Moosup Valley Congregational Christian Church UCC
Moosup Valley Church UCC
May 9, 2021
“Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” Charlie played to open the service. “Abide in my love,” Jesus tells us, “I command you to love one another.” Because this is how we bear fruit and where we find joy. This is a tall order, is it not, in our fractured world? And if not a tall order, surely an oversimplification to solving the world’s problems – or even a sweet, sentimental bit of trite! We throw the word “love” around carelessly. I love ice cream. I love New York! I loooove you in that hat!
What kind of love is Jesus talking about? Not the Greek eros, the desire between lovers, as in “erotic.” Not philia, brotherly love, as in “Philadelphia.” In this passage, the word Jesus uses is agape, which comes into Latin as caritas and then into English as charity and the gradual shift to our English word “philanthropy,” which comes closer to agape – love for the other, the way God cares for us. Jesus is talking about agape, the kind of love God has for Jesus and that Jesus then shares with his disciples. Agape is the love that Jesus has demonstrated that takes him to the cross, the kind of love he is urging upon his disciples – a “doing” love, not just a “feeling” love.
Jesus commands them – and us – to love each other in the same way – even to giving up their lives, something we might be called on to do figuratively, if not literally. They are going to need it.
In our text today, Jesus is delivering these instructions as he prepares to leave his disciples, his closest friends – his “loved ones” – on his way to the cross. What kind of love will they need to survive his arrest and torture and crucifixion? They need agape love that binds them together as a community that can carry on without their dearest friend. Jesus has set a high bar, literally giving up one’s life for one’s friends. To survive, they need to be “loved ones” to each other.
Those who came a few generations after Jesus walked this earth needed it too. Biblical scholars think that John was writing his gospel toward the end of the first century when the Christians were facing crises on two fronts: growing persecution by the Roman Empire and serious conflict with the Jewish synagogue. Remember, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, come to reform Judaism, and the first churches were synagogues. Different theological ideas were emerging, and Christians were being expelled from synagogues. So not only did the disciples need to love one another the way Jesus loved them, but the members of the early church, several generations later, also needed agape love to survive in a hostile world, to bear fruit, to be “loved ones.” If they had not had that kind of selfless love for each other – a readiness to lay down their lives for each other – the community would not have been able to withstand the persecution on all sides – being thrown to the lions, literally and figuratively – and we would not be here today.
And what of us? Where do we find that kind of agape love today? Where do we find deep, fulfilling relationships, the kind of love that Jesus is talking about? Certainly we don’t expect to find agape on Facebook. We know there is a difference between friends we accumulate with a click on “Accept” – and “loved ones” who will be there for us when we need a ride to chemo or for cataract surgery, a meal brought in, a deep conversation about things that matter.
So, where can we find agape? Can we find that kind of love in our families? We certainly celebrate the ideal that is Mother’s Day, which we celebrate today. Well over a thousand years ago, someone asked the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) to whom on earth we owe our deepest gratitude. “To your mother,” he replied. “After that, who?” He was asked again. “To your mother again,” he replied.
Families are sometimes loving, and sometimes not. One of Kim’s cousins married a woman over his mother’s objections, a woman who already had two children who have Downs Syndrome. I met these children, Sara and John, children so beautiful and soulful, and so sad that Kim’s mother died. And their parents are so devoted to providing them with a quality of life in spite of their disability. Surely there is agape in that home!
But you know families: the disagreements and “put downs” and sharp words, the sisters who don’t speak to each other, the relative who thinks her way is the only way. Sometimes, loved ones are not very loving at all. How do we put the agape back into “loved ones,” that Jesus calls us to be to each other in our families?
There are many ways to give up our lives that don’t involve death, for example: Giving up a good job to stay where our kids are happy. Taking care of an elderly parent when we’d rather be seeing the world. Choosing to care for handicapped children rather than institutionalizing them. Agape love is known as much, if not more so, by its deeds than by its feelings.
We see agape love in our churches, too, wherever a church is bearing fruit. I see it in the phone calls, the emails, the prayers, the church cleanup days, the concerts, the way we reach out when someone is hurting.
Friends, “loved ones,” are companions on the journey of life – perhaps that’s a good way to understand what a congregation is called to be – to bear fruit that shall last: dwelling – abiding – in God’s love through the act of discipleship.
