just talking about outer darkness but also inner darkness, the darkness of the soul, the hidden places in our psyches that make us mean, or angry, or selfish, or a bully.  We are all wounded by the harshness of life.  t’s part of the human condition. But we don’t have to let it define us. God’s healing light can shine in our own darkness. And we live in a dark and broken world – stressful, dangerous, unequal, fearful.  We all know we could use some light in our mental health system, in our schools, in our financial sector, in understanding why poverty exits in the richest country on earth. 

Last Sunday, we read the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is a high call to be a blessed peacemaker, to be slow to anger, to be low on lust and high on love.  Jesus is showing his listeners the pattern for living in God’s world, what often is called the “kingdom of God.” The Sermon also is a reminder that we fall from that high calling, that we are often broken people who have lost our saltiness, whose lights have been dimed or put out. And so we come to church to hear the gospel, to receive words of forgiveness, to break bread together, to connect with each other, and to draw life from Jesus’ word. We come to church to receive a certain saltiness, to have our batteries recharged so that we shine more brightly.

Now, the people to whom Jesus was preaching knew the Old Testament texts, especially the Pharisees in the crowd. They, of course, knew the law – they were the professional interpreters of it. It must have made them angry that Jesus goes beyond the letter of the law and teaches that we must be God-like in our dealings with each other.  It’s not enough to refrain from killing, stealing, bearing false witness.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Jesus adds to the law. 

That is, in addition to following the Ten Commandments – thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness – Jesus says we also need to be like salt and light. Instead of a check list of dos and don’ts – actions – we are to demonstrate certain qualities of being – beingness – in the world. We are to use our saltiness to change the world, to bring out the goodness in the world. Our light to illuminate the dark places and bring the light of truth to bear on the confusion.  And if not? Jesus challenges those who have ears to hear to be good for something – and if not, they will be useless, thrown out and trampled underfoot.

Follower of Jesus, then, just plain folks like you and me, are called to be salt and light. We don’t have to do anything extraordinary – just be and do what we do best right were we are. Salt and light…. A news story on Friday was about a woman in Brunswick, ME. She’s a barber.  She was out of work during Covid, had a hard time, but neighbors checked up on her.  When she was able to go back into her shop, she reduced all her prices.  And if you couldn’t pay anything, you didn’t have to. And if you needed bus fare to get to a job interview, she took it out of the till and gave it to her customers. She wanted to pay it forward, to help people. “The community is like family,” she said. We need to help each other.

Salt and light…. This week, too, some of us have been meeting out of concern for the homeless. The tent cities at the State House and in Woonsocket were bulldozed. All the people who lived there lost all their identification – a step back in trying to get housing and care. The Governor opened the Cranston Street Armory, but there are not enough cots for those who need shelter, and no running water in the building.  So there are porta potties outside. Sr. Mary went and checked them out. They had not been cleaned. And Friday night the windows blew out, and it’s almost as cold inside as it is, out.

Twice a year, something called a Point in Time is conducted to count those who are living outside. It happened on Wednesday night. Volunteers spread out all over RI to physically count those who were living outdoors:  How many?  302! The next step is to talk with the Governor about short-term plans to keep people from freezing to death and long-term plans to provide housing.

Salt and light….  We are called to be salt and light – ordinary people like us who think of others – and there are all kinds of ways to be these things. We can be like the police who park their cruisers off the Veterans Memorial Parkway across the Providence River from Hasbro Children’s Hospital and flash their lights to say goodnight at 8:30, creating magic for kids facing cancer. 

We can reach out to strangers on our shores, visit in nursing homes, collect groceries for hungry families, go out of our way to offer a kind word, hold out a helping hand. What can one person do? How can a small churches like Rice City and Moosup Valley be “the light of the world”?   Are we too small?  Too poor?  Don’t have enough people?  These things don’t matter in God’s eyes!  Only faithfulness matters.  In Palestine, people lived in one room houses. Yet Jesus reminds them that a lamp set on a lampstand gives light to all the house.  Every church has something to offer, gifts to bring, ways to make a difference.

Jesus tells us to be salt and light—and to live right – caring for others, according to his example. 

Jesus tells his followers to mix their special saltiness into the bread and the stew of all the world and to reflect God’s light and love into all its dark and broken-hearted corners. 

May it be so!  



Moosup Valley Church UCC

God’s Blessings

Matthew 5:1-12

January 29, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so!



Moosup Valley Church UCC

The Place God Calls You To

Matthew 4:12-23

January 22, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so!


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


Moosup Valley Church UCC

Come and See

John 1:29-42

January 15, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and replace it with the power of inclusion.”

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

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

May it be so! 



Moosup Valley Church UCC

Possibilities Unfolding

Matthew 3:13-17

January 8, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so!



Moosup Valley Church UCC


Matthew 2:1-12

January 1, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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