Moosup Valley Congregational Christian Church UCC
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Still in One Peace
Mark 4: 35-41
June 20, 2021
When I lived in Oakland Beach, I would often be at my computer when a thunderstorm bore down on East Greenwich Bay. The sky would be black in the north, and strong winds would pummel the geraniums in my flower boxes and turn over the wicker rockers on the deck. The water would even run against the tide, and Kim and I would be forever keeping rain from blowing in around the windows. And then it would be over. Sparrows would take up their chirping.
Such was the Sea of Galilee – prone to storms like this with many shipwrecks to its credit – when Jesus and his disciples were attempting to cross over to the far shore. The disciples were frightened, of course. Even these tough fishermen were worried as the waves started rolling in over the rails. Where is Jesus when they need him? Asleep in the stern of the boat!
This is a familiar and beloved story. Even Matthew and Luke include it in their gospels. Jesus wakes and sensing the fear around him chides both the men and the sea: “Peace! Be still!” The disciples are filled with great awe. Who is this Jesus? they ask each other. We picture Jesus’ stretching out his arm and calming the storm. A magic trick? A miracle? A sign of his power over nature? We would be thrilled to watch the quiet come.
But bringing calm over the sea may not be Jesus’ most important deed. In his book “Quantum Spirituality,” theologian Lenard Sweet proposes that “The miracle Jesus wanted to show them was not the miracle of calming the storm but the miracle of calming them in the storm.” And, of course, there is a difference.
Methodist founder John Wesley was no “scaredy cat” – he a minister in the Church of England who took to the streets and the rough-and-tumble countryside to preach the gospel to the masses in the 18th century. But on one of his crossings of the Atlantic to bring his message to America, he lost his nerve. He and other passengers clung to their bunks and hid their heads while the ship was tossed about like a bathtub duckie.
All except the community of Moravian travelers on the ship. They gathered for their daily worship service and sang praises to God. Wesley writes later that he is witnessing a truly “waterproof” faith, these Moravians, unperturbed by howling winds and crashing waves. There was no storm too fierce, no opponent too great, no crisis too complete for Jesus – and for those faithful who have an unquenchable faith to carry them through the storms of life.
Even Jesus’ followers who had been specially chosen missed the boat when it came to trusting. They had not yet experienced Christ’s death and resurrection to buoy up their faith. But we have. The resurrection teaches us that we no longer need fear anything, not even death itself. Too often, you and I are like the timid disciples who want to remain spiritually anchored in safe, snug harbors – and if we do happen to venture out, at the least little bit of bad weather, we want to return to port.
But throughout his ministry, Jesus is always pushing the disciples along to the next town or taking a boat to a new shore. And Jesus doesn’t want the church to keep only to the “tried and true.” He calls us to go everywhere, to be everywhere, to hit the road and sail the seven seas. He gives us courage to ride the waves in the face of the storm.
Note that – and this is an important message in this text – the storm doesn’t blow around the boat because Jesus is on board. No, it hits them full force. The disciples lived through a real storm, a real threat, even onto death. Nowhere does Jesus promise them anything different. And nowhere does Jesus promise us anything different. Loved ones get cancer and have heart attacks. Loved ones get shot down in our cities, even at Bible study and church services. Loved ones lose their jobs and their homes and their savings. Faith doesn’t make these problems go away.
And faith doesn’t solve the nation’s problems. The news media is filled with stories about the storms that beset us: COVID-19 Delta variant threats to those not vaccinated; hack attacks on our internet infrastructure; QAnon conspiracies beamed from somewhere in Asia; government scandals, heat waves and droughts, children abandoned at the border by desperate parents. Faith doesn’t make these problems go away.
And faith doesn’t solve international problems, either. Attacks against women and girls in repressive countries; Fighting between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza; Human rights abuses in China and Russia; Climate crisis, clean energy, and wildlife conservation. Faith doesn’t make these problems go away.
