Moosup Valley Church UCC
Moosup Valley Church UCC
February 21, 2021
For the fourth week in a row, we are in the first chapter of Mark, and we have backtracked a few verses to the story about Jesus’ baptism and the launch of his ministry. Mark tells the same story as Matthew and Luke, but he does it straight up, short and to the point, without embellishments.
The story itself must have been an embarrassment to the early church because Jesus, who supposedly is without sin, has brought himself to the River Jordan to be cleansed of his sin along with the masses. Jesus has gone there on purpose to make a statement that he’s not too good to mingle with the masses, people on the margins of society – the lame and the blind and the poor, those forgotten and considered unworthy by the good citizens of Palestine. And a voice from the heavens commends his choice, calls him “beloved” as he comes up out of the water.
And then Jesus goes out into the desert, the wilderness, a desolate place – a place with sandy soil, or a rocky plateau, or pasture lands far from settlements. This is classic hero mythology, a time of testing, of coming of age, of discernment, of garnering one’s courage to face the future. We see vestiges of this in contemporary times – Confirmation Classes and Believers’ Baptisms, Jewish Bat Mitzvahs and “coming out” parties for southern belles. If you google men’s self-discovery programs, you will find opportunities to join drumming circles nearby and recommendations of such books as “The Final Frontiersman” and “Failure Is Not an Option” available from Amazon.
Native American stories of boys of the tribe who go off for days alone without provisions where they commune with the Great Spirit as wolves howl nearby. Time to figure out who you are, what you value, how you want to live your life. Mark is telling a classic story, not just a Jesus story.
So what is our Jesus doing in the wilderness? Weighing a life of working in the carpenter’s shop, running his hands over the wood in his mind, a life of the easy companionship of friends and neighbors, people he grew up with in Nazareth? Considering Joseph who depended on his help as he aged? Considering his family, his mother who risked public humiliation and death by stoning to birth him out of wedlock? Perhaps he is troubled by the Roman occupation, the burden their taxes place on the already oppressed villagers? Perhaps he is ashamed by the silence of the religious establishment who seek to save their own skins and bow down to Caesar. Perhaps he is haunted by the words of the prophet Isaiah, that he studied as a child in Sabbath school in the synagogue, even as he fidgeted as boys do when they’d rather be out playing kick the can with their friends.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” he remembers Isaiah confessing, “because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the prisoners; … to comfort all who mourn….”
Forty days is a long time alone. What does it mean to be God’s son, God’s beloved? Time for the Spirit of God to wrestle with Satan. Surely Isaiah was writing metaphorically. He didn’t really mean me, Mary and Joseph’s son, did he? We don’t know about the nature of Jesus’ struggle in the wilderness, but Mark tells us that “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,…” Apparently he had reached some understanding of acceptance, some clarity of mission, some resolution of purpose.
Lent is about the struggle in the wilderness – the coming to terms with the personal wildernesses all around us — the underlying rage and fear left by childhood sexual abuse, the overwhelming grief and loneliness of the death of loved ones, the spirit-sucking, health-wrecking travesty of poverty. Lent is the time to take the challenge of the wilderness journey. What to take and what to leave behind? What is essential for life and what is not? If we have to carry it on our backs, what do we really need, and what is excess baggage?
And what about the silence? All that time to think? Which wild animals of our own thoughts and feelings will we encounter that we will no longer be able to outrun? And how will we tell the difference between Satan’s voice and those of the angels?
And we have our own collective demons which bedevil our society, do we not? Theologians remind us that the greatest heresy of our time is individualism, thinking that God only cares for my personal salvation and not for the world’s salvation.
On my drive back to RI yesterday, I was thinking about our demons, and I could name a bunch – violence, and all the isms and phobias of our times (sexism and racism and homophobia) and especially our exploitation of the environment. You know what they are. But I tried to go deeper; perhaps these public demons are just symptoms of underlying personal demons. Satan can be crafty!
One of them is EGO: We see it in “me first” talk as opposed to the common good; about rights and liberty and “don’t tread on me!” And so people refuse to wear masks during a pandemic and carry guns onto planes in their luggage. Yet, the gospel impels us to care as much about everyone’s safety as we do about our own.
And another is FEAR: We are afraid that life is a “Zero Sum Game,” that we’re not going to have enough, that there’s only so much of something to go around. And your gain is my loss – in wealth, in opportunity, in love. We don’t realize that when we share wealth and increase opportunity for a segment of society that all of us benefit. And so we worry about there not being enough vaccine, and if you get it before me, I might miss out, even though your getting the shot makes the community safer for me. Yet, the gospel impels us to care as much about everyone’s wellbeing as we do about our own. Love grows to meet the need. So, too, with wealth and resources.
There are many other demons, of course: UNCERTAINTY might be another, not knowing what to believe in the swirl of conspiracy theories, how to discern what’s factual and what’s fabricated. We need to learn to become critical thinkers, to be thoughtful and wise. “Then [we] will know the truth, and the truth will set [us] free.”
I wonder if Jesus struggled with any of these demons. And demons are hard to drive out; it takes more than 40 days, I’m certain, to banish a demon. But once we name them, we can begin to be attentive to God’s Spirit in the wilderness – with us, beside us, ministering to us.
Perhaps there are angels hovering overhead right now, over all the schools in the land. Perhaps there are angels hovering, right now, over all the homes and offices where fear and anger lurk and over all the war zones where bombs land and refugee boats sink. Perhaps there are angels hovering over all the open prairies and sea beds threatened by development.
Perhaps there are angels hovering over you and me, right now, inviting us on the Lenten journey into the wilderness to confront the wild beasts of our own hearts and souls, to confront the wild beasts of our own society and times.
I pray that it may it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Creating Compassionate Community
February 14, 2021
We are still reflecting on the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry as told by Mark, and, in just the first 45 verses of the first chapter, Jesus heals three people: First, two weeks ago, we read how he heals a man possessed of an evil spirit in the synagogue. Then, last Sunday, Simon’s mother-in-law in her own home. Finally, today, a leper out in the country. Mark has steadily moved us from the religious space, through the space of a private home, to the public space, strongly illustrating for us the overwhelming power of God’s presence in all human spaces. Today, we arrive in the open fields outside the city gates where the impure ones wander. Mark is making the point that God’s kingdom is everywhere we are.
So we begin this morning with the story of Jesus’ cleansing a leper. The man has no name, no life; he is a non-person, an outcast, a pariah. He cannot work, associate with people in the community, go to the synagogue. The priest has declared him ritually unclean, impure, and, according to the sacred purity laws in the Book of Leviticus, expelled him from religious and civil society.
We know the feeling because it is our situation under COVID; these laws served a purpose in ancient Israel, keeping the community healthy, just as masks and distancing and hand-washing keeps us healthy. But what it means for the leper in the story is that he cannot pray in the temple or go to the synagogue; he cannot visit his family and eat at their table. People avoid him, keep a safe distance, are repulsed by him. He might just as well be dead. There was no Zoom in ancient Palestine to keep him connected!
But stories about Jesus have reached him. Hope is spreading throughout Galilee. The leper believes that Jesus has the power to heal him, to make him whole. And desperation makes him bold: perhaps he thinks it is his only chance, and he comes and kneels at Jesus’ feet. “If you choose, you can make me clean,” he says. Mark reports that Jesus is moved with pity, and he matches the leper’s boldness by stretching out his hand and touching him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Jesus chooses compassion.
Scholars tell us that Jesus may be feeling more than just pity, however. Some ancient manuscripts read, Jesus was moved with anger! Anger? At whom? The leper for interrupting him? At the disease and the suffering? Or perhaps Jesus is angry at the religious establishment for casting out those who are different – the disabled, the slow learner, the poor, the immigrant, the one who has AIDS, the homecoming soldier with brain damage, the hard to love. And, since I don’t see too many of these people in our pews, I wonder if God is angry at us, too! We don’t know, do we? But these are questions worth our reflection.
We do know that Jesus shows compassion. The word comes from the Late Latin, com (with) + pati (to suffer), literally meaning to “suffer with” another. It’s about feelings, to feel the suffering of another, to come together in the suffering of another. Just look at our prayer list in the newsletter!
I wonder if it is suffering that makes us human. We all suffer, some of us more than others. So it is the experience and acknowledgment of our own suffering, and our own need for healing that makes it possible for us to reach out to another. Is that why Jesus was compassionate? We don’t know what Jesus’ life was like before he began his ministry. Had he suffered? Or was his compassion a response to the anticipation of his suffering? Surely, he must have had a foretaste of what was in store for him – if he continued to upset the powers-that-be, causing trouble for them, rousing the peasants and the countryside.
He must have suspected what was to come on the cross, as Mel Gibson so vividly portrays in his film, “The Passion of the Christ…,” his hands grasped and held on the crossbeams, the nail flashing in the sunlight, the hammer driving it home.
Perhaps, to the extent that we are in touch with our own suffering, then, we are able to be in touch with another’s suffering. And Jesus reaches out to touch the leper. With that action, two things happen: The leper is healed from his disease; he becomes clean, pure, and Jesus, himself, because he touched the leper, becomes ritually unclean, dirty.
And Jesus is angry, remember? He sends him off to the priest to confirm that he is clean, to do what is required in the law, so that he can reunite with his family, rejoin society.
Over and over, we see that Jesus’ greatest gift is compassion. And compassion is the way that we heal a broken world and broken lives. Can you remember a particular time or a situation when you felt compassion for someone? And what was the greatest act of compassion you have received from another? And when was the last time you treated yourself with compassion? Stopped feeling you had to be a super hero or stopped blaming yourself for something you did or didn’t do but think you should have?
A colleague told me the story about when her best friend in college died very suddenly. She was distraught. The next day her mother, unannounced, without being asked, flew up from North Carolina to her daughter’s college in MN to be with her. Her mother must have known, in her own heart, the loss. Feelings are the first steps to – and forerunners of – actions. But compassion need not wait for a crisis – we can be intentionally compassionate – and practical – in the ways we look out for each other.
Compassion creates the community of love. We’ve known for years that healthy relationships and healthy communities are what we need to keep us happy and healthy as we age. Relationships are the building blocks of compassion. One person at a time; one day at a time; one kindness at a time. When we take a meal to a someone just home from the hospital. When we buy food, Christmas gifts, and school supplies for needy families, we are practicing acts of compassion. When a member can’t get out to church but mails in her offering, she is practicing an act of compassion that keeps her connected.
It will be helpful to remember that Jesus didn’t stay in Nazareth to create compassionate community. He was everywhere: On the mountain. Throughout Galilee. In a boat on the Sea. Across the River Jordan into Gentile countryside. On his way to Jerusalem.
So let’s not stay “buttoned up” by ourselves: The Spirit calls us to proclaim compassionate community all up and down Moosup Valley Road and over into Greene, as far north as Chepachet and west into Connecticut, and as far south as Haiti, in search of those who need God’s healing presence and the Compassion of Christ. And when we gather our gifts for victims of disasters, and sponsor a child in Haiti, and pray for those who are struggling, we are following the Spirit’s call to proclaim compassionate community not only for our own families but also for all the families around us, and all those across the world.
“If you choose, you can heal me!” someone says with hope. “If you choose,…” Jesus waits to hear our reply, “We do choose!”
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
February 7, 2021
Last week the scripture lesson was about Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue and healing a man possessed by a demon. In the ancient world, diseases of all kinds were lumped together as demon possession, and the cause was sin. Jesus was asked once when a sick child was brought to him, “Who sinned? The child or his parents?” Somebody must have; there was no other explanation. Jesus, however, rejects the tendency to consider sickness as sin, and he restores the tormented man to wholeness.
Today’s text is connected to last Sunday’s – when I preached on the “contest” between Jesus and the demon – except that the place of teaching has moved from the synagogue to Simon and Andrew’s house. This is significant because the early churches were house churches, and Mark is recognizing this by moving the action out of a public worship space, the synagogue, into a private worship space, the home, the center of the Jesus movement.
When Jesus and the disciples arrive, they discover sickness in the house. Simon and Andrew must be embarrassed that the hospitality they promised Jesus is not waiting on the stove. Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever, and people have been waiting for Jesus to come to heal her. Imagine their anxiety over this capable grandmother who usually took care of the household, now burning with fever, bed ridden, helpless. Is she possess of a demon? What other explanation was there? Fear lurked in the corners of the room. Her daughter must have been putting cold cloths on her head; hushing the grandchildren to be quiet, looking down the dusty road for a sign of Jesus.
And then Jesus was there. He took her by the hand, and she was able to rise and minister to them. With this action in the very first chapter of Mark’s gospel, Simon’s mother-in-law becomes the first deacon, the first servant of the church, a servant as Jesus is servant.
Church-goers today miss the significance of this text. Jesus risked catching her illness – we would understand that – but he, a rabbi, also risked ritual uncleanliness – just by touching a woman. So Jesus is not only a healer but he is an equal opportunity healer. Women receive his attention as much as their husbands and sons do.
Now, does Jesus know Simon’s mother-in-law? Had he been in her home before, perhaps served by her before? I expect so, probably often. Jesus behaves like “family” as he enters the house. And so this text reminds us that the early church was very much a family affair, in much the same way our country churches are family affairs.
In addition, we cannot dismiss the significance of Jesus’ touching the mother-in-law. And, in fact, the scriptures refer to touching a number of times. In one incidence after another, in both Old and New Testaments, someone is touched, and that touch makes a difference: The woman who pushes through the crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe; the blind man whose eyes touched are restored to sight; the little girl whom he touches to bring her back to life. One incident after another points to the power of touch. It might even be said that, in the Bible, touch is a metaphor for intimacy, for presence, for relationship.
Psychologists remind us of the power of touch to give life. Depriving infants and young children of touch has a devastating effect on their developmental and social skills. Babies who are not held and cuddled don’t thrive. Even our pets need to be touched. When I was a teenager, I remember my father walking around the house with our cat, Mittens, tucked under his arm, and he said to me, “You know, Betsy, when you think how much love an animal needs, imagine how much more love people need.”