Last week, we reflected on Jesus, the vine, and we, the branches, staying connected with the divine source of our nourishment. Why? Because Jesus is depending on us to be his hands and feet in the world, to carry out his mission. And what is God’s mission? It’s bigger than we can understand, but suffice it to say, to live out God’s love for all of creation.
And we find agape love beyond our families and beyond our churches. We don’t have to be practicing Christians – going to church, being baptized, receiving communion – to be Christ-like. There are many ways to lay down one’s life for one’s friends in response to Jesus’ call to be disciples.
We think of soldiers who throw themselves on a hand grenade to save a buddy. But what about Doctors Without Borders, who travel to out-of-the-way places to bring medical care, in keeping Jesus’ commandment to serve the poor.
And think of all those who boarded Freedom Buses during the Civil Rights Era, after signing their wills, knowing that they might be killed for integrating a lunch counter.
Think of the women – many of them mothers, I’m sure – who were arrested on November 10, 1917, just over 100 years ago, for protesting outside the White House for the right to vote. They were taken to a Workhouse in Northern Virginia where they were beaten, clubbed and tortured by the guards. The event is known as the Night of Terror.
Think of Jahaira DeAlto, a 42-year-old transgender woman of color, who was stabbed to death in the Boston area last Sunday. She was an advocate for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and she was heralded as a fierce advocate and a “mother” to many.
Think of the Christians who hid Jews in Poland and France during the Nazi invasions, and ended up being arrested and executed themselves.
Think of the environmental activists who risk their lives standing up to logging companies and the oil industry and city councils who try to save money by drawing water from unsafe sources. Last year, Gomez Gonzelez, an advocate for Monarch Butterflies in the UN World Heritage Site in Mexico, pushed for tourism instead of logging, and in January 2020, he was found killed. He was an advocate for replanting trees that are the butterfly’s habitat.
Allan Boesak, Dutch Reformed minister in South Africa, who opposed apartheid and was sentenced to prison, asked, “Is there nothing worth dying for?”
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” There are many kinds of friends to die for and many ways to do it. As we head toward Memorial Day, let’s expand the list of the people we honor. Certainly, we should remember those who died in combat. But why not also those who died in peacekeeping? Who died advocating for the rights of those the country or world had left behind?
There are many ways to “mother” besides giving birth, although that’s mind-blowing and dangerous in itself!
The love we need to change the world, the love that Jesus demonstrates as he feeds the hungry, heals the sick, and advocates justice, is agape love, the love that lays down its life for the “loved ones.”
Our Christian story is a big, divine, mind-blowing story. And our story at Moosup Valley Church and Rice City and Mt. Vernon, is a little piece of God’s big story. All we need is love, God’s kind of love, to make it happen.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
May 2, 2021
If you have ever visited a vineyard, you would have noticed that the vines in the vineyard curl around each other, creating a tangled mass of vines and branches, stems and leaves. Some branches are bare, some with fruit. The gardener enters with knife in hand and cuts out the dead wood, then goes on to prune back the old growth – the secret to bearing fruit. Among vineyard keepers today that’s what’s called “canopy management.”
Vineyards have always been an important part of our agricultural economy. In the ancient world, great care was taken to prepare the ground; strong walls and watchtowers were built to protect the vines from people and animals. A productive vineyard was a sign of God’s favor and that the vine-grower was obedient to God’s commands. Wine imagery is frequent in our Bible. Ancient Israel was often called “the vineyard of the Lord” (Isa.5:7). “To bear fruit” was a common image of the faithful community.
Jesus knows this, of course, when he talks with his disciples about his leaving them. He is the vine; they are the branches. The disciples understand his vine/branch metaphor and the importance of being connected to the vine in order to bear fruit. This is a “no brainer” for them – whether or not they understood what was about to happen. It must have been comforting for the disciples to hear Jesus’ talking about “abiding” in him, about being connected to him in order to bear fruit – just as it is for us.
There are three key ideas here in the vineyard metaphor: First, in order to bear fruit, there needs to be some cutting involved – and this sounds painful. Vines live out in the open air, subject to the elements, and some branches die. They are in the way, useless. Others may bear fruit but not as well as they might. Pruning a healthy plant – while it may seem cruel – stimulates more growth. Laurie told us this when we were putting out a plant table at our Concert in the Valley a couple of years ago. Divide your plants, she said. It’s good for them! Pat’s doing this right now with the hostas by her porch.