Jesus never promised us smooth sailing, a trip without consequences. He only promised that he would sail with us. The only guarantee we are offered is that Jesus will be on-board the boat, and that therefore, the journey will be peace–filled.
All well and good for you to promise, you might say, but how can Jesus, long dead, bring us peace in the midst of the storms of life? Here’s how: The Body of Christ – the church – lives, and it gathers around the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We are the community he gathered, then in the first century, and now in the 21st. At the center is Jesus – who was and is and shall ever be – his values, his mission, his ministry. We reach out for Jesus when we reach out for each other.
As mystic Teresa of Avila said, “Jesus has no hands but ours . . . .” Jesus is present in us when we bring peace to each other by our kindness, love and concern, in our voice for justice for all, through our work for reconciliation in the wider world.
“Jesus Christ’s promise is not to sail us around every storm but to bring us through all storms – still in one peace,” and he does it through you and me.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
The Parable of our Lives
June 13, 2021
Everyone loves a good story. “Read me a story,” we ask our parents when we are little. For many of us, bedtime was story-time, or we couldn’t go to sleep. At church camp, summer-time was story-telling time around the campfire. And what’s the beach without a good book! It’s always been this way.
One of the reasons we have two creation stories in Genesis is because we have one written by the priests (while the Israelites were in exile in Babylon) which was based on the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth, and the other by ordinary people who imagined how the world came to be and told their stories around the campfire.
Jesus told lots of stories which we call parables. We know them by name: The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Lost Sheep, The Woman who Sweeps, The Sheep and the Goats. One commentator reflected that “Jesus told so many parables he became one.” Parables are little stories which illustrate some truths, or religious principles, or moral lessons – although we listeners may have to work hard to understand their meanings. A parable has been called “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” And often there are many meanings as we peel back layers upon layers.
Today we have two parables about seeds. There were peasants in Jesus’ audience who were familiar with these simple images: They had scattered seeds and gathered the harvest to feed their families; they had rested under the branches of a shrub grown from a mustard seed. They were country people, after all, and Jesus knew they could only understand the notion of the “kingdom of God” if he tied it into their life experiences – although they had trouble even then, as do we.
The parables in today’s text have many parts for many players – the seeds, a farmer, the field, the mustard tree, the birds of the air who nest in its branches. We could act out these parables as if they were a play. For example, imagine that you are trying on some of these roles: First, think about the seeds. What if you were a seed? Seeds need someone to scatter them in healthy soil so they can take root and grow – like our children who need healthy families and healthy church communities to help them thrive.
And what about the field? What if we thought about ourselves as a field? The quality of the field makes a difference in how the crop grows, so we could ask ourselves, “What kind of a field am I?” or “What kind of ground are we for our children?
For new people who are seeking a religious community?” Are we welcoming? Nourishing? Sustaining? Do we feed and water the seedlings as they sprout? Do we encourage the best possible harvest?
Who is the farmer in this story? Is it God? Jesus? Each of us? Whoever he or she is, there is work to be done: The farmer rises night and day, most likely to weed and cultivate and keep the crows away.
And imagine if you were the mustard tree, magnificent, grown from such a small seed – and now with so much blessing, so much to share with all who need shade and rest, astounding growth from simple beginnings.
These two parables have been described as examples of the kingdom of God, a place of flourishing. “The kingdom of God is as if,” Jesus says to his listeners. This is “Discipleship 101,” the lesson Jesus has for us today, if we can understand it!
By preaching to his disciples in parables, Jesus lets the listeners make the Good News become their own stories, their own experience. Jesus encourages us to become swept up in a new parable, the parable of our very lives. Too often, we treat the gospel is an intellectual exercise, not one we relate to, not one we take seriously. We come to church for the music or the fellowship or the latest news, but we turn our minds off when the scripture is read and the Word preached. What does God have to do with our lives, anyway? Well, everything!