And look how many people adopted a pet when the pandemic hit, just to have something to cuddle.
Now, we don’t know why Simon’s mother-in-law was bedridden with a fever. But Jesus’ touch restored her to wholeness, just as his words restored the demonic in the synagogue to wholeness. For Jesus, teaching and healing were part of the same ministry.
And think of all those people dying of COVID in ICU without their families, and how the nurses are the ones who hold phones up to their ears and their hands as they take their last breath. Jesus came and took her by the hand and then the fever left her. Commentator P.C. Enniss notes,
The power of touch, of intimacy, of nearness, to make whole: Jesus must have understood that which we are too often too slow to comprehend. Love not expressed, love not felt, is difficult to trust. Theologically speaking, that is the reason for the incarnation. God knew the human need for nearness. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love, which makes it all the more demanding (if frightening) to realize that for some people, we are the only Jesus they will ever meet.
We too often think of God as “up there” or “out there” without realizing that God is “right here” in our midst in and among us and through us, in all the places, and in all the ways, we touch each other.
But that is not enough, to heal only those we already love. The one who has come and has been found in prayer, the one who teaches and heals, never stays put. The missionary work is extended out into the world. The disciples are those on the road spreading God’s kingdom of love and justice.
And so it must be for us, reaching out to our families and neighbors, as near as the one beside you, and as far away as refugees across the world. All of us, in need of God’s healing touch. All of us made whole.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
January 31, 2021
Jesus has barely begun. A baptism in the Jordan by his cousin John. A 40-day temptation in the wilderness and then a trip to the Sea of Galilee where he recruits his first disciples. Then the five of them – Jesus, Simon, Andrew, James, and John – continue on to Capernaum.
On the Sabbath, they go to the synagogue, where a contest ensues. Note that we are barely through the first chapter in the gospel of Mark, and we have a contest – not between football teams – but the first of many between Jesus and the powers of evil, between Jesus and the status quo, between Jesus and social convention.
Today’s story is a story within a story, and the overlapping of the two stories. Jesus stands up to teach, and his teachings are different from the Scribes who merely pass on the traditions that have been handed down for generations. But Jesus adds to and builds on those traditions. Mark does not tell us what Jesus says, but he tells us that Jesus is heard as someone who speaks with authority and whose words have the power to transform.
Now, Mark is writing at least half a century after the birth of Jesus, and he draws on stories handed on by word-of-mouth in the early church. He writes in a pre-scientific age and with a world view that predates the fields of medicine and psychology, when epilepsy, and neurological disorders, and mental illness were lumped together as “demon possession.”
And so, Jesus’ first “contest” is with an “unclean spirit.” Note that this unclean spirit has entered sacred time, the Sabbath, and sacred space, the synagogue. Mark, more so than Matthew, Luke or John, emphasizes Jesus’ miraculous power to heal and to exorcise. (Of the 18 miracle stories he records, 13 have to do with healing, and 4 of the 13 are exorcisms.)
Very early, then, the scriptures hinted at the close relationship between religion and health. To be possessed by a devil or unclean spirit is to be “impure” in biblical language. To be contrary to the sacred, to be outside the sanctity of God. Here in this place, Jesus intercedes. No one is outside of God’s love and concern. Jesus’ actions tell us what God is like, what God cares about.
In our churches, we expect everyone to have it all together – emotionally, physically, socially, spiritually. We expect church to be safe and restful – not confusing, chaotic, or violent. We expect everyone to be “pure,” no devils or unclean spirits. Yet those are just the people Jesus is coming to heal.
A study of the roots of the medieval English language shows that the words “health,” and “whole,” and “holy” come from the same root and express different sides of the same truth. When we are healthy, we are whole; and when we are whole, we are holy. This is what God wants for us.
And so, in the synagogue, Jesus, a man possessed by the Spirit of God, confronts a man possessed by a “monkey-on-his-back,” a man tortured and oppressed. Jesus liberates him from whatever burden he carries and restores him to wholeness, to holiness. His words carry the power to make the unclean, clean. Jesus wins this contest, hands down!
Tampa Bay plays Kansas City in the Superbowl next Sunday, a contest in which you may have a stake, emotional if not financial, especially since Tom Brady is playing.
But it’s not the only contest in which we are engaged. We, too, harbor our own demons of aging and illness and disability. We are engaged in contests with cancer and heart disease, kidney failure and addictions, Alzheimer’s and COVID-19, marital discord and life-sucking workplaces.
And we live in a world that begs for transformation. There are contests playing all around us. Demons of hunger and poverty, racism and sexism, violence and oppression, refugees and immigrants fleeing for their lives, the rape of the environment and climate change. In Mark’s story, Jesus takes action to liberate a child of God from his bondage, and we hear the echoes of Isaiah (58:6) in the background: “Is this not the fast that I choose – notice the action words: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
This authority that Jesus transmits to the disciples – to preach and to cast out demons – is the authority that Jesus, by extension, transmits to you and me. The people are amazed. “What is this?” they asked. What is this, we might ask?
Mark’s gospel puts us on notice, right from Chapter 1, that the boundary-breaking,
demon-dashing, law-transcending Son of God has arrived in the person of Jesus, and he expects of his followers, you and me, far more than amazement.
Jesus’ words guide the church to create and be spaces of freedom and places of healing and opportunities for communion. Not just information, but transformation. The ball is passed to us.
Yes, Jesus, make us faithful, true, and whole!
Moosup Valley Church, UCC
January 24, 2021
We’re back in Mark’s gospel this week, picking up where we left off after Jesus’ baptism several weeks ago. Context is important to understanding the story. And there are many lessons here for us.
Our story today begins as John exits center stage, and Jesus steps onto it. Mark is a man of few words, so every word carries weight – and this one is ominous. He writes,
“Now after John was arrested…” John had criticized Herod for his illegal marriage under Jewish law, what’s called speaking truth to power, and the authorities have caught up with him; we know he will soon lose his head. Preaching the gospel can get you into trouble. Faithful living has consequences, in every generation.
With John gone, there is a leadership vacuum, and Jesus steps up. Scholars think that Jesus was one of John’s disciples, and after John is arrested, Jesus fills the void – although he preaches a different, more spiritual kind of repentance from that of John’s.
Immediately before this, he has been away in the wilderness, coming to terms with his calling, sorting out what kind of a preacher he will be, gathering courage for what lies ahead – and now he’s as ready as he ever will be.
“The time is fulfilled,” Jesus says, “Repent,” which means, in this Biblical context, not saying you’re sorry for your sins, as we might repent today, but to turn your life around 180 degrees, to live a righteous life.
Then Jesus recruits four fishermen going about their daily lives – Simon and Andrew, James and John – and he invites them “to turn their lives around” in ways that they could never have imagined. How could they have done that, just laid down their nets and walked away? I would have had to organize everything first, given assignments, tied up loose ends. But no, Mark says these men “immediately… left their nets and followed him.” Jesus must have been quite compelling.
And then there is something else that we might acknowledge – they have to leave where they are to follow Jesus. Perhaps there’s a message for us in this, too: Being a disciple requires turning from the comfort and certainty of what we know to a future we don’t know. It requires us to take action, to make a change, to pick up and move – physically, mentally, emotionally.
In her poem, The Journey, Mary Oliver says, “One day you finally knew, what you had to do, and began…”
We can’t be disciples if we are afraid to step out and take a chance. We can’t sit in the boat – or on the couch, or on a rocker on the porch – and say, “I can follow Jesus right now from here, no problem.” OR I know that I should try this or do that … you fill in the blank … (for me it was the ministry), but we think, I’m settled now, so no need to rock the boat; I’m too old now, to follow the call, to pull together a life that I once thought God was calling me to.”
In spite of the consequences, Jesus preaches. In spite of the consequences, the four fishermen follow. And although these four can’t know in advance, we know that the consequences of faithful living also include the experience of true resurrection – resurrection to new awareness, new opportunity, new relationships, new life.
In addition, hidden and easy to overlook in Mark’s text, is the fact that Simon and Andrew are casting nets from the beach but James and John from a boat. So, we have a class issue here, a gap between the wealthy who had a boat (and could go out into deeper water where there were more fish) and the poor who could only cast in shallow water, so there is a big difference in their economic opportunity.
Discipleship sometimes means leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar – and getting to know people who are different from us. Greater Good Magazine notes that political polarization has become a problem for Americans as we spend more and more time only with people who are like us – making it easier for us to demonize others outside of our social circle, those who hold other points of view. Disciples are those who are willing to risk leaving the familiar.
We also know that fishermen in Jesus’ day, like shepherds, had a reputation for being a little rough around the edges. Yet they were the ones that Jesus called. We might think they would have been the most unlikely ones for Jesus to call. Why not choose men who had more experience with crowd control or feeding multiple people or with education who could advise him on a fair distribution of resources in Galilee or health care policy for the blind and the lame. But no, he chooses these men whose only qualification is a willingness to leave the comfortable for the uncomfortable.
Disciples are those who are willing to risk leaving where they are. In his book, A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century, journalist Jason DeParle follows a woman and her family for 30 years as they travel around the world in search of work, then send money back to their family in the Philippines. Rosalie works the night shift in a hospital in Galveston, Texas, caring for her patients with great love – the love she first thought of giving to God as a nun, but now as a nurse in the U.S. where we need skilled nurses.
DeParle’s book is said to be one of the best books on immigration written in our time. He notes that “the money that migrants send back to their families is three times the world’s foreign-aid budgets combined. Migration is the world’s largest self-help program, the world’s largest antipoverty program. It’s hugely important to the people back home who are relying on the money they get for education, for health care, for food, for shelter.”
Our scholarships for our children in Haiti do that for the children Rose introduces us to. In this case, Rose is the one who leaves and invites us into discipleship with her.
Here in Foster, it’s a long way from Opening Day of Fishing Season. But we know that fishing is more than casting nets and pulling in the haul. There’s work to be done between now and then to be ready – untangling the line, tying flies, buying the license.
Just so with discipleship. It’s not a once-and-done proposition but a lifetime of listening to the call, of discerning how and where to serve, of mustering our courage, of realizing that we are worthy and capable, that it’s not so much what we do as who we are – and we do not walk alone.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
January 17, 2021
John begins his Gospel with these beautiful words, this wondrous Prologue, as it is called – “In the beginning was the Word,…” It brings to mind the Book of Genesis, “In the beginning, God created… and it is John’s equivalent of a birth narrative, though without a baby in a manger as we have in Matthew and Luke, though not in Mark, the first gospel.
John is writing years after the other gospel writers when the stories about Jesus have been influenced by the Greek world, and they have become more philosophical, less folksy. In the Prologue, John is introducing themes he will explore, dichotomies such as light and dark, heaven and earth, God and flesh. These are questions that were of particular interest to his readers – Gentiles and Greeks, Gnostics and disciples of Plato and Pythagoras. John is making the case to this audience, late in the first century or early in the second, that Jesus is God’s Word, entering into time and space. “In the beginning was the Word . . ..”
So, what’s in a word? Is a word a thing? Something you can hold in your hand? No. But you can think a word with your mind, or speak a word with your voice, and with that word refer to something of substance or an idea. And with a word, you can communicate that something to another person, and build ideas upon ideas, like a tower of children’s blocks.
So we might ask, What is the meaning of language? Why do we need words, anyway? Why can’t the wag of a tail or a nod of the head or a robust purr explain how we feel or what we want? Obviously, because without words, we can’t express complex ideas. Words are symbols of experiences, feelings, ideas and proposals. Words are not real – but they point to what is real. Simply put, all language is metaphor, a symbol or code that stands in for something else.
Of course, words and their multiple meanings certainly can create confusion. For example: A woman goes into the post office to buy stamps for her Christmas cards. She says to the clerk, “May I have 50 Christmas stamps please?” The clerk says, “What denomination?” The woman replies, “God, help us! Has it come to this? Give me 22 Catholic, 12 Presbyterian, 10 Lutheran and 6 Baptist.
So, what’s in a word? Words can communicate feelings: “I love you.” “I’m sorry.” “I miss you!” “I am so angry…!” “I am afraid.” “I’m lonely.” And words can serve as moments of grace: “I forgive you.” “I’m calling to offer you the job.” “Yes, our church can help with your electric bill.” And, of course, “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
What’s in a word? Words can pass judgment; and words can kill: It’s not true, what we learned as children on the playground: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” You know it’s not true if you’ve been called “fatty” or “stupid” or worse! Words can bless or curse, heal or wound, unite or divide, soothe a baby – or summon a mob.
Some people adopt a resolution for the year and others choose a word – love – joy – peace – patience – generosity…. Kim’s church here on the Cape encouraged everyone to take a word this year and even sent one out with every newsletter – for those who wanted help choosing one. Psychologist Becky Bailey says in her book, Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline: The Seven Basic Skills for Turning Conflict into Cooperation, “What you focus on, you get more of,” and advises us to focus on those things we want to nurture.
These days – the way words fly around on the internet – we don’t have to wait for the evening paper to hear the words of the day. Words travel like the speed of light around the globe. And it’s difficult to know what words to believe, what words to trust, what words are factual, true – and what words are designed to mislead, to undermine trust, to create an alternate reality. I think of Pilate’s question to Jesus during Jesus’ trial, “What is truth?”
Several years ago, the University of Rhode Island published an article in their alumni magazine entitled, “The Age of Disinformation,” which highlighted the problem. They noted that identifying credible sources of information – what’s factual versus what’s fabricated – is now one of the core competencies students are required to develop in order to graduate. The author identified six types of fake news: disinformation, propaganda, hoaxes, satire/parody, partisanship, and inaccuracies in journalism. Honest mistakes always occur, of course, and newspapers are duty bound to correct them as soon as possible.
But this age of intentional disinformation goes further – and it’s not new! Examples of such words being used to promote a position go back centuries. During the American revolution, Benjamin Franklin swayed British opinion by printing fake newspaper stories in London papers. And the Spanish-American War in 1890 was started by two New York newspapers competing with each other.