Now, the Greek word for “prune” also means “cleanse.” If we are being honest, “…we know there are aspects of our lives that need to be cleansed, cut away or redirected”—pruned. Pruning is healthy for a plant – just as pruning or cleansing our human lives of burdensome things, meaningless pursuits, and unhealthy relationships can give rise to new life in us. Good can be nurtured; wasteful activities or hurtful behavior can be eliminated.
In an article in my most recent Harvard Magazine, I read about the importance of self-reflection. We tend to focus on two ways of operating – blaming or forgiving. The author suggests another, better way: understanding. Why we do what we do. We might ask ourselves when we are angry or afraid, why? “What past experience is being triggered in me?” “What am I afraid of?” The past is always with us – until we can resolve it.
It’s important to note that the cutting is not done to punish the plants but to make them more productive. Jesus is not pulling up entire plants and throwing them into the fire, only the dead wood that gets in the way of a faithful life – attitudes and values and assumptions that don’t belong in a Christ-like vineyard. God can help us prune ourselves.
The second key idea in this passage is that fruitfulness is communal, that is, we cannot do it alone: There are many branches on each vine, all drawing their nourishment from the same vine. All together, the plant produces fruit. One individual branch, one cluster of grapes, doesn’t mean much. Our Western civilization model of individuality – the Lone Ranger mentality – the de-valuing of community lives, works against us here. I could do this service by myself, but look how much richer it is with all of us! Carl could have cleaned up the grounds by himself two weeks ago, but look how much fun we had and how beautiful the church looks when we all were here!
So the metaphor of the vineyard, has something to teach us about the common good. What affects one, affects all. We need to balance individual rights with the right of everyone to be healthy, prosperous, and safe. Kim and I had this discussion Thursday night with a friend over dinner: Should people be required to wear a mask to get on an airplane? To be vaccinated in order to attend a class or to be cast for a part in a play? How do we balance individual choice with the common good? The vineyard metaphor may give us a way to think about these questions; help us to flourish together during a pandemic. As a society we will continue to struggle with these issues.
We struggle with lots of issues. We hear calls to “defund the police.” Writer Mitch Albom, who manages an orphanage in Haiti, wrote in a guest editorial in the Cape Cod Times yesterday that, defunding the police, would make us like Haiti where the police don’t have enough support and where gangs rule. Instead, I’d like to see us increase funding for the police in order to put social workers in every police car who might be better trained in mental illness to avoid a tragedy and better equipped in conflict management to de-escalate a tense situation.
And I’d like to take money out of politics. Let Congress decide on the merits of the ideas and not on the deep pockets of the lobbyists and billionaires who buy elections. We dismiss politics as grubby business, and too often it is, yet that is how we move the world forward. Too much self-interest in politics and too little attention to the common good! How can we make politics work for the people?
The vineyard metaphor reminds us that we are all in this together. Acting out of self-interest, brings ruin to the vineyard. The productive vineyard is a community enterprise. We produce more quality fruit when we grow it together!
The third key idea is that we are to abide in Jesus. Jesus said that he is the vine, and the disciples – by that he means you and me – are the branches, and our task is to bear fruit. So how do we do that? What does this mean, to abide? Is it not to care about the things that Jesus cared about – the poor, the hungry, the vulnerable, the stranger, the immigrant, to work for a just society where everyone thrives? Our faith reminds us that we are held to a high standard to love God and our neighbor as ourselves; we are called to abide in love.
As we emerge from the pandemic, let’s pause and remember moments this past year when hope seemed lost and we felt alone, abandoned, afraid, and helpless. Thousands of people felt this way.
Let’s take the opportunity to think about what we’re called to be and do as the church as we labor in the “vineyard” that we call Foster and Greene, what our ministry should be going forward, how we serve these people, who and what needs us now, as we reorganize and rebuild.
Will Rice City go back to suppers and Moosup Valley, to concerts? Will I continue with the newsletters? Will Mt. Vernon develop a ministry beyond hymn sings? What will our “new normal” become in these changing times? What will it mean to abide in Jesus in this new decade? The world is still broken; the world is not what God desires for humankind. There’s work to be done in the vineyard.