Today’s conspiracy theories often come from young, tech-savvy webmasters in Eastern Europe, where jobs are scarce, and where they have discovered they can make a good living by creating false narratives, and they don’t care about their sources or whether they are true. We read these stories, think they are real or funny, and circulate them to our networks.
Some are harmless “urban legends,” like the story of the mature woman who rammed the red convertible of the young guy who stole her parking place and said, “That’s what you can do when you are young and fast,” and she crumpled his fender and replied, “That’s what you can do when you’re old and rich.” We laugh! But some stories are unhinged – and dangerous. If we hear them enough, we think they must be true. Especially if they confirm what we already believe.
So, what about The Word? John’s Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was withGod, and the Word was God.” “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, . ..” John is making his case that Jesus is the Word, the one in whom the God “no one has ever seen,” is made known by Jesus, who is close to the Father’s heart – or to use the more accurate translation found in the footnotes, close to God’s “bosom,” evoking mothering images for God. Jesus, leaning on God’s breast, resonating with God’s heartbeat.
This Jesus, who speaks the words of the Torah: You shall love the Lord your God and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. This Jesus, who speaks the word of the prophet Isaiah: I have come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. This Jesus, says John, is God with us. This Jesus is God’s Word for our lives – the Way God speaks to us. And this Word is not fake news. This Word is true and trustworthy. This Word is the Light that overcomes the darkness. This Word is the Word by which we are to judge all other words.
Jesus: making God’s Word known to us, giving us power to become children of God, bringing to life God’s Word in us. What’s in The Word? Nothing less than our life. Our truth. Our future.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
January 10, 2021
Kim and I used to live on the Bay in Oakland Beach (many of you have been there), and when we bought a condo on the Cape, we found one on Santuit Pond, home of the Mashpee Wanpanoags, although we can’t see it from our unit without a short walk. I don’t know what the compulsion is to be on the water, but it’s there for lots of people – if not the sea, maybe a lake or even a brook. Perhaps it is that our bodies are mostly water, and we are coming home.
Perhaps, as the aquatic theory of evolution goes, it’s that our species spent millions of years on the coastline, learning to stand upright in deep water, losing our warm fur and adding the insulation of body fat to keep us warm. Perhaps, deep in our subconscious, is the realization that we are not perfect, and we long to be washed clean. Whatever the motivation, … it is powerful.
Much of our Biblical mythology centers on water. Before the world had shape or form, God moved over the waters to bring forth the earth, as we read in our baptismal service. In the time of Noah, the flood waters washed over the earth, and the ark of salvation bore a new beginning. In the time of Moses, the people of Israel passed through the Red Sea on the way to the promised land. In the fullness of time, God sent Jesus to be baptized by John, to become living water to a woman at the Samaritan well, to wash the feet of the disciples, and to send them out to baptize all nations by water and the Holy Spirit.
Why, do you suppose, Jesus went to his cousin John to be baptized in the River Jordon? Had his mother told him stories about his unusual birth? Did his family tell stories about the three wise men who had come looking for him? Did he grow up thinking there was something he was supposed to do? Maybe Jesus been planning this all along, to stop to see John on his way to a wilderness retreat? Or was it the baptism that gave rise to the his trip to the wilderness – in the way that Mark says, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”
At any case, Mark treats Jesus’ baptism as a defining moment: He says Jesus sees “the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him, and a voice … from heaven, “You are my son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Whatever the baptism was for Jesus, we know that the baptism is a defining moment for the writer of Mark – for with this story, he launches Jesus’ story.
And what of Jesus? Where had he been all these years, before he comes striding onto the Biblical scene. Was there an incident in Nazareth that compelled him to take action? Had he had enough of Roman occupation and the temple’s complicity? Or perhaps he and John had grown up together, studying the prophet Isaiah, waiting for the promised One who was coming to save Israel. John had grown up in the temple, remember? His father Zachariah was a priest and his mother Elizabeth, a devout Jew, and it could not have been so far from Nazareth that healthy boys couldn’t spend time together, dreaming of the restoration of Israel.
There is evidence that Jesus was one of John’s prophets, and when he comes out to the Jordan to be with John, he has an unexpected experience of God. Did John know that Jesus was the messiah? Apparently not, because, when John is imprisoned and hears what Jesus is doing, he sends a message to Jesus, and asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt.11:3, Luke 7:19)
It would be helpful for us to know what baptism in the Jordan was about. John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance – which has a distinctly different meaning from our Christian sense of being sorry, or remorseful, or penitent. In ancient Judaism, repentance had two meanings: First, to return, as to return from exile, to follow the way of the Lord that leads from exile to the promised land; and a second meaning, “to ‘go beyond the mind that you have’ – that is, to go beyond conventional understandings of what life with God is about.”
This kind of repentance is like the prayers we often hear at a baptism – prayers about needing to change our perspective, about looking at the world a different way, about starting again. What, do you suppose, brought Jesus to this kind of repentance, to this defining moment?
Now, the word “beloved” can also be translated as “chosen.” Did Jesus know he was chosen? Or did he, too, like his cousin John come slowly to this realization? I’ve always thought, when Jesus asked the woman at the well, “Who am I?” he really wanted to know, that he is not sure, that he is still discerning his destiny. Nevertheless, this baptism by John in the Jordan appears to be a defining moment for Jesus, a realization that God is doing a new thing, a sense that life will never again be the same.
What of our defining moments? Many years ago, I attended a workshop for people in the field of volunteer administration, a few months before I went to work for the Volunteer Center of RI. The agenda included some value clarification exercises, and we were divided into small groups and given a task: Each of us was to decide whether we were , a deep pool, a babbling brook, or a swamp. Water metaphors again. Hmmm.
They gave us some time to think about it. A deep pool? What is a pool like? Still? Dark? Quiet? Am I a pool? In guidance class at Warwick Vets, when the teacher said, “It’s the quiet ones we have to watch,” everyone turned around and look at me. A babbling brook? Noisy? Busy? Tumbling? Exciting? Clean? Going somewhere? What is a brook like? Am I a brook? A swamp? Dark? Stinky? Shady? Scary? Sinister? Creepy and crawly? Could I be a swamp?
Who am I really? After some thought, we were asked to share which we were — and why. I still remember what I said. (Although I might have changed….) It was a defining moment for me, when I learned something about myself.
And several months later, when I was being interviewed for the position as Executive Director of the Volunteer Center, several of the Search Committee members who had been there that day, told me they remembered what I said – and it was one of the reasons they hired me. I still think about that day – a defining moment for me. This is who I am, even 50 years later, an introvert, a pool or a swamp…. As we age, I believe we become more so of who we really are.
What are some of the defining moments in your life? Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up? How did you know? What was your family’s story? What was your church experience like? Did you have one? Did someone take you under her or his wing, believe in you, trust you, give you a chance? Who were your mentors along the way? What caused you to be who you are? What shaped you? What were your defining moments?
And, I wonder, do you suppose we can create our defining moments? Surely we do that for our children make their dreams come true if we can. When my oldest granddaughter Marina was 10, I took her to the Florida keys to swim with the dolphins. At the time, she thought it was the best day of her life. And later in college she did research on plastics in the ocean.
As adults, do you suppose we still can create our defining moments? Do you suppose Jesus had this nagging idea that he was destined for more than carpentry? I had this nagging idea for more than 50 years that I was supposed to be a minister. And what of you?
Perhaps the Holy Spirit is waiting to rest on us, hovering over us, ready to say, “You are my beloved, my chosen one, in whom I am well pleased.” Kim wrote a poem for me a few years ago, entitled, “If I Could Be Baptized Again.” The poem ends by echoing poet Mary Oliver’s question, and I ask it of you now: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
And Kim gives us a challenge: “Come. Be baptized with me again, … float along the surface of fear knowing all of us are near, saints of our one wild and precious life, and drown with me forever in God’s love.”
Moosup Valley Church UCC
January 3, 2021
Word spread quickly throughout the town. A large caravan was heading their way. Those in the fields and on the road saw them coming. Children climbed to the flat rooftops to watch their arrival. You could taste the excitement along with the dust.
What can it mean? Traders often passed through Bethlehem, situated about six miles S-SW of Jerusalem, near the chief N-S route. They would stop to fill their water bags and buy bread before their final push into Jerusalem, but the size of this group was unusual. And these travelers had an exotic look about them.
Three of them looked to be important by their dress and their bearing, and they were accompanied by all manner of servants – camel handlers, baggage carriers, cooks, and others. Gospel writer Matthew says they are magi, from the Greek, which also can be translated “wise men” or “astrologers.” The word has nothing to do with kings; that was an idea added later to our Christmas story. The magi are a priestly class of Persian or Babylonian experts in the occult, such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams. They are the forerunners of those who compose our daily horoscopes in The Providence Journal. Mine, a Virgo, once read, “Revolt against whatever belief has been holding you back.” I take them all with a grain of salt, but I am intrigued by them. Who writes these? How do they come up with these things? By watching the stars, apparently….
These magi are pagans, students of the heavens, not Jews, and they study the skies for a sign of the birth of a new ruler. A star has led them to Bethlehem; they have found him. The townspeople don’t know this, of course. Who are they and why are they here? they probably wonder. Why are these important-looking people dismounting in Bethlehem and not in Jerusalem? Stopping in front of a stable instead of a palace? Why are they drawing up their reins in Foster and Greene and not in Providence? Before Moosup Valley and Rice City instead of a downtown cathedral?
An epiphany, according to a standard dictionary, applies to any manifestation or appearance of a deity. In Christian history, we capitalize Epiphany to refer to the manifestation of Jesus as the Christ. But increasingly the word “epiphany” in common usage has come to refer to any insightful or dramatic moment that instills new vision or perspective. A gathering with loved ones during the holidays, even if on Zoom, might be an epiphany for how blessed we are as a family. The illness of a loved one reminds us that money isn’t everything. Our cataracts and joint pains and forgetfulness announce with clarity that we are getting older – much to our surprise! And perhaps in Bible Study, or a line in a sermon, you have had an epiphany that these birth stories are just that – stories, not historical accounts, mythology, not scientific facts – but stories of and by people like us who are trying to find meaning in their lives, and learn something from collective experience.
When do you suppose the people of Bethlehem had their epiphany that something extraordinary was taking place in their village, just across the way, in back of the inn? When had the birth of a child caused so much stir? When had they felt before that their little town in the backwater of the world mattered – to anyone, let alone these strangers? When do you suppose the innkeeper had his epiphany about this poor couple in need of shelter whom he had sent to the barn because all of his rooms were rented? Or perhaps he had no stomach for the moans and smells of childbirth.
When do you suppose King Herod the Great had his epiphany that he was not the most important person in Jerusalem, and that, power held through violence will come back to bite him.
When do you suppose that Mary and Joseph had their epiphany that Jesus was an extraordinary child?
Perhaps the gifts that these travelers presented as they knelt before the manger were an epiphany in themselves? Gold and frankincense and myrrh. These were no Fisher Price toys or Legos or computer games, but symbols of what was to come: gold fit for a majestic king, incense for his spiritual worship, myrrh for embalming, after they take his body down from the cross.
The magi had been preparing for years to follow the star. Now their discipline and study, their observation and action, has paid off, and they have witnessed the birth of the future. They also are living proof that perseverance in our spiritual lives pays off.
And the epiphany for the followers of Jesus, for the early church? Hidden in the gospel story – but placed there deliberately by Matthew – is the epiphany that Jesus is born not only for Israel but also for the Greek and Roman world as well. Jesus is born not only for the Jews, who have been waiting for generations for their Messiah, but also for gentiles, like these sages from far away who have followed the star to this forlorn place. As we remind ourselves in the United Church of Christ, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
And what of our epiphanies? What will be made clear to us as individuals and families this year? To us as a congregation, a Larger Parish, a country? What will be revealed to us? And how can we prepare for our future on this first Sunday in January, the third decade in this 21st century? What stars do we follow? And where will they lead us?
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Taking the Child in Our Arms
December 27, 2020
Christmas has come – and gone! The babe has been born in the manger. Hope and Peace, Joy and Love have been birthed in our neighborhood. We sing, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing, glory to the newborn King! How was your Christmas? Is it what you expected in spite of COVID? Or is there a measure of sadness folded in with the joy? No matter how happy we are and how lovely the celebration with family and friends, even if by Zoom, we are bound to experience some nostalgia.
The Ghost of Christmas Past always flickers just on the periphery of my Christmas Present. I can see in my mind’s eye, as if it were yesterday, my father bringing in the tree with my mother baking Christmas cookies; my grandmother playing the piano while my brother and I sing “Silent Night” at the top of our voices as if to beam Santa; relatives laughing, opening gifts, a fire crackling in the hearth.
How did we get here from there? How could the years fly by so quickly without our knowing, without our being ready? So many of those loved ones are gone now…. and there is the loneliness of loss. My cousin once remarked to me, “It’s not the same without our parents,” and now it’s not the same without my cousin. It’s no wonder that the clothes of salvation swaddle the Christ child. We would have the babe in the manger save us from our own mortality.
In today’s gospel lesson, Mary and Joseph have taken their baby to the temple in Jerusalem. They go for three reasons: First, because they are devout, law-abiding Jews, they go for Jesus’ circumcision and naming, marking his acceptance into the covenant community and giving him an identity. Second, they go for his redemption, the first-born son, through the offering of a sacrifice – probably two pigeons because they were too poor to afford a sheep. And third, they go for Mary’s purification after having given birth.
Luke, of course, is writing this birth narrative years after Jesus walked the earth. He includes it, I imagine, to show that the Messiah has come as foretold, that Jesus is subject to the law which now has been fulfilled, and that Jesus is the One they have been waiting for. Luke also is writing for non-Jews, so Luke makes the point that He has come for all people, Gentiles as well as Jews.
And the writer of Luke gives Simeon the benefit of hindsight: Simeon is an old man, who knows the suffering of his people under Roman occupation. He may remember the old days before Herod put the squeeze on the peasants for his extensive building program. Remember that “all the world was to be taxed” which is why Mary and Joseph had traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the first place.
Simeon has been waiting for this moment all his life: God has promised him that he would not die until the Messiah comes. When he hears that a young couple have come, Simeon rushes to the temple and finds Mary and Joseph – poor, unwed parents, far from home – and he sees, in this baby, the Savior of the world. Simeon takes Jesus in his arms and praises God with one of the most beloved canticles of the church, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
The writer of Luke understands that, to use theologian Marcus Borg’s words, “…the birth stories affirm that Jesus is the fulfillment not only of ancient Israel’s yearning, but of the world’s great yearning.” The prophet Anna has been waiting in the wings, and she too appears with praise. How do you suppose these two elderly Jews knew that Jesus was the One? Or did Simeon take every child in his arms? In hopes? In great expectation? In self-fulfilling prophesy? Perhaps every child is the Savior in disguise. Perhaps every child is God’s gift to the world. Perhaps every child is the Holy One.
UNICEF reports that at least half of all children under five suffer from hidden hunger, a lack of essential nutrients that often goes unnoticed until too late, while an increasing number of children are eating too much of what they don’t need and suffer from obesity.
In an interview once, the head of UNICEF in the U.S., Caryl Stern, told a story about an artist who made a statue which was a replica of a desk in the UN’s General Assembly – but a desk sized for a child. He asked that it be put on the General Assembly floor so as world leaders make decisions, they will consider the impact on children. Stern would like to see that desk in every place where decisions are made, in every company boardroom that is considering manufacturing a product, in every legislature that is voting on policies.
If we knew that, in every child, the Savior has come and is coming, would we allow children to languish in foster homes and refugee camps? Would we settle for second-rate schools? Would we sit by and let our elected officials cut children from health care rolls?
If we knew that, in every child, the Savior has come and is coming, would we treat the internet as a public commodity so poor children can log on from home? Would we find a way to get guns and drugs off the street? Would we do something about global warming?
If we knew that, in every child, the Savior has come and is coming, would we bless all children with our love and attention? Would we treat all children as our children? Would we take every child in our arms? Then, truly, hope and peace, joy and love would be born in our world today!
May it be so.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
How to Fix the World
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
December 13, 2020
The world needs fixing. Just read the newspaper, watch the evening news, check out the latest on the internet. The virus, of course, but a lot of other problems plague us. It’s hard to say it better than the prophet Isaiah as he writes hundreds of years before the birth of the Christ child. He knows what Advent is all about: healing what is broken, freeing those in bondage, comforting those who mourn.
We have heard these words before, even if we have not read Isaiah. We have heard them from Jesus! He uses them to explain what he came to do, to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. This was his mission in life, his “game plan.” According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus announces his ministry on an ordinary Sabbath in his hometown village, where his mother Mary had watched him with pride and anticipation, where his father Joseph had taught him carpentry, where he had played games with the other boys. All his family and friends are here. I imagine they are happy to see him.
You know the story: Jesus enters the synagogue where he studied the Torah as a child, takes up the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and unrolls it to the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. . . .”
His listeners, those many centuries ago, sitting there listening to Jesus read, know the writings of this prophet Isaiah. It is their favorite book in the Hebrew Bible. They have heard this promise of the longed-for Messiah all their lives. But they hear with astonishment as Jesus reads. The audacity of this hometown boy to imply that he is the fulfillment of these words! Who does he think he is!
His family and friends are offended and outraged at this scandalous behavior. Good thing Jesus, at 30, is in the prime of his life because he is able to outrun them – before they can throw him over the cliffs outside Nazareth.
The world was a broken place, then, and it is still broken now. What would we, could we, might we do to help fix the world this Christmas? In the passage that Jesus read in his hometown synagogue, Isaiah suggests that we be an “oak of righteousness,” one whose life is oriented toward God’s priorities, not our own. Priorities like preaching good news to the poor, loving justice, binding up the broken-hearted, proclaiming freedom to the captives, releasing prisoners from darkness, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, comforting those who mourn, …
There are giant oaks in this world. People have created foundations to combat infant mortality, reduce death from AIDS, find a cure for Alzheimer’s, preserve the environment for future generations. People have founded churches and schools and hospitals to make this world a better place – the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Doctors without Borders – and now they are rushing to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.
You and I participate in such ministries when we make donations to these good causes, when we help Rose with the ministry in Haiti, when we donate food and buy gifts for needy children, when we check on an elderly neighbor when we wear our masks and keep our distance. We may not feel like giant oaks, but we are little acorns who sprout and take root all over the community.
Now, here’s another idea – one that every single one of us can do every day to fix the world. Know what it is? We can be kind to one another. We can be gentle, gracious, disposed to do good, everywhere we go, all the time, 24/7 – or at least most of the time!
We could begin kindness at home by saying “please” and “thank you,” by going out of our way to be thoughtful, by comforting and reassuring the old folks and by listening to our children and grandchildren. by helping each other to grow and blossom.
We can take our kindness out into the world by being polite and respectful to each other, and we could insist social media shut down violent speech. Andy Rooney once said he would rather be kind than right. We could elect people to public office who are kind, who think about the poor and matters of justice, rather than their campaign coffers and how to get re-elected.
Centuries ago, Philo of Alexandria wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” And if you don’t think kindness alone will do it, here’s still another idea:
I was intrigued by an article in Sojourners magazine in which a little country church like ours was concerned about the isolation and deep political divide in their community
and decided to try an experiment in neighborly love. They invited 21 people from the community to gather in their little town library – neutral territory – on a Sunday afternoon to talk about the issue of immigration where there was a broad range of opinion. They agreed that they would not try to change anyone’s mind or to find a solution to problems, but only to listen and understand and respect each other’s views, to seek common concern and values, and to steer away from trying to “educate” each other on the issue. Two people gently facilitated, and they worked their way around the circle of chairs. Everyone had a chance to talk, to voice their fears and feelings. Gradually the group worked their way into a discussion of what it means to be an American, what is most sacred to us.
The afternoon was a success, and they agreed to meet again for another conversation, this time to discuss climate change. The series, which they came to call “Different Voices,” continued, and alienation and frustration softened. People got to know each other and developed empathy and understanding for those whom they had thought were on the “other side.” It’s my dream to try this here at our libraries.
The fundamental challenge facing us as people of faith – regardless of our political leanings – is not to sit on our high horse of moral righteousness and dismiss the other person as uninformed or simply wrong. So if kindness alone will not fix us, perhaps civic dialogue, following the Biblical call to love our neighbors – all our neighbors – including those who disagree with us.
This world is still a broken place, full of broken people who could do with a little Good News, and a little help now and then. We don’t have to be a quick fix. We can be an oak, strong and sturdy, reliable and consistent.
Our world is not so different from the one that Jesus addressed when he opened the scroll to the prophet Isaiah and read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . to bring good news.” Our congregation is that little town of which we sing when we open our hymnals to “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the crossroads where the hopes and fears of all the years meet, and where souls made meek by the word of the prophet may receive the grace we, so often, vigorously resist.
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel….
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Prepare the Way
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
December 6, 2020
Mark’s gospel comes sudden and barren, without a baby in the manger, or shepherds on a hillside, without a bright star or angels overhead singing “Glory to God.” Mark goes right to the heart of the matter and announces God’s salvation, almost as if it were the title of a short book, which, of course, Mark’s Gospel is. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” he begins. The way is being prepared. Repent. God in the person of Jesus is coming.
We read this text at the beginning of Advent while the earth is tilting toward the void: with darkness increasing and days growing shorter, before our planet will groan its slow turning back toward the sun. It is interesting, isn’t it, that the church year begins as the darkness deepens? Perhaps that’s when we most need the promise of the Light.
And so we begin again the Christian story. Our story, however, doesn’t spring from nothing. Mark builds his good news gospel on the prophet Isaiah’s good news prophecy; the long-awaited Messiah will come, and he will bring peace and justice. To understand the New Testament, we have to look at the Old Testament. Isaiah writes for a fearful and despairing people, to offer them a different way of looking at the world. He is writing when they are living as exiles in Babylon, suffering under brutal oppression far from home. They have hung up their harps; they no longer sing the Lord’s song; they have no future; they grieve.
Six hundred years before Jesus was born, the Babylonians had invaded Judah and destroyed much of Jerusalem, including the temple, the center of the religious and political life. They had rounded up all the leading citizens – the rulers, the nobility, the priests – and led them away in chains to Babylon, where they languished in exile, pining for home. This is when the Old Testament Book of Lamentations was written: We find poems of anguish, “For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears;…”
Disasters make people numb, afraid, and hopeless. We know, do we not, from our own losses? From our own family disasters? Our own national disasters? We know from COVID-19.
Most of the Biblical writers – prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel – accuse the people themselves for Israel’s fate, blaming the catastrophe on their sinfulness and wicked ways. But Isaiah has a different approach, a positive approach. Isaiah has a vision of a nation restored, a city rebuilt, and a people reunited in Zion, their homeland. For Isaiah, the glass is half-full, not half-empty. Instead of sermons filled with words of blame and accusation, Isaiah bursts out in exquisite poetry of comfort, hope, and joy. Zion has suffered enough, Isaiah says, and he seeks to bring his crushed people back to life.
The Wisdom tradition running through Proverbs knows, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” So Isaiah presents that vision. He knows what his people need to hear: God will come with might and a strong arm to rule, on the one hand, and, on the other, God will come with gentleness, not as the bloody avenger: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
“Comfort, O comfort, my people,” are important words for us to hear in this broken-hearted world of ours where loved ones struggle with health crises, a virus keeps us apart and afraid, violence and plagues our cities, families struggle with unemployment, and children go to bed hungry.
I had a phone call with a member of this congregation earlier in the fall. She was very worried about the upcoming election. I listened for a long time, then said, “No matter what happens, the Earth will remain in its orbit, and the sun will continue to come up in the East. This is Isaiah’s answer. Sometimes, we have to take the long view.
Yes, we are like grass, and the grass withers, and the flowers of the field are perishable. Yet, this is not the end of the story. A path is being made in the wilderness for God, all obstacles are being removed to make way, and soon “all people shall see it together.” The Messiah will come.
Jesus will come to teach us how life should be lived and cared for. “Prepare the way,” Isaiah declares to a people who had spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness. “Prepare the way” John the Baptist cries out to the wilderness of his day. “Prepare the way, Mark calls to us across the centuries, “Prepare the way” in your hearts this Advent for the One who has already come, who lives in our midst, and yet who will be born in us anew.
This is the mystery of Christmas. Open your heart to the birth of hope and peace, joy and love this Advent. God will have the last word, a word of good news, a word of strength and comfort. Prepare the way!
May it be so.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
November 29, 2020
You were expecting, perhaps, a baby in the manger. Or at least an unexpected pregnancy, or a couple on the way to Bethlehem, leading a donkey. But that’s not the Gospel of Mark – no birth narrative like the ones in Matthew and Luke.
Mark is writing to the fledgling Christian community during a troubled and troubling time. Persecution is growing; Zealots are rising up and being put down by Roman authorities. And, to top it off, the temple, the seat of religious and political power, has been destroyed for the second time: centuries before by the Babylonians and now by the Romans. The sky is falling – a catastrophe for the people!
To give voice to his despair, Mark reaches way back to the apocalyptic writings of his ancestors, such as Daniel, Ezra, and Baruch, and remembers what was said during those difficult political and social times: “The sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light,” previous times when it seemed as if the world was ending!
And where is Jesus? For 40 years, Mark’s community, the very early Christian church,
has been waiting for his return.
For a lot of people, Christmas is not the most wonderful time of the year. Loss of a loved one, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, illness. We may feel like the world is ending for us, too. The season of Advent is about expectation, waiting for the Christ. But often, it seems, we are waiting for the Jesus in the manger. And as important as it is to see the birth of the king coming in the midst of poverty to humble parents, Advent isn’t just about waiting for the baby in the manger. It’s about experiencing the Christ here in the midst of our own messed up lives, right now.
The passage speaks about a second coming, but it’s important to see it in the context of our here and now, to be awake to the many ways Christ appears in the present. To be alert to how and where God breaks through time and space to be present in our lives and in the lives of others. And to ask ourselves if we are willing to be Jesus’ hands and feet?
I am the oldest of four cousins. We grew up together. I was the closest to my cousin Barbara whose memorial service I conducted just three years ago in Connecticut. She and her brother had been estranged for years, and he was not able to attend her service. We all were relieved because he’s a bully, and we didn’t want a scene. So, even though he lives in RI, I rarely see him – the last time when his wife was dying. He wanted me to do her service, but every time I tried to schedule a date, he said there was no hurry. Every once in awhile, I ask my brother, “Have you talked with Bill Pine? His health is poor. His bravado is gone. He refuses to see a doctor for his diabetes. He is a broken man, my cousin.
At the end of this gospel reading, Jesus tells the story of a man who goes away and tells his servants to keep doing their jobs. And to the doorkeeper, to keep awake. No one knows when he will return. And what are the servants’ jobs? In Mark 6, Jesus gives his disciples authority to preach repentance, cast out demons, and heal the sick. The church today – that is, you and me – is called to preach to people to change their hearts and lives. It is called to speak out against injustice and to reach out to the sick, the lonely, the forgotten.
And so yesterday, I reached out to my cousin’s daughter, Stephanie, to see how her dad is doing in this strange year. She said he refuses to go to the doctor, and he has fired the Visiting Nurses who were looking in on him. I read her text to Kim who said she could hear the heartache in Steph’s voice.
And then when I was writing this reflection yesterday afternoon, I stopped and dialed my cousin’s phone number, seeking to bring some reconciliation and healing. This is the work of Advent.