The promise of scripture is that, as we abide in Jesus, we begin to see the world the way God sees the world. And we are reminded that, with God, all things are possible. I ran across an interesting idea in one of the commentaries on this text, and I quote: “Churches that move through hardship to increase commitment to the mission have, indeed, been pruned. Those that pull back in concern for their own comfort and security have, indeed, been removed.”
Through a relationship with Jesus, the true vine, the connection that brings meaning and life to us, we can bear the fruit of love in the world and witness to the gospel of justice in our lives, even if
God needs to prune us to get it!
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
The Good Shepherd
April 25, 2021
The lectionary text for this morning is the passage about Jesus the Good Shepherd. Images of shepherds and sheep abound in our Bible – more than 500 references, if we include lambs and rams. Consider how many stained glass windows or pictures you have seen of Jesus with a lamb tucked in his arms. But let us be realistic that shepherds were not that pretty and clean cut like Jesus in church windows; they were a little ragged around the edges. Being a shepherd was dangerous and menial work – more like being a migrant worker today.
The fact that Jesus uses the metaphor of his being a shepherd must have been an affront to the religious elite of his day. And real sheep are not that cute and fluffy and clean. The ones I’ve seen have wool hanging off them with twigs stuck in it, and their legs are muddy. And they have a reputation of being “dumb” and getting lost all the time, as in the prayer, “All we like sheep have gone astray.”
Something interesting about sheep is that they want to be led, they follow the shepherd, their shepherd, and they know his or her voice. A cattle rancher would tell us that sheep are not cows. When did you see your last western? The cowboys are riding behind, snapping their lariats, waving their hats, driving the cows from behind. One drives cows but leads sheep. Sheep follow the voice of their shepherd. Jesus leads his sheep by the sound of his voice. And for these sheep – you and me – Jesus gives his life. We are the sheep in this metaphor, like it or not, now that you know you are both dirty and dumb.
Yet, this image of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” certainly has its hold on the church. Some churches call their minister the “pastor” and refer to the minister’s care of the congregation as “pastoral care.” But in our Bible stories, only Jesus is the Good Shepherd: There are no parables about “assistant” shepherds or “associate” shepherds” or “sub-shepherds.” Jesus is the only shepherd whom we are to follow. And our pastors are part of the flock. I like to be known as Reverend Betsy, not Pastor Betsy, for this reason. And our UCC constitution is consistent with this model: Jesus is the Head of the Church, him only do we follow.
Now, unless you are traveling in Vermont, or have taken a vacation in the north of England or Scotland, you probably haven’t seen too many sheep, the real ones. I don’t see too many even here in Foster. But in ancient Palestine they were everywhere. Our ancestors in the faith were agricultural people, after all, and sheep were domesticated early in Palestine for their food, milk, and wool – as well as for their value for trade and sacrifice. Everyone is Palestine would have understood the setting for this story – even if they didn’t understand what Jesus meant by it. Even we 21st century folks may not agree on its meaning.
In the beginning of this story, before the verses that we just heard, Jesus talks about the gate that the shepherd comes through rather than over the wall like a thief or a bandit, and that the sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice; and then Jesus proposes that he, himself, is the “gate.” It might be helpful to understanding this passage to know that sheep were kept in an enclosure at night, perhaps a stone pen, to protect them from weather and wild animals. Often shepherds would share such a sheepfold, taking turns guarding the sheep. In the morning, each shepherd would call his own flock who would know his voice, and they would follow him.
So what lessons can we learn from this “Good Shepherd” passage?
The first lesson is that this is a parable about leadership, who is trustworthy, that is, who is known and to whom the gatekeeper opens the gate – like Jesus, whose voice the sheep know; and who is not trustworthy, that is, he who climbs in like a thief and a bandit by another way to steal and kill and destroy. The writer of the Gospel of John may be using Jesus’ words to advise the members, the “sheep,” of the early church to be careful about whom they follow, Jesus – or a false leader, someone there for his own advancement, not because he cares for the sheep.
Jesus, on the other hand, is the Good Shepherd who enters by the gate, knows his sheep and calls them by name, and leads them out. He is the one who has the best interests of his sheep at heart and leads them to pasture. In other words, there are leaders who are there to serve us, who are willing to die for us, and there are leaders who are out to serve themselves – focused on pride, power, and purse – ready to pull the wool over our eyes. Our task is to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd and to follow only him. (In Bible Study, we have been reading about tension in the early churches – which traveling missionary is preaching the truth and which one’s theology is leading people astray – so John may be addressing that problem by telling this sheep story.)