So this week’s text offers two messages: First, to be busy with what Jesus calls us to do, and second, to be alert to how and where Jesus appears in our own lives. For many, these are dark times. Can we see Jesus in acts of love offered by family and friends? As a nation, we are more and more divided. Too many families are fractured, and we know our neighbors less and less. Jesus calls us to reach beyond such boundaries and to be Christ to one another.
Yes, we are in the season of Advent. But let’s be clear that while the world’s busyness may seem pointed toward Christmas – the number of shopping days, the holiday parties, maybe even on Zoom, and the food – yes, even this year, it is seldom pointed toward the coming of the Christ child.
It falls to us to stay awake to what really matters – to the spirituality of the season, to the needs in the world around us, to the presence of God in the world. Mark comes to us, then, as a wake-up call. I pray that we are listening.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Matthew 25: 31-46
November 22, 2020
Today is the last Sunday in the church calendar. Next Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the church year. And what does the lectionary give us? Matthew 25! But perhaps Jesus has saved his most important lesson for the end of his ministry, as he is about to lay down his life for us.
This passage is also one of the most disturbing in the Bible, a text about separating the sheep from the goats, about the last judgment. If you were an animal in ancient times, it would be better to be a sheep than a goat. On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would confess the sins of the people of Israel over the head of a goat, and then the goat, symbolically bearing their sins, was driven out into the wilderness – where it most likely became dinner for a hungry lion. Of course, it was dangerous to be a sheep, too. After giving up its wool, it might end up on the dinner table, or in a stew, or on the altar as a sacrifice.
The people listening to Jesus’ story would know about sheep and goats. But they soon would realize that Jesus wasn’t talking about animals, but about people, two kinds of people: sheep people on the right, and goat people on the left. The ones on the right are welcomed into the kingdom of God. The ones on the left are told to depart from Christ’s presence forever. The criteria for the sorting has nothing to do with whether you are fleecy or hairy, whether you browse on grass or leaves, whether you prefer to stay with the flock or are curious and independent. The criteria has only to do with whether, or not, one has been helpful and merciful to those in dire straits. In fact, Jesus takes it a step further: Those on the right, the sheep, have actually ministered to Jesus himself by their compassion to those in need. Those on the left, the goats, have ignored Jesus by ignoring the needy. “What you do to and for the least of these – the sick, hungry, homeless, oppressed, imprisoned – you do to me,” Jesus says.
In the story, the righteous, loving folk were so humble that it did not occur to them that their daily kindnesses could ever have been a personal service to God. Or that they had done anything worthy of a reward. They were just being who they were. On the other hand, the unloving ones were so callous, their religion so perfunctory, that they never even thought of Jesus as being linked with humanity in a loving way, or as asking us to engage in deeds of compassion. Those unrighteous ones were shocked that they had missed an opportunity to show love to God. Had they only known that God was in their midst, they would have done the right thing. I imagine they might have felt tricked!
But both the loving and the unloving have missed the point: All God is looking for is a loving heart poured out for others, and especially for those who are poor, oppressed, economically challenged, or are hard-to-love – all those whom we would consider the “least of these.”
There are three profoundly important ideas in this text: The first is a statement about God. God is not a remote supreme being up there somewhere in the clouds or out there in the far reaches of the universe. God is here in the midst of us, in you and me and in our neighbor who needs us.
Want to see the face of God? Look into the eyes of the people on this Zoom screen. Drop off some flowers and a fruit basket or a pie to someone living alone. Put a note in with the basket. Deliver food or Christmas gifts for Carol at DHS. Don’t forget to wear your mask and keep your distance!
Next Sunday, we begin our Advent watch for the coming of the Christ child. The mystery is that the Christ child is here already, in each of us. When we stand up for the poor and the immigrant and the neglected, we are loving God. When we work for peace and justice in the world, we are loving God. When we treat the clerk in the grocery store, the child in the virtual classroom, the health care worker at the clinic with love and respect, we are loving God.
People are precious – you and me and everyone else. Of course, we are not saints, by any means, but God loves us with a love we cannot even begin to imagine; yes, even you and me – in all our quirks and failings and sins. And because God first loved us, God expects us to love each other.
The second idea has to do with the practice of religion. Study the New Testament, especially this passage in Matthew 25. What does Jesus say about the practice of religion in the last judgment? Absolutely nothing! There is nothing about theology or creeds or practices. Yet, terrible atrocities are committed in the name of religion. Religious officials cover up clergy abuse, deny the sacraments to those with whom they disagree, fight over who is allowed in and who is kept out. But Jesus tells us there is only one standard – whether or not you saw Jesus in the face of the needy, and whether or not you gave yourself away in love in his name. Everything else – church institutions, teachings, how we do things – is secondary to the quality of our hearts.
The third most important idea is personal – not political, social, religious, or economic. God not only wants a world based on the values Jesus taught, but God also wants us – each one of us. God wants to save us, to save our souls, to use the old camp revival meeting language. But salvation doesn’t have to do with the church we belong to, the creeds we recite, or whether we have been “born again.”
Jesus tells us this story of the sheep and the goats to explain that God wants to give us the gift of life—true, deep, authentic human life. God wants to save us from obsessing about ourselves, from preoccupation with our own needs, from the heart trouble that afflicts us by persuading us to care for other human beings who need us.
We are called to do more than just read the gospel, we are called to live the gospel, to be the gospel! Because it is in this way that we are saved; in this way our hearts are healed.
God’s favorite project, Jesus is telling us, is to teach you and me the fundamental lesson of this life, the secret that we must uncover, the truth, the only truth – that to love is to live, and to really live, is to love. God wants to save us by touching our hearts with love, by curing us of our “heart trouble.”
May it be so.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
November 15, 2020
A wealthy man goes on a journey, and as he prepares to leave, he carves up his estate and puts it into the hands of his slaves to care for while he is gone. A talent is a large amount of money – the amount a laborer would have received for 15 years of hard work. These were, indeed, good, faithful, and wise servants for the man to have entrusted them with such responsibility.
As we just heard, the first two invest the funds given to them and make a fair return in the market. What gave them the courage to do that? Were they worried about taking such a risk? Were they reckless? Did they have inside information? Had a slave in a nearby estate tipped them off? “Well done,” the master says to the slaves who doubled the money. They are given even more responsibility.
The third, however, knows his master for the capitalist he is, and he knows that his master loves deals without risk and without hard work. And so, he is afraid. What if he invests the money and loses it? So he takes the sure road and buries it for safe keeping. When the master returns, he gets his money back, but only that – no earnings from his investment, no growing of his capital, no advancement in his financial position. The slave is punished swiftly for his worry, and he is fired from the company to use today’s language. I’ve always felt sorry for that servant, how about you? He was cautious and reliable. He didn’t take chances with other people’s money. He was a saver, and he played it safe.
Now, it’s not clear what Jesus was trying to do with this parable. I have sometimes have treated it as an allegory about our talents – not coins – but gifts, strengths, and abilities. The first two use their God-given gifts in the world, and the third who is afraid to take chances, buries his gifts, wastes his potential, and deprives the world of what he has to offer. And this is true, too.
Also, we might reflect on this parable as an example of how “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” or “Them that has, gets.” One economic theory is that if corporate America gets a break, then their tax savings will trickle down to the rest of us – except it never has.
But we don’t know what Jesus is trying to say. This story is not his usual reversal of fortunes of the poor; no, it rather elevates the enterprising who are trying to impress the master. Obviously, the high return that the first two servants make in the “bull” market is cause for rejoicing. But suppose the market was like ours sometimes, and they lost everything? Then what would the master have to say? And what of the servant who was afraid and hid his portion? He held onto his and delivered it intact; he would have been the hero, instead of the loser.
What is Jesus trying to teach with this parable about investments? Parables are like this, they tease us into thinking about every angle, every possibility for interpretation. There’s often no one right answer, but many answers, depending on the situation. But Matthew has chosen it to suit his purposes decades after Jesus’ death (even though Mark, the first gospel writer, did not). Why? So, then, what message is Matthew presenting to his first century readers when he included it in his gospel? What does he want members in the early church to learn from this parable?
We know that Jesus tells this story toward the end of his ministry, on his way to Jerusalem to “speak truth to power.” Jesus, himself, is in the midst of a high-stakes venture with everything to gain and everything to lose. Will the powers-that-be listen to him and change their ways? Or will they arrange for his execution? We know the outcome – and Jesus probably did, too. I wonder if he worried about the trial, the humiliation, the flogging to come, and the pain of the nails. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.” He must have learned that from Jesus.
So what’s the “back story,” the context to help us understand? The Parable of the Talents shows up not only in the Gospel of Matthew but also in Luke. Plus, the early church historian Eusebius reports a slightly different version in the gospel of the Nazarenes, a few decades later. We can assume, then, that this story was important to the early Christians. Why? Because they expected Jesus to return at any moment. Jesus was the wealthy man who had gone away, and the church members were the servants entrusted to care for the Kingdom of God in his absence. They were the ones to be held accountable, and this parable teaches how they are to live and work while they wait.
Hole up somewhere and play it safe? No! They are to be the good news to each other, to care for widows and orphans and strangers, to invest in and build up their community. When Jesus returns they will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servants!”
Heaven knows, they had a lot to worry about: Lions, tigers and bears – for real. Burnings. Banishments. Punishments that, if they were described on TV or radio today, we would be warned ahead of time with, “The following announcement contains sensitive and graphic material.” Of course, they were worried – we would be, too –but they were not ruled by it. The early Christians knew what was required of them, just as the slaves knew what to do with the wealthy man’s money once he left.
But, there are perhaps two kinds of worry: good worry and bad worry – worry that cripples and paralyzes us and worry that inspires constructive action. The media’s obsessing over the election and recounts and run-offs is not healthy for us. Some of you, I know, even stopped watching the news during the election season. Cardiologists tell us that toxic worriers are more likely to suffer heart attacks than those less stressed-out.
And then there are the worriers who take action – like the servants in the parable. They set out to make a difference, in spite of the risks involved. A classic example is German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoffer who saw what was happening to the Jews in the 1930s and 40s and who joined the Resistance against Hitler. He was captured and hung for taking action just 23 days before the Nazi surrender – but not before he wrote his “Letters and Papers from Prison” which shaped the moral imagination of the church for the second half of the 20th century. The sin of responsible people is running from responsibility, Bonhoeffer said.
So, what are you worried about? A few years ago, psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor Edward Hallowell wrote a book about the subject, Worry: Hope and Help for a Common Condition. He proposes three ways to move from toxic worry to helpful worry: First: Talk with someone – a relative, a co-worker, a friend, a pastor. Talking with someone puts things in perspective, helps you to get un-stuck so you can move on.
Second: Get the real facts, what is and isn’t true. This is especially important in this age of misinformation, “false” news. Peter Drucker, management guru, says that, “Once the facts are clear, the decisions jump out at you.”
Third: Make a plan to deal with what is worrying you. See what can be done to improve a situation before it gets worse. Now you are moving from toxic worry to constructive action. This is good advice. In this morning’s parable, Jesus invites us to be his disciples, to live our lives as fully as possible by investing in what is good, by risking and expanding the scope of our responsibility.
There is always something we can do to make a difference: If you are worried about children, sponsor a child in Haiti to get an education. Rose can tell you how. If you are worried about global warming, plant a tree and/or switch some of your electricity to “green” energy. If you are worried about money in politics, join the citizens lobby, Common Cause, or the League of Women Voters.
We are challenged to be bold and brave, to reach high, and to care deeply about what is going on around us. The parable of the Talents calls us to the adventure of faith – the high risk venture of being a disciple of the one who risked everything for our sakes.
May we be worthy of our high calling!
Mount Vernon Larger Parish
Blessed Are You
November 1, 2020 – All Saints Day
The writer Matthew begins his gospel with the account of the birth of the baby Jesus, with his baptism as an adult by his cousin John, then with his calling of the disciples, and now, in this Sunday’s text, with the beginning of his teaching and healing ministry in Galilee.
The crowds are enthralled by the arrival in their midst of this new prophet who has just been baptized in the Jordan River and whom God has just proclaimed, “This is my Son, my beloved, my chosen one, with whom I am well pleased.”
John the Baptist has raised expectations. Has the Messiah, for whom they have waited for generations upon generations, come to overthrow the Roman occupation? Matthew has set the stage so that his listeners might expect that “heads will roll” as Jesus comes to power.
We are watching the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry – and he surprises the crowd. We know that Jesus was always surprising someone because we are privy to the rest of the gospel.
But the people who have gathered on the hillside around Jesus, at the beginning of the story, do not. Jesus begins to teach. Even non-church, Biblically-illiterate people know these are the kinds of words we can expect from Jesus: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…, blessed are those who mourn…, blessed are the meek…”. What kind of a savior is this? Jesus’ message was revolutionary – but not the kind of “revolutionary” the crowds expected.
This Sermon on the Mount is one of the most beloved passages in our scriptures. It’s also one of the few scripture passages that are part of our lectionary every year on All Saints Day. The people crowded around Jesus on the hillside wanted what the world honored as the marks of success – wealth, power, possessions, social standing, the good life – everything they did not have. Instead, Jesus tells them what God honors, what the good life in the kingdom of heaven means in contrast to the ethics of this world and its power-over and win-lose mentality.
The word “saints” comes from the Hebrew and means “holy” or “set apart for God’s use” or “consecrated as possessions of God.” A “saint” is someone special for God. The Hebrew people understood themselves as God’s covenant people, and the early Christians understood themselves as the continuation of that heritage. The people in the early church thought of themselves as “saints.” Remember how the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians, urging them “to equip the saints for ministry?” The Christians were God’s ecclesia people, God’s church people, the saints of God.
In the Roman Catholic Church, saints are a select few who pass a strict examination and have chalked up a miracle or two to their credit. But in the Reformed tradition, the Protestant tradition, all members of the covenantal community are saints. Now we may not be “saintly” and pure, in the popular sense.
All ten commandments – and a bunch that are not on that list – have been broken by one or more of us gathered here, broken by those for whom we will light a candle. To pretend we are all holy and righteous is to deny the truth. But we are set apart, sinners though we are, for God’s service. You and me, all of us, called by God. And so, this morning, we recognize our saints who have gone before us. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses all the saints: Blessed are you, he says to the saints listening to him on the hillside. Blessed are you, he says to the saints among us this morning. What do we hear? Not a military message, surely. This is what I hear in Jesus’ words on this All Saints Day:
Blessed are you . . . who mourn the death of a spouse, a parent, a friend, for you will be comforted by this community of faith. Blessed are you . . . who have left the church because of our hypocrisy, for God hears the hunger of your heart and welcomes you home.
Blessed are you . . . who are hungry or homeless, who are unemployed or who work three jobs to make ends meet – for you will be filled with good things. Blessed are you . . who speak up for health care for all, stand up for a living wage and a fair distribution of wealth, lobby for legislative policies to help the poor – for you will receive mercy. Blessed are you who are persecuted because you have been foreclosed and are living in your car, or are a refugee or an immigrant, or are lesbian or gay or trans – for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you . . . when your classmates pick on you because you’re a nerd, or are laughed at when you protect someone being bullied at work, or are teased if you speak up for the values of the gospel – for you stand in a long line of prophets. Blessed are you . . . when you defuse hostility, build understanding, and bring reconciliation to the church, the community and the world – for you will be called the children of God. Rejoice and be glad, Jesus says. Blessed are you, Jesus says. Blessed are you, saints of God, who show the work and ways of a God who is full of surprises! Blessed are you!
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
For the Love of God
October 25, 2020
This is the last chapter in Jesus life. He’s in the temple, teaching. They ask each other: Who does he think he is? The tension is growing. A Pharisee stands up in the midst of the crowd and asks Jesus a question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” We don’t know whether this lawyer is trying to outwit and discredit this young rabbi – or whether he is seeking an answer to his own questions of faith – even in this unlikely place and from this unlikely source.
In Matthew’s gospel, this passage appears in a series of rapid-fire questions from the religious authorities who are grilling Jesus in the temple. The Pharisees maintained huge libraries of commentaries about the Torah. They believed themselves to be the experts in the law, not this country bumpkin from Galilee who came without a Torah scroll or a filing system. And so they seek to trap him.
There were, of course, a lot of commandments to choose from. The rabbis of Jesus’ day counted 613 commands in the law. Their view was that all the commandments were equal, with any ranking of them seen as the height of human arrogance. The lawyer thinks that if he can get Jesus to make a statement that chooses one part of the law over another part of the law – for example, declaring the moral laws as being more important than the ceremonial laws – then they can discredit him. Jesus already interprets some of the laws differently from the Pharisees, such as laws about healing on the Sabbath, and picking grain to feed hungry people, and we remember they were not happy with him!
Jesus must know that he playing with fire, endangering himself and his disciples. It is no coincidence that the word Matthew uses for “test” is the same word “test” he uses to describe what Satan is doing to Jesus in the wilderness in chapter 4. This is a set-up.
You know what Jesus answers. He honors the lawyer’s question with two grand texts from the Torah: The first is from Deuteronomy (6:5) in the Old Testament, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” This is the great, “Hear, O Israel” Shema text that opens every worship in a synagogue, words that would be familiar to every Jew in the crowd, words that pious Jews still recite morning and evening as a prayer, words that are attached to door posts in little containers called mezuzahs, words that some wear on their foreheads in leather boxes called phylacteries. This is a command that is carried, worn and touched.
But even more than that, this is a command that is meant to be lived. The words on a scroll are unnecessary because they were recited daily. The irony is that those Pharisees standing in front of Jesus in their phylacteries had the text in paper and ink on their bodies, but in their desire for religious correctness, they didn’t practice “loving God.”
And then Jesus expands on this commandment in Deuteronomy by raising a commandment from Leviticus (19:18), “And a second commandment is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” This commandment is not just to be worn on the forehead, and recited morning and night, but it is also to be kept in the heart and obeyed through the work of one’s hands.
“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” If you put these two commandments together, says Jesus, you will boil down all the words of “the law and the prophets.” The lawyer may or may not have been sincere in his question, but he has asked the one question that gets at what really matters in life – to love God and your neighbor as yourself. This is the heart of the gospel; this is the heart of Jesus’ ministry; this is what it means to follow Jesus.
These commandments are more easily proclaimed than lived, however! What does it mean to love God? Have you thought about that? How does one love God, the mysterious and elusive one? Can you and I even understand who or what God is? In Jesus’ day, his listeners would have understood that loving God meant worshipping in the synagogue, sacrificing in the temple, following the commandments – in other words, not worshipping the Emperor and pagan idols.
And Jesus must have meant that caring for each other to be one of the ways one loves God, when he adds the second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The gospels are full of Jesus’ teachings about caring “for the least of these.” Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example: “Who was the good neighbor?” “The one who showed him mercy.”
But let’s not avoid the commandment to love God. Jesus commands us to love God. So, does he show us how? Can we learn from watching Jesus? We know Jesus was in love with God; he spent time with God in prayer; he asked for God’s guidance; he cried aloud to God when he felt abandoned.
Jesus was in love with God. “God” was not an intellectual exercise for Jesus, something that existed in his mind only. Yes, Jesus urges us to love God with our mind, but he also loved God first in his heart, in his very being, in his soul. We modern folks might ask, who or what is God in a world that is orbited by satellites which bring minute by minute news to our cellphones? Where is God in a world of natural disaster, human sin, sickness and death? And how do we love such a God with our heart, soul and mind? With everything we’ve got?
The mystics have not been shy about loving God with passion. In the 16th century, John of he Cross wrote a poem, “On a Dark Night” which begins with the poet “kindled in love with yearnings” and moves on to images of being entwined with God. Are these images too erotic for us Protestants? And a Jesuit student of Ignatius has hoped to be “seized so completely by the love of God” he writes, “that all desires of my heart and all the actions, affections, thoughts and decisions which flow from them are directed to God.”
And what of us? Can our limited minds even fathom the height and breadth and depth of God – let alone how to love God? A few years ago, when I was in chaplaincy training, we were charged to write a paper on the question, “Who is God for Me?” I spent a week struggling with the question. Anything I wrote about God seemed to confine God, to box God in, to take away the mystery. Perhaps that’s why orthodox Jews do not say the word “God” but only write G-d as a symbol of what is too holy to be named.
Any attempt on my part to describe God reduces God to my words and my understanding. In naming God, and in applying characteristics to God, we make God a particular thing, less than God, less than mystery. Yet we are called to try: And finally I wrote poetry: God is the Something-There-Is… which defies boxes: language, doctrine, institutions, and overflows any vessel we create to contain It, sufferable and suffering in a wounded world.
I resonate with the mystery of God, with the “Something-There-Is.” Yet, how does one know such a God? Love such a God, as Jesus commands us? Perhaps, if our hearts go out to everyone and everything, loving the most vulnerable in our midst, we are living as Jesus did – and then we are loving God . . .. Perhaps we are loving God when we wonder at being alive and the order and beauty of the natural world….
Perhaps we all spend too much time in the busyness of our little lives. Perhaps, if we spent more time, taking time, to care for ourselves, in meditation and study and reflection, if we loved ourselves more in this way, we might find our way to God and to each other. And just maybe, if we are open to experiencing the Spirit like the mystics, we will experience God near us, just there . . .. Can you sense the light on the other side of a thin veil? Then, then are we loving God?
We have learned from Jesus that God loves each and every one of us with a love we cannot even begin to imagine. And God is reaching out right now, inviting us to love one another – waiting for us to love God back.
May it be so. Amen.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
I Thessalonians 1:1-9
October 18, 2020
Thirty years ago I spent two weeks in England with one of my seminary school colleagues. Lynda was just finishing up her chaplaincy training in London, so I flew over with her son Timmy, and we took a week and visited cathedrals and historic sites all over England, even going as far north as Edinburgh. We stayed in old inns and met the people in the villages who would come in for tea and an evening with tourists.
We wanted to see Stonehenge, of course, where Alicia and Rikki went several years ago, so we traveled to the rolling hillsides of the Plains of Sarum in Wiltshire and reflected on the ancient stones – what did the ancients intend them to be, we wondered? And then we wended our way on back roads toward Salisbury. When we were still a long way off, driving (on the wrong side of the road) through fields and hedgerows, we spotted a steeple in the distance – Salisbury Cathedral – built over several centuries by generations of stonemasons. For miles we watched as its steeple came closer into view until we entered the outskirts of the city.
What is it about steeples? We have our own New England ones, of course. Just drive through Vermont or New Hampshire or Eastern Connecticut on a foliage trip and you will spot our white Congregational and Baptist steeples on village churches, peeking through leaves of red, scarlet, and gold.
Steeples don’t have to be “pointy” though. Beneficent Church in Providence has a dome with a lantern on top. And the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John, on North Main Street, has a steeple with four corners that look like a crown that the King of England might have worn.
And some churches have what is actually called a crown steeple with four corners rising to a point with space between the risers. Some churches have a gable at the top of one of the church walls with an arch and a bell hanging in the middle. Here in Foster and Greene, our steeples are “box towers,” and some of them hold bells.
What is it about steeples? Humans have constructed pyramids and obelisks and spires since the beginning of time. Who can forget the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in the spring of 2019, that cathedral built over centuries, the flames eating away at the famous spire, the birds who nested in crevices, frantic. The cries of the crowds watching as the spire collapses.
Spires and steeples mean something for us – what is it? A longing for mystery? For the transcendent? A relationship with a higher power? Our forebears in our Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – thought that the higher we got, the closer we would be to God in heaven, and so Moses climbed Mount Sinai to talk with God. And pilgrims had to climb up to the temple in Jerusalem. Some of our psalms are Psalms of Ascent which pilgrims would sing as they climbed up the steep approach.
Steeples witness to something. For many of our young people, steeples witness to something that their grandparents do – and a waste of their own time. Church is boring, irrelevant, judgmental, they’ll say. And in some places, it probably is.
But whether steeples witness to something life-giving or something life-stifling, depends on the people under the steeple, does it not? Steeples point outward and upward as a witness to that community of faith, yes, but they also point inside to reflect what is underneath the steeple.
So, what does this have to do with this morning’s lectionary text, the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians? The setting is the thriving church in Thessalonica, the Roman capital of the province of Macedonia. Thessalonica is a cosmopolitan city with a variety of religions to choose from: There is a Jewish synagogue and temples to Dionysus and Orpheus, two popular fertility cults. And evidence suggests that the Emperor Cult was also in vogue for those who were looking for status. Missionaries to Thessalonica would have found fertile ground for converts – but also for problems and opposition.
Yet, people who had been pagans in Thessalonica have discovered the Christian church, and they have responded to the life-giving message of Jesus. This is not a church where Paul has to scold the members and break up disagreements as in Corinth; this is not the church in Philippi where two factions have appeared. The Thessalonian church is one that is witnessing in the wider world through its preaching and good works. They have become an example of what it means to be faithful servants of God. And Paul gives thanks for them.
This is a church in which God’s activity is found in their midst, thrumming through these verses like the slow and steady changing of the seasons, or the rise and fall of the tides.
We should not think, though, that these new Christians in Thessalonica have it easy: Persecution is very real, and they have experienced death in their community. But the Holy Spirit is working in them. Indeed, perhaps, it is to those who suffer most that the Spirit chooses to come, because they need it the most – then and now.
This is a church where what is being communicated to the outside world – God’s good news of the Gospel – comes from what is growing inside, in and among the community of faith. It is these unlikely, wounded ones, like you and me, that God chooses as partners in mission. In his Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, Austrian poet Ranier Maria Rilke wrote in the early part of the 20th century,
All will come again into its strength:
the fields undivided, the waters undimmed,
the trees towering and the walls built low.
And in the valleys, people as strong and varied as the land.
And no churches where God
is imprisoned and lamented
like a trapped and wounded animal.
The houses welcoming all who knock
and a sense of boundless offering
in all relations, and in you and me.
No yearning for an afterlife, no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused.
So I wonder, as I drive through Foster and Greene by our beloved churches what they witness to in these communities. Do passers by think we are closed because of the pandemic? Or do they see that we are open and thriving in different ways in spite of the virus? Just as the Thessalonians thrived in spite of their persecution, in spite of their deaths? Do people know when they see the carefully tended window box at Moosup Valley, that we are alive and well? Are they eager for our monthly concerts to begin again? Do they talk about us at Shady Acres and Woodpecker Hill?
Do people out this way secretly hunger for a relationship with a divine presence, missing in their lives in these difficult time – and wonder how to seek us out? “Do our children see that our deeds match our creeds?” one UCC writer asked. Can they tell that we love each other and are thankful for each other by the way we treat each other? And, if so, do they yearn to be a part of such a community? Do they believe us when they read about our radical hospitality: “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey you are welcome here – whether we are in person or online?”
We sit under a steeple. To what does it point? What kind of steeple people are we, anyway? And what do we want to become? All of Foster and Greene are waiting to see how God’s saving power is working though us. Let us pray that we be worthy of our ancestors of the faith in Thessalonica who left us the example of a “work of faith and a labor of love and a steadfastness of hope . . ..”
May it be so.
Moosup Valley Church, UCC
October 11, 2020
Philippi was a city in northern Greece, a Roman colony and the western outpost of Paul’s missionary journeys. This Christian church there was one of Paul’s favorites. He had long labored with them – women and men alike – to create a community there, faithful to the good news of the gospel, and without the conflicts faced in other churches.
These little house churches were unique in that ancient world – drawing people from all walks of life and political persuasions, captivated by the liberating message of Jesus where everyone was loved and worthy, no matter who they were and where they were on the road of life. It was hard for them to learn how to get along, that everyone mattered and was needed in this new “body of Christ,” that people were assigned places in the community according to their gifts and graces and not by their gender, culture, and rank in the wider world.