Another lesson may have to do with Jesus as the “gate.” “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved.” It is often interpreted that Jesus means that one must accept Jesus as Lord and Savior to be saved. Furthermore, that Jesus is the only gate. What about people of other religious traditions? I work on social issues with Jewish and Muslim colleagues. Our friends study Buddhism and spend time in meditation. Our neighbors are Hindus and Baha’I (well, maybe not in Foster). And what of those of no religion but who live Christ-like lives? Does Jesus open the gate for all people? Or only for some people?
Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who was attempting to reform Judaism. So the early church struggled with the question, does one have to be Jewish first in order to be Christian? Eventually, they decided not.
I believe, for example, that we might see Jesus as our gate to the realm of God, while respecting that other people have different paths to God. Jesus is the way to life because he is life – for us – if not for all. “In my father’s house are many mansions,” Jesus has said.
A third lesson is that God cares for us. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” is one of the most beloved and universal passages in our Bible. We long to be cradled in God’s arms, so it’s tempting to sit back and let God do all the work in this world. God will take care of us, like a shepherd cares for his sheep, we think. This is “feel good” religion that has forgotten Micah’s injunction, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly….”
The dual expectation that God-the-Good-Shepherd will take care of us – but also expects something of us – is laid by the prophet Ezekiel in this hauntingly beautiful passage with a jolting ending:
“I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed,
and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the week,” – this is shepherd work – “but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice” [Ezekiel 34:16].
Yes, God cares for us, and leads us, and lays down God’s life for us – but the goal is not just our own comfort and peace. Preachers are told that our role is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Which leads to a fourth lesson, that God cares for the world. The sheep go out to find pasture – grazing is the work they do to stay healthy, put on weight, make milk and wool – their purpose in life. At night they come back to the sheepfold. This might be a good paradigm for today’s church: members of the flock gathered around the Good Shepherd who leads us out into the world to do God’s work, and then brings us back through the gate to rest.
What need in this brokenhearted world of ours draws your attention? What issue has its hold on you? This past week, it could well have been climate change and environmental justice….
Jesus loses himself in God’s passion for justice – literally – when he gives his life to teach a different way of life. We need to lose ourselves – if not literally, then at least figuratively – in God’s mission, for that is where we find life abundant, or Jesus’ death is for naught.
We each need a piece of God’s action in the world. In fact, we are God’s action in the world. No one of us can do everything, but each one of us can do something to bring about the Kingdom of God. Poet Jane Kenyon in her poem, “Back from the City,” writes…
After three days and nights of rich food and late talk in overheated rooms, of walks between mounds of garbage and human forms bedded down for the night under rags, I come back to my dooryard, to my own wooden step.
The last red leaves fall to the ground and frost has blackened the herbs and asters that grew beside the porch. The air is still and cool, and the withered grass lies flat in the field. A nuthatch spirals down the rough trunk of the tree.
At the Cloisters I indulged in piety while gazing at a painted lindenwood Pietà— Mary holding her pierced and desiccated son across her knees; but when a man stepped close under the tasseled awning of the hotel, asking for “a quarter for someone down on his luck,” I quickly turned my back. Now I hear tiny bits of bark and moss break off under the bird’s beak and claw, and fall onto already-fallen leaves. “Do you love me?” said Christ to his disciple. “Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Then feed my sheep.”
May it be so.
Helping the Sun to Rise
April 18, 2021
Writer Madeleine L’Engle in her book, Glimpses of Grace, tells the story of an elderly Miss Leonis Phair who is visiting a tribe of peaceful Indians in Venezuela. Her teenage nephew Simon is in danger from some wrong committed by a distant relative generations before. L’Engle introduces the story with these words,
Miss Leonis wakes early, dresses, and joins Umar Xanai, the tribal leader, at the edge of the lake. Her walk has made her slightly out of breath.
Umar Xanai was there before her, alone, sitting in Charles’s favorite position. The old woman sat down silently, slightly to one side and behind him. Around her she could sense the sleeping village. Someone was moving on the porch of one of the Caring Places. Soon Dragonlake would be awake. All around her she heard bird song. A fish flashed out of the lake and disappeared beneath the dark waters. Above her the stars dimmed and the sky lightened.