Not every congregation was successful at managing the diversity – why there are so many church “fights” evident in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, but not so much in his letter to the Philippians. Until now. Two women leaders, among the overseers and helpers, Euodia and Syntyche, likely heads of little churches that meet in their homes – are at odds. And everyone is witnessing the conflict, and it’s so bad that the news has gotten back to Paul, wherever he is.
Tension, the church in Philippi is in factions, which is having a disastrous effect. Their mentor, Paul, has been gone for far too long, taxing the endurance of even the most devoted followers – with no expectation that Paul will even live to return to them. So from his jail cell, Paul sends advice: help these women, Euodia and Syntyche, and not only them, but also sustain each other, because life is fraught with difficulty.
The nature of the conflict we do not need to know; we have our own tragedies and crises and pain. And church fights – what pastor has not witnessed them? – over the color of the new carpet in the sanctuary, or whether to use the new hymnal, or who to chair a choice committee. We remember Jesus’ words: “Where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” And we know from experience that where two or three gather, there is often conflict to be managed – not to be avoided but harmony to be sought after, worked for, and continually practiced, so that unity in the community is preserved.
Never has the church been called on more than it is now, than in today’s contentious political climate, to demonstrate the importance of unity in the community and to offer each other, in Paul’s words, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable,”
In her just-published book, Hamnet, British author Maggie O’Farrell spins a fictional story of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, who dies at age 11 in 1596’s England. In the book, she writes a couple of paragraphs about the deep forests in England, how the townspeople were afraid to enter them, and how the church gave the people “safe passage.” She writes,
People who needed to go through the forest would stop to pray; there was an altar, a cross, where you could pause and put your safety in the hands of the Lord, hope that He had heard you, trust that He would watch for you, that He wouldn’t let your path intersect with those of the wood-dwellers or the forest sprites or the creatures of the leaves. The cross became covered, choked, some said, with tight skeins of ivy. Other travelers put their faith in darker powers: all around the fringes of the forest there were shrines where people tied shreds of their clothing to branches, left cups of ale, loaves of bread, scraps of crackling, strings of bright beads in the hope that the spirits of the trees might be appeased and give them safe passage.
Safe passage. The Bible is not the only place where we find parables; they are everywhere. Is not our country, if not the world, like a forest right now? A place of danger of our own making, a world without peace, a world without love and justice “for the least of these”? And religious establishments are called to demonstrate unity and principled decision-making in the midst of conflict, to stand on the edge of the forest of our time, acting as mediators between the wilderness of the world and the graciousness of community.
Yesterday, I signed on to a statement with clergy from Christian and Jewish traditions across the country – along with our UCC leaders, John Dorhauer and Traci Blackmon – calling the faith community to awareness and action to preserve such American principles as freedom of religion, self-governance, democracy, and free, fair and respected elections, and a peaceful transfer of power. As religious leaders, we put ourselves in the line with,
“We continue to pray for and expect a peaceful and orderly electoral outcome.
But we must not and we cannot be passive witnesses to the death of democracy,
should the worst occur. We hold our American democracy to be a sacred trust,
and we pledge ourselves to safeguard it with every ounce of our God-given strength
These are contentious times, not unlike the first century in the Greek city of Philippi, and where two women, Euodia and Syntyche, are at odds. And the Apostle Paul asks the church to help bring unity to the community through the heart and mind of Jesus. He writes, “Let your gentleness [probably better understood as forbearance, patience in the midst of struggle] be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
So let’s not gloss over the real difficulties and disagreements of this letter, past and present. Joy always takes root in the midst of adversity; there is no other soil in which it may grow. Even when our lives are falling apart, or the church is falling apart, or the country or the world is falling apart, God is near.
For Paul, joy is not an individual experience, a personal feeling of pleasure, as if someone had just handed us a steaming cup of tea or surprised us with a lovely gift, or paid us a complement. For Paul, joy is about the community and the assurance that you and I are here to help each other over the rough spots, to sustain one another through thick and thin, to be “safe passage,” to have each other’s back, no matter what. To be a steady center. For Paul, we are “one in the Spirit.”
This, then, is the foundation for the peace of God which passes understanding and which guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
October 4, 2020
This is the last week of Jesus’ life. He is in Jerusalem; he came in riding on a donkey to the crowd’s cries of Hosanna, “save us,” two days earlier. The next day, in the temple, he created a ruckus over the way the peasants were being cheated by the money changers.
The chief priests and the elders, scribes, Pharisees – all the leaders of Israel – are on their guard. Who does this Jesus think he is? They must be watching from every doorway, and the corners of every portico, wondering what to do about him, wary of the crowds adoring him.
Today’s text is a strange one for World Communion Sunday – or maybe not…. A writer in Christian Century magazine says, “Nothing like a nice, relaxing passage from the Gospel of Matthew to set the table for World Communion Sunday. There aren’t many places for the preacher to hide. There’s even a watchtower to keep us from escaping.”
So let’s see what we can do together: The setting is intense. Jesus tells a thinly veiled parable of a landowner and a vineyard. And an argument over what is to happen to the produce at harvest time. This landowner wants all of it—everything the land has given—and the tenants want to keep it all to themselves.
This is known as an “accusatory parable.” It shows up in all of the synoptic gospels – which means it probably really happened. It’s an allegory, a form of literature – a story – in which every word and image stands for something other than what is actually being said at the time.
So what does this allegory have to say? Who’s who or what’s what?
First, the landowner; who is? God
What is the vineyard? Land of Israel (but it could be Foster or our county)
Who are the tenant farmers? Religious and civic leaders
Who comes to collect what due? Prophets of the OT, argued for justice and mercy
Who is the son who comes to collect and is killed? Jesus (about to happen, he knows)
What group is invited to work in the vineyard at the end of the parable? Church, you and me….
Another question: Why does Matthew include this particular story in his gospel, when there were many he could have picked from? (Picks it up from Mark.) Remember, he is writing decades after Jesus died, and he’s writing for a Jewish audience. And the Jewish community was at odds. The Jesus Movement – as the early church was known – was splitting the Jewish community: some synagogues followed Jesus, others stuck to the old ideas. So the context was an internal discussion about who Jesus is, and – a word of caution — it’s not a story about Jews killing Jesus, as those who promoted the Holocaust claimed; nor does it give justification for the rise of anti-Semitism in our day.
Matthew is making his case for the Jesus-centered synagogues and is arguing that rejecting Jesus is rejecting “God.” And he frames it like this, with Jesus asking, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And the tenants are ….? Who would be brave enough to speak up? What listener sitting there would be comfortable answering, “He will put those wretches to death”? I imagine the eyes all around Jesus are wide. Do they not know the chief priests and elders can hear them? They must have been so afraid….
And, now, what is the produce? What has the landowner provided that the tenants need to return but instead are trying to keep for themselves? Commentator Kathryn Johnston writes, “I wonder if for Matthew the answer can be found in chapter 25, [coming up very soon in Matthew’s story]: food to eat, water to drink, welcome for the stranger, clothes for the naked, care for the sick, empathy for the imprisoned.” “When we hear these things,” she continues, “when we think about the need and disparities in the earthly kingdom, can we envision ourselves sitting among those at Jesus’ feet while he tells this story? Or do we suddenly see ourselves surrounded instead by a great bounty, all the fruit produced, trying to bargain with Jesus that all of it is rightfully ours?”
On this World Communion Sunday, let us remember “The body of Christ, broken for us (and by us); the blood of Christ, shed for us (and by us). The bread and the cup—given to us, not to hold onto for ourselves, but to free us to share all the bounty of the harvest with others.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
September 20, 2020
Today’s text is the story of the Laborers in the Vineyard, about how workers show up at all hours of the day – 6, 9, noon, 3 and 5 – and are promised what is owed to them, “whatever is right,” the landowner says. In the end, all the workers are paid the same wage. Those who had worked in the scorching heat all day were angry that those who came in the late afternoon earned the same wage.
Several years ago, I suggested this text for our Old Home Days service, and Pastor Bob wrote a wonderful skit placing the workers in the wilds of contemporary Foster. Our own Ron Burge was a hit as always. We all thought he missed his calling!
On the surface, the parable does not distinguish between those who worked the hardest and those who had it easy. It doesn’t seem fair to those of us raised in the Protestant work ethic, to those of us who take Ben Franklin’s famous adage to heart – “The early bird gets the worm.”
And these days, what is a fair wage – a living wage – is much in the news as well as debates about the merits of increasing workers’ buying power to $15/hour as a stimulus to the economy versus the impact on the payroll of small businesses and their ability to hire. And labor studies show that women make less than men for doing the same job. And some jobs pay so little – the teller at your local bank, for example – that many qualify for food stamps, which means that we, the taxpayers, are subsidizing their salaries.
So it would seem, to the likes of us, that the parable is about money and fairness as in “equal pay for equal work.” Or more accurately in this case, “equal work for equal pay.” We tend to be touchy when it comes to who deserves what.
There’s a story, no doubt made up, of the man who walked through a neighborhood on the first Monday of the month and stopped at the first house. He knocked at the door and explained to the homeowner, “I’ve come into some money, and I want to share my good fortune. I’d like to give you $100 if that’s okay?” The man handed over a crisp bill. “Okay?!! Yes, it is okay!” The flabbergasted homeowner thanked the man and the mysterious man walked away.
The next week, the same man appeared again and the homeowner once again received a new $100 bill. Each Monday that month the man with the money knocked at the door and the delighted and overjoyed homeowner received a crisp, brand-new Ben Franklin. On the first Monday of the next month, however, the mysterious philanthropist walked down the sidewalk and passed by the first home and went to the door of the second home on the street. “Hey!” yelled the homeowner of the first house, “Where’s my money?”
This summer I read Isabel Wilkerson’s book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” the epic story of America’s Great Migration of six million southern blacks to the urban areas of the North and West in hopes of finding a better life for their families. The arrival of so many immigrants in cities like Detroit and Chicago – immigrants who went to work as porters on the railroads and assembly line workers in Campbell Soup factories and the stock yards and maids in wealthy homes – caused a crisis in the labor market as immigrant groups who came before them – Irish and Italian and Poles – felt the squeeze and resented the competition. Riots broke out.
It was a new idea to me that the competition for jobs and wages is one of the contributing factors to racism in our cities. And I realized that the last group of immigrants to come always seems to slam the door on the next group. This may explain some of the resistance to welcoming immigrants to our country. This is too bad, because we need the energy and creativity of newcomers, especially as our population declines with dropping birth rates. Of course, we are all newcomers, are we not, unless we are Native Americans?
I imagine that the laborers in the vineyard didn’t mind the newcomers, but they thought they deserved more for the longer labor in the hot sun. And like the homeowner who received the $100 with no effort, they had grown accustomed to the undeserved gift of a stranger’s generosity. We somehow think that life should be fair and predictable, and, of course, it is not!
So why is Matthew telling this story in his gospel? Is it really about harvesting grapes? Or fair compensation? Or a rightful place in the order of things? Or is this story a metaphor for something else? When it was my turn a the mic at Old Home Days, in response to Bob’s skit, I suggested that this parable is not about money at all. I gave the context of the early church where a major issue was the relationship of Jews and Gentiles: Jews who were the first followers of Jesus, and Gentiles who came later. And God welcomes them all, blesses them all equally.
The truth is that, if the missionaries had not taken the revolutionary message of Jesus out across the empire, the Jesus movement would have stayed a Jewish sect or died out. It needed the resources of the larger world to blossom and grow. And by the beginning of the 3rd century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Over the years, I have consulted with two churches who struggled with the old-timer- newcomer issue. One a Methodist church where, if your grandfather had not been a member there, you were a newcomer, even if you had been a member for 20 years. And an Episcopal church in the Newport area who had Navy families moving in, staying a short time, then being deployed to another post. They came with new ideas and energy and were often met with “We never did it that way before.” But the old-timers had history and context, so what to do? I helped them identify the strengths and gifts of both groups. Theirs was not a problem to be solved, but a polarity to be managed – building on the “upside” of both old and new, while minimizing the “downside” of them. Would that we could do as well with the country right now!
So perhaps the lesson we need to heed in this parable … is what? The landowner who demonstrates God’s generosity! But too often the world prefers grumbling to grateful, and prefers hating those who are different to valuing each person as worthy of love and acceptance, no matter who they are and where they are on life’s journey. Which is what we declare in our mission statement that we adopted three years ago.
Theologian Karl Barth is often quoted as saying that clergy should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. And I believe that all of us as church members should look at the world through the lens of Biblical values as well. When the church is really being the church – in an environment of divisiveness and vindictiveness, in a climate of fear and retaliation, in an age of polarization – we need to speak up – even if we might be targeted. After all, the early churches faced persecution in a fractured world much like ours.
This parable must have been difficult for Matthew’s readers to hear. They were used to the world’s economics where people got only what they deserved, if they were lucky. But Jesus presents a different story, one in which our job is not to climb the corporate ladder in a dog-eat-dog world, but to help each other up the ladder. In God’s economy, everyone is worthy, everyone is included, everyone is blessed. As laborers in God’s vineyard, our job is to be the church, to share God’s love with the world. This, then, is our piece of that mission that we have identified for ourselves:
Gathered in 1868, Moosup Valley Church is a community growing
in our knowledge of Jesus. Led by the Spirit, we reach out to love God
and our neighbors as ourselves. We are a country church welcoming EVERYONE,
respecting individual personal beliefs, and spreading peace in our world.
May it be so!
The Freedom of Forgiveness
September 13, 2020
For much of the summer, we have been reflecting on what it means to live in community – first in Paul’s letter to the Romans back in August and then last week in Matthew’s gospel, about “making it right.” Today’s gospel lesson is about forgiveness, addressing wrongs, and working toward reconciliation. Wherever there are people, there is likely to be conflict – in families, churches, communities, and nations. And Jesus tells us to forgive – a tall order for most of us!