When the sun sent its first rays above the mountain, Ulmar Xanai rose and stretched his arms upward. He began to chant. Miss Leonis could not understand the velvet Quiztano words, but it seemed clear to her that the old chieftain was encouraging the sun in its rising, urging it, enticing it, giving the sun every psychic aid in his power to lift itself up out of the darkness and into the light.
When the great golden disc raised itself clear of the mountain the chanting became a triumphal, joyful song. At the close of the paean of praise the old man turned to the old woman and bent down to greet her with the three formal kisses. She asked, “You are here every morning?”
He nodded, smiling, “It is part of my duties as chief of the Quiztanos.”
“To help the sun rise?”
“That is my work.”
“It will not rise without you?”
“Oh, yes, it would rise. But as we are dependent on the sun for our crops, for our lives, it is our courtesy to give the sun all the help in our power—and our power is considerable.”
“I do not doubt that.”
“We believe,” the old man said quietly, “that everything is dependent on everything else, that the Power behind the stars has not made anything to be separate from anything else. The sun does not rise in the sky in loneliness; we are with him. The moon would be lost in isolation if we did not greet her with song. The stars dance together, and we dance with them.”
Miss Leonis smiled with joy. “I, too, believe that. I am grateful that you help the sun each morning. And when the moon wanes and the sky is dark—you are with the dying moon, are you not?”
“When the tide ebbs and the moon is dark, we are there.”
“My tide is ebbing.”
“We know that, Seňora Phair.”
“It will be an inconvenience to you. I am sorry.”
“Seňora Phair, it is part of our Gift. We will be with you.”
“I am not afraid.”
“But you are afraid for [Simon].”
“I am afraid for Simon.”
“Do not fear, Seňora Phair. You have come to redeem the past.”
“That is not in my power,” she said sadly.
He looked at her calmly. “You will be given the power.”
Why did I read you this story? Because our earth is in trouble. Because greed and money and ignorance and selfishness have acted as if humankind can do what it wants to God’s creation, and there is no price to pay. Even when we see the pollution and erratic weather all around us, and families on the move because crops are failing and seas are rising around the world.
And while we may see God’s beautiful creation all around us here in Foster – the cardinals in the lilac bush and the snow on the pines, the fish in the ponds, and the daffodils in the gardens – too many in positions of authority do not care about the big picture.
We are consumers, and consumers do not conserve the earth.  L’Engle quotes theologian Martin Buber, who said that the world is a reality created to be hallowed, and then she wrote,
“Probably the worst thing that has happened to our understanding of reality has been our acceptance of ourselves as consumers. Our greed is consuming the planet, so that we may quite easily
kill this beautiful earth by daily pollution without ever having nuclear warfare. Sex without love consumes, making another person an object, not a subject. Can we change our vocabulary and our thinking? To do so may well be a matter of life and death. Consumers do not understand that we must live not by greed and self-indulgence but by observing and contemplating the wonder of God’s universe as it is continually being revealed to us.”
L’Engle wrote these words 25 years ago. The crisis is greater now. Some scientists think it may be too late to reverse the melting of the ice at the poles.
But on this Sunday when we celebrate Earth Day, I hold out hope. In our Genesis creation story, we just read that God created humankind in God’s own image. We assume this means that we look like God, but it does not. The Hebrew words, as a scholar of Hebrew pointed out to me, mean that we are given the ability to create; we are creatorslike God.
So, I hold out hope that our God-given ability to change our habits, and invent solutions, and act with courage in this pivotal time, can save the Earth. Like the elderly Miss Leonis Phair who had traveled to Venezuela to right a wrong, I pray that we may be given the power. That we be given the power – and the will.
May it be so!
Madeleine L’Engle, Glimpses of Grace: Daily Thoughts and Reflections. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996, p. 95.
 Ibid., p. 98.
A Tangible God John 20:29-31 April 11, 2021
It has been a busy day in Jerusalem. Early in the morning, Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body – and found the tomb empty. The linen wrappings are just lying there where he had escaped them. She summons Peter and the beloved disciple who had come running, and they also found Jesus gone. Later, while Mary remains crying at the tomb, Jesus appears to her and instructs her to go to the disciples with the news that he is alive.
Now, it is Easter evening, later the same day. The disciples are huddled behind locked doors. They are scared and confused, afraid of the religious leaders. They have not grasped the message of Easter; they are not empowered by a new reality; they hide like cowards. Then suddenly, Jesus comes and stands in their midst, appearing miraculously in spite of the closed door – demonstrating he can show up wherever his followers gather – even in Foster and Greene. “Peace be with you,” he says to them, twice. They must have thought they were imagining things.
But the peace that Jesus brings comes with a mission: “As the father has sent me, so I send you,” he tells them. The disciples are not only disciples now; they also are apostles, the ones who are sent to be witnesses to the love of God in all the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Easter is not only a story about God’s power to raise Jesus, but it also is a story about the Holy Spirit’s power to mobilize Jesus’ followers to carry on his work in the world. Jesus opens his mouth and gives his disciples an infusion of power and will to forgive other people. But first they must inhale and make his breath a part of their own, deep inside of them. But Thomas, as we have just heard, was not there. When the disciples share this unbelievable news with him, Thomas – of course – doesn’t believe it! The first, but not the last, “doubting Thomas.”
So, the disciples are commissioned. But do they go? To witness to the resurrection? To forgive sins? Apparently not, because they are still in hiding a week later. Jesus appears again with the greeting, “Peace be with you” – and he challenges Thomas who is present this time. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Does Thomas put his figure in Jesus’ side? We are not told, but Thomas no longer needs proof Jesus is alive because he experiences Jesus’ presence. A tangible God, one we can reach out and touch! Seeing is believing, as they say. Does it make a difference? “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says.
Jesus intends that our “believing” will send us out into the world as agents of God’s reconciling love, to help carry people over tough times and to help restore hope in the future. Yet a chronic temptation of the church, then and now, is to stay behind closed doors. Yes, we take care of our own behind these doors. We visit, send cards, bring in meals, pray for each other.
But what about those on the other side of the closed door? The world is desperately in need of a tangible God – a God that people can touch on their side of the door. Rice City used to have its suppers and music nights; Moosup Valley will have its campfires and concerts soon. What else do Greene and Foster need us to be and do? Where is the Spirit leading us now?
How can we make God tangible to our neighbors? Remember Gandhi’s teaching, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” So what are people hungry for in this community? And how can we be the bread of life for them?
We claim to be an Easter people, those who come out from behind closed doors to make God tangible. Remember what Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, “Truly just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” When we reach out in loving kindness to a needy world, we make God’s presence in the world real, we real-ize God’s presence, make God tangible in the community. We worship a God who breathes the Holy Spirit into us and who commissions us to make God’s love tangible in the world, in spite of our wounds.
This is important, because we think we need to have our house in order before we invite company, and we think we need to have our lives under control before we offer the hospitality of Christ to those around us. “Peace be with you,” Jesus says, even though our earth is suffering, our lives are not perfect, our communities are in conflict. Jesus comes into our midst, through the locked doors of our hearts, and says, “Reach out and touch me – and believe.”
May it be so.
Moosup Valley Church UCC Love Is Going Ahead of Us! Mark 16:1-8 April 4, 2021
It was not supposed to end this way – this week, this journey, this life. They had expected Jesus to act like the militant Messiah they were waiting for, to bring in the historic age of glory that the prophet Micah (4:4) had promised, where “everyone will sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”
Instead, they are confronted with paralyzing fear, unexpected suffering, and unfulfilled dreams. They had watched their beloved teacher taken into custody, powerless to intervene. They had watched him stumble under the weight of the cross, unable to get close enough even to touch him or wipe the blood and sweat from his face. They were held back by circumstances from even whispering a prayer in his ear or reciting a beloved psalm to bring him comfort. They had listened to his ragged breathing on the cross and could not even hold his hand or moisten his lips. We have known this heartbreak ourselves this year, this journey through the pandemic.
And now this last indignity. The two Marys and Salome arrive at the tomb to do their women’s work, to anoint and embalm Jesus’ body, but even that last loving touch has been taken away by forces beyond their control. The tomb is empty, the stone rolled away, and a stranger in white taking charge. Regardless of the Lectionary Year, the scholars assign John’s account of the resurrection. We are familiar with those beloved words: “On the first day of the week while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb ….”