So, I’ve been thinking about forgiveness and, today, and lest you think that I’m preaching to you, I’m going to begin with a story about myself. Many years ago when I was in divinity school, I was asked to conduct a memorial service for a childhood friend. And, as a thank you gift, her sister gave me a beautiful glass bowl with violets hand-painted on it. It was lovely, and I cherished it, not only for its beauty but also for the memories. I kept it safe in its Ross Simons box whenever I wasn’t using it for special occasions.
A couple of years ago, Kim and I were invited to a potluck dinner party, and we took our contribution in the glass bowl as befitting the occasion. Since there was dessert left in the bowl, our hostess suggested we leave it, and she would give it to Kim when they met for lunch in the near future. Well, every time Kim set as date for lunch or coffee, the hostess couldn’t make it, so last fall, Kim suggested I email her and set a time to come to her house to pick up the bowl. I did, and she responded that she didn’t have it any more; she had given it away – but she would buy me another if I needed a bowl. I said no, only that that one had had special meaning. I felt sad and disappointed and betrayed; to my mind, she had stolen my beautiful bowl. And every time I saw the empty box on the shelf in the parsonage, I got angry all over again and grumbled to Kim. And then I read what Jesus had to say about forgiveness, and I decided it was time to “let it go.” So I tear up this empty box in your presence.
Certainly, there has been a lot to forgive in our lifetimes, alone – BIG STUFF – not just a bowl! Some of you remember the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and we have had our share of home-grown terrorists, some of them mentally ill, others misguided, acting out their own personal hatreds: Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma City bombing, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, the Boston Marathon Bombers, and the latest round of skin-heads and neo-Nazis. Evil comes in many guises.
We all remember where we were on September 11, 2001, 19 years ago this week. The attacks left us shocked, enraged, grieving – and afraid. Our age of innocence died with the planes that struck us in New York City, Washington, DC, and that crashed in the field in Shanksville, PA. Nothing like that tragedy had happened to us on our soil, except perhaps for the Civil War.
Were we shocked because the terrorists were successful in penetrating our centers of commerce (Twin Towers) and government (Pentagon)? Was it because people like us were caught off guard as we boarded a plane, as we went to work, as we went about our ordinary lives? Americans were not used to random events that ended thousands of lives.
But we came together as a nation. And thinking about it now, almost two decades later, as I read the gospel lesson, I don’t remember any of the forgiveness that Jesus talks about. Instead, our leaders vowed revenge. We went to war, thinking it would be quick and easy, without realizing how long we would suffer in Afghanistan and Iraq, all those deaths, without realizing how we would upset the balance of power in the Middle East.
We went to war without doing any soul-searching as a nation about why the attacks had happened in the first place. What is it that terrorist groups (home-grown or foreign) hated then – and still hate – about us? Was it a clash of cultures? Or greed that infects us all? For certain, it’s not for religion; none of the world’s religions promote violence, only the twisted fringe who use it as an excuse.
I don’t remember any talk about forgiveness. One of the reasons is that we think we have to forgive and forget. That idea apparently originated with a man named Miguel de Cervantes in the late 1500s who said “Let us forget and forgive injuries.” But that’s not what Jesus asks of us. We need to remember so that we learn from our mistakes, do we not? Should we forget the Crusades? Slavery? The Holocaust? How can we?
Spanish philosopher George Santayana argued, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And President John Kennedy said, “Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.” So let’s not talk about “forgetting,” as if the event, the hurt, the tragedy never happened.
Jesus only asks us to forgive, not forget. How many times? Depending on the translation: 77 times or 70 times 7 which means 490 times. In other words, over and over, as long as it takes. As long as what takes? In the Biblical Greek, “forgive” literally means “to let go.”
If you look up the definition of “forgive” in a dictionary, you find a number of meanings, including pardon, excuse, exonerate, absolve, make allowance for, which may be what we think is expected of us when we hear the word “forgive.” These definitions have more to do with the other person than with the one being asked to forgive.
However, there also are other definitions that are closer to the Greek “to let go,” closer to what Jesus was talking about, such as to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense that they have committed, or harbor no grudge, definitions which are about the emotional impact on the one doing the forgiving rather than on the one being forgiven.
Several years ago, Dylann Roof, a young man who hoped to ignite a race war, walked into Bible Study at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine people, including the pastor. And within hours, family members of some of those killed said that they forgave him. I thought, wait a minute! You are still in shock. The country is still in shock! Are you forgiving Dylann Roof because you have been told to forgive? Because you think Christians are supposed to forgive? You haven’t even planned the funeral yet!
A mother named Scarlett Lewis lost her 6-year-old son, Jesse, in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, one of 20 children killed. Their parents were devastated, of course, and at first Scarlett’s anger at the shooter, sapped all of her energy and strength. Then she made the choice to forgive. And she said, “Forgiveness felt like I was given a big pair of scissors,” which helped her cut her tie to the shooter and regain her personal power. “It started with a choice,” she said, “and then became a process.” At her son’s funeral, she urged mourners to change their angry thoughts into loving ones. She saw this shift as a way to change the world. Anger and resentment keep us trapped, sap all of our love, suck up all of our creative energy. Forgiveness is good for us. That’s why Jesus recommends it!
Timothy Merrill, author of Learning to Fall: A Guide for the Spiritually Clumsy, writes “Too often we think forgiveness is important, even critical, because of how it affects the persons being forgiven. Maybe, but only if they are contrite, willing to make amends.
“Forgiveness is important because it primarily benefits the one offering the forgiveness. Forgiveness is about you, freeing you. Forgiveness is not saying ‘Forget it.’ Forgiveness is not saying ‘I forget.’ Forgiveness is not saying ‘It’s okay,’ what you did.
Rather, forgiveness is saying ‘I’m okay.’ And I am willing to let God deal with whether you are okay. And I’m willing to let the legal system deal with the legal issues, and I am also willing to let go of my need to be the tool of correction and rebuke in your life.
“Forgiveness is not saying ‘I no longer feel the pain.’ Rather, forgiveness is saying ‘I no longer feel the need to hold on to your involvement in my pain.’” Forgiving one who has caused us pain is our road to freedom. It can be, of course, a tall order, and forgiving one who has wronged us, who has caused us disappointment, who has made our lives difficult or caused us sorrow, may take time.
But not doing so, studies find, leaves us with a chemical reaction in the body known as “the stress response,” when adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine enter the body, limiting creativity and problem-solving, leading us to feel helpless and like a victim. Forgiving may not happen overnight; it may take time; it may even take professional help. But forgive we must for our own health.
And so I have three questions this morning. And I’ll give us a minute or so to think quietly after I’ve asked the questions. They are difficult, and this morning only starts the process.
The first: Whom do you need to forgive? What offense to you or those you love, do you need to forgive? What do you need to let go of to be free?
Question two: From whom do you need to seek forgiveness? To whom do you need to go and ask his or her forgiveness of your offense? What do you need to acknowledge that you have said or done in order for you to be free?
And the third: For what do you need to forgive yourself in order to be free?
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we say when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. How often? Until we are free, Jesus tells us.
May it be so!
 As reported in Homiletics magazine, September/October 2017.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Making It Right
September 6, 2020
For the last two weeks, I have been preaching on Paul’s letter to the little house church in Rome, how he’s trying to help them live together in harmony in the midst of their diversity – Jews and Greeks, slaves and free persons, men and women, all trying to get along – by creating the notion that the church is like a human body, everyone is important, and everyone is needed. They were diverse because traveling missionaries had brought the revolutionary message of Jesus to Rome and had upset the social order – about how business was decided, who was welcome to participate, who could speak in church, and so on.
Like all the little house churches across the empire, The Romans were experiencing conflict. And so Paul writes to them with advice. He presses them to be transformed in their thinking and urges them to extend hospitality to strangers, to live in harmony with each other, and to overcome evil with good. This morning, I go back to the Gospel of Matthew who is writing late in the first century, decades after Paul wrote to the church in Rome, but it appears that the conflict in the churches still exists.
And so Matthew takes a stab at it, with more than just a call to respect each other. He proposes a step-by-step process, a teaching of Jesus that he pulls out of all his material that he has collected about Jesus, in order to “make it right” in the community. We are reflecting on Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, but if we read the whole chapter, we know that these six verses in Matthew follow immediately on the heels of the story about the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go and search for the one who is lost – a clue that the story is not about punishment but about restoration.
For Paul, in the passage we looked at last week, the church is a place of mutual interdependence, where the suffering of one is the suffering of all, and where conflict among persons in the church affects the whole church.
In the Methodist church in Providence where I grew up, there was often conflict. One woman in particular was always stirring things up, and she grew more troublesome when African Methodists, escaping the Civil War in Liberia moved to Providence and began to come to church. She would make fun of Frances who sang in the choir, and one day she was overheard telling the pastor of an African church which used the fellowship hall on Sunday afternoons, “You people don’t know how to worship!”
The conflict was getting out of hand, Frances was in tears, the African church was offended, afraid to bring their drums on Sundays, and the sexton whose church it was began looking for other space to rent on Sundays. How to make it right? So the pastor tried to talk to the woman, using Jesus’ instructions about restoring community. He poured out his heart, explaining how she was hurting people in the congregation, trying to bring her back into the fold. She didn’t care.
Then my brother, Bill, and other leaders sat down with her and listened and talked, and listened and talked, trying to restore healing in the church. She didn’t think she had done anything wrong. She had a right to speak her mind! Finally, they took the disagreement to the whole church, and it was agreed that, while she was always welcome to come to worship, she could no longer hold any leadership positions in the church. The pain radiated through the congregation.
Not unlike the pain radiating through our country right now. Don’t have to wear a mask or social distance if I don’t want to! You can’t tell me not to go to the beach or the store! This is America, I can do what I want! And so the COVID-19 virus continues to spread and kill. As does the pandemic of racism, fueled by fear and hate.
We hear calls for Law & Order, but it’s not Law & Order when 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse grabs an assault rifle and drives across state lines and shoots three people Wisconsin. It’s not Law & Order when vigilantes chase Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and gun him down. It’s not Law & Order when Breonna Taylor was shot in her Kentucky apartment eight times in the middle of the night. It’s not Law & Order when a white couple sets up a sting at a U-Haul parking lot in Florida, thinking they will catch people trying to siphon gas and shoot at a black man and his 10-year old son when they return the truck they had rented in Florida. It’s not Law & Order when Jacob Blake is shot in the back seven times in front of his children.
It’s only Law & Order if they are applied equally and fairly to everyone, not just to those you hate! In the countless tragedies this summer, order was disrupted. Public trust was disrupted. Humanity was disrupted. And how many more deaths since then? Tragedy after tragedy.
How do we make things right? How do we restore ourselves to the community of each other as Jesus urges?
I was on a Council of Churches Zoom meeting with Rev. Howard Jenkins, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Providence this week, and we were talking about the shootings. This is not new to us, he said; we have been dealing with violence for 400 years. And I am reminded of the Klan and the lynchings, for as minor a sin as a black woman not stepping off the sidewalk to allow a white man to pass, or a black boy holding the door open for a white woman, causing her to be afraid. The fear which drove so many Black families to the north in spite of their love for the soil of the South.
As a country, we are finally waking up. Black athletes want more than huge salaries; they want to make a difference in how their communities are treated, Sports teams are beginning to take a stand. According to a recent study reported by the Providence Journal, there is significant racial bias in RI traffic stops, a problem that police department in several communities are attempting to address, “trying to make it right,” in an attempt to end mistreatment of people of color, people who are simply going about their lawful business.
I can’t say it doesn’t affect us here in Foster. Too many of my friends and colleagues are shattered by what is going on in this country. And I realize that it’s not enough to have black and brown friends from different races – I also need to work to end racism that is built into the system. I need to ask “How can I make it right?
Rev. Chontell Washington, who was here at my Installation two years ago, is afraid every time her beautiful teenage son, C.J, goes out, he will be shot simply because he is black. Rev. Linda Watkins, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Pawtucket, who was here for my Installation, is appalled that police shot a black father in the back seven times in front of his children. “What can’t people see about this wrong?” she asked. “What doesn’t White society get?”
Marilyn Kendrix, one of our Conference Ministers who presided at my Installation, and preached a year ago at Rice City, wrote in August in the Conference bulletin:
“As horrific as the video-taped murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis was,
it was the orders shouted to Mr. Floyd that pierced my heart as I foolishly watched
that video again and again. “Get up, man. Get up and get in the car” is what someone
orders Mr. Floyd to do while three police officers kneel on his neck and back.
Get up, while we hold you down.
“Those words could be used as a summary of life in America for black people over the centuries,” she writes, “and is still true for hundreds of thousands of black and brown people today. Get up, while I hold you down. The insistence over the last 40 years that black people in the inner city need to take personal responsibility for their lives while obstacles and barriers are erected to prevent just that is what systemic racism looks like.”
Rev. Kendrix continues to give current examples and ends with:
“It is not hard to see where a lack of justice exists in America. It has always been hiding in plain sight. And we disciples of Jesus are called to seek justice in the land. It is the work of us Christians to insist that our nation no longer keep its knee on the neck of our siblings in Christ. It is our work to do to find ways to reclaim all those who have been systemically shut off from the blessings of living in this land. We can no longer be complacent or apathetic when our nation says to the least of these, “get up, while we hold you down!”
Jesus says to his disciples, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. … For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We wonder what this means. But we pray it every Sunday in the Lord’s Prayer, do we not? “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” We ask that God’s realm – heaven – a place we imagine as loving and peaceful and just, will come to us here on earth.
But it won’t come by itself. We have to enlist the broken-heartedness of the whole body, and we have to pour out our hearts and souls to each other, not to punish, but to restore each other to the community – those who are afraid, and those who are held down, those who are angry, and those who are distrustful, those who think they can do whatever they want because this is America, and “Don’t tread on me!” As a nation, we have to learn to live together through conflict, reconciling people different from each other. And when we do, Jesus will be in our midst, as he promised. And we will be the Church.
May it be so! Amen.