But Mark, the first gospel written, decades before John, tells the story a little differently with some important lessons for us, so this year, I’m going to tease some truths from Mark –the one with the abrupt ending, the ending that was such an embarrassment for the early church that someone had to add another ending or two in the second or third century.
According to Mark’s original account, when the three women arrive, the tomb is empty. It must have been the last straw. Like the empty places in our homes and in our hearts after our loved ones have died, and we don’t know what to do or where to put ourselves. Emily Dickinson says it perfectly with, “The sweeping up the Heart, and putting Love away. We shall not want to use again. Until Eternity.”
But where is Jesus? The young man in the white robe tells them what they can see for themselves – Jesus is not there. How could a loved one be here one moment, and then not here, the next? Is it not the same for all of us, after the death of a loved one?
And, of course they are afraid! After what they witnessed just three days before? The world is a scary place, then and now. As a pastor, I hear the fears: How to live alone now that he’s gone. How to make ends meet without the extra income? How to deal with all the legal tasks? How to go on without the loved one?
One translator of the original Greek text says it this way: [T]hey ran away from the tomb, because great fear and excitement got the better of them. And they didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone: talk about terrified …”
So, if the women didn’t tell anyone, how did the news of the empty tomb spread? Perhaps because Jesus keeps showing up: That very evening to the disciples hiding in Jerusalem. On the road to Emmaus. On the beach with breakfast ready in Galilee.
The women hear the news from a stranger dressed in white – We don’t know who he is and why is he there in the tomb – but he tells the women that Jesus has gone on ahead to Galilee. Why Galilee? As he said to them at the Last Supper, Jesus has gone home. The High Holy Days are over; time to get back to business as usual, fishing – or whatever it is we do.
Some scholars say there is no Resurrection account in Mark, that it ends abruptly, and it does. Scholars suggest that the resurrection was added later as the church tried to come to grips with the death of their teacher, or to bring Mark’s account in line with the other three gospels. But there’s surely an empty tomb to account for. And how do we understand what it means to be “raised”?
Some scholars suggest that Mark intends this abrupt ending, that it is a call for faith over fear. Jesus was always asking people why they were afraid: In the calming of the storm, he asks the disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Perhaps it’s appropriate that Mark ends his gospel in silence – as he should, to leave room for Mystery.
Mark’s original readers – the early church in Rome – had good reason to be afraid. They are facing suffering, persecution, and even martyrdom. In many ways they are like the women at the tomb. Fear or belief?
And so what does it mean to us, 21 centuries later? What do we believe? Many years ago, I read English theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s book, Faith and Belief, in which he tells us that, originally, belief meant “to hold dear,” virtually “to love.” The German equivalent today means “to consider lovely, to like, to wish for, to choose, to commit one’s life to.”
With this understanding, then, the faithful life is not about what we believe; but about what we love, what we are committed to. Are we in love with this Jesus who lived to show us how to love God and our neighbor as ourself? Who taught us how life is to be lived and cared for? Early Christians were called the “People of the Way,” for good reason. Beyond that, I don’t think it matters what ideas we hold, only that we love.
However, we do our Bible a disservice if we think it is mostly a book about the past. It’s an ancient record, of course, but it has a lot to say about the future as well, and this empty tomb story is no exception: The God of scripture is always out ahead of us, leading us into the future.
When Moses asks God to self-identify and provide a name, Christian Bibles like to translate God’s response as “I am who I am.” But the Hebrew verb is not present tense, it’s future tense. “I will be what I will be” is what God is saying, “My name is the future.”
Jesus has told his followers to keep a hand to the plow and not look back. The unknown man at the tomb tells the mourning women that Jesus is going ahead of them; he’s not just stuck in their memories. Yes, the future may be unknown, but Jesus will be there before us, setting things in motion prior to our arrival.
So, where is Jesus if he is not in the tomb? I suggest he is in Galilee and all the other places in the world wherever we are or need to be. He is in the future, paving the way with love, preparing for our arrival. God’s love has been going ahead of us since the beginning of time, since the creation when the first breath moved over the face of the waters and the first star lit up the heavens.
This is Easter faith at its best. Whatever the future, we can step into it, knowing we will not be alone. Yes, it may be different after the death, but it can be full of confident hope.
May it be so!