Each of us – depending on the hour or the day – might be the seed that needs to be nurtured, the field that needs to be cultivated, the farmer that needs a rest, the harvest that needs to be gathered. We flourish – or not – for many reasons. And God is at work in our lives, whether, or not, we put God’s name on the love and support, the friendships and community, we experience in our lives – some that we give and some that we take. All of us are in the process of writing our own parables – our own accounts of experiencing the Good News of the coming of God’s kingdom in our midst.
We are familiar with the Gospel stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But they are not the only stories around. There are the stories of such reformers as Martin Luther and John Calvin, and stories of such advocates for justice as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks.
And our families tell their own stories. The Parable of the Dad who raised his two girls after their mother died. The Parable of the crabby boss and the Christian coworker. The Parable of the school that doesn’t feel safe and the kids who must attend there. The Parable of the empty cupboard and the overflowing bills, waiting to be paid. The Parable of the Grandmother who said pay off your school loans and start saving for retirement, now!
Jesus’ story this morning urges us to become a parable of Good News, a witness to God’s presence in our lives, a means to usher in the kingdom of God. Each one of us is in the midst of writing our own gospel, our own Good News story.
I thought about you as “parables” as I wrote these words. There is the Parable of Priscilla the Gardener who spreads mulch carefully around each plant and the Parable of Bob the Engineer who oversaw the installation of our new heating and air conditioning system, and the Parables of Sonja and Tracey who tend to the Parsonage. The Parable of Laurie the Recruiter who brings folk music to Moosup Valley and the Parable of Sarah who captures our beloved church in paint. The Parable of Carl the Architect who designs the addition and the Parables of Pat and Lee the Treasurers who make it all add up.
The Parables of Martha and Charlie and Evie who add music and grace to our services and Barbara who sings the Lord’s Prayer, and the Parables of Laila and Sue and Jim and Judi who log on from afar. The Parables of Tina and Joan who cannot be kept down by adversity, and the Parable of Beverly who reaches out to her neighbors, and the Parable of Cheryl who keeps her eye on the Foster community. And I discovered a new parable as I waited to be wheeled into surgery on Wednesday, the Parable of Geraldine the Professor who wouldn’t let her nursing student drop out and who called her personally to let her know she had passed the exam. Look around at all the parables in this service!
Our churches are parables too: Moosup Valley – the Parable of the Live Concerts Church. And Rice City, the Parable of the Turkey Supper Church. And Mt. Vernon – the Parable of the Rebuilt Church.
We are the stories we tell and the parables we become. May we be Good News in our little corner of the world.
May it be so!
June 6, 2021
It didn’t take long for Jesus to get into trouble. Almost from the beginning of his gospel, Mark reports that crowds surrounded Jesus, and the religious leaders in Jerusalem came down to see for themselves. Common folks like you and me adored him; the establishment – not so much. They circulated rumors that he was demented, out of his mind, possessed by a demon.
His family, of course, hears what’s going on, and they are worried. What kind of trouble is he stirring up? Is his life in danger? Why can’t he be content in the carpenter shop in Nazareth?
So they plan an intervention – to bring him home, talk some sense into him, keep him safe. “Who do you think you are?” I can imagine they will ask.
But they can’t get close enough to talk with him with so many in the house. So they pass the word through the crowd: “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.” And Jesus seizes the moment and responds with an intervention of his own, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around him, he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
This is an important verse in the New Testament for three reasons: First, Jesus broadens our understanding of family. Second, he opens us up to an appreciation of differences. And third, he establishes a standard for what it means to be part of Jesus’ family.
When we say “family” today, we generally mean nuclear family – parents and children, and perhaps an aunt or uncle or a grandparent. In generations past, and in different cultures, family would always include extended family; they might all live under one roof or in one family compound.
Today we struggle with how to define family, especially blended families in second marriages with step-parents and step-children, yours, mine and ours. And sometimes we make people we care about into a family, whether we are blood relatives, or not. Who is part of your family? Some of us might include friends or our church as part of our family. In Foster, everyone is family, it seems.
Families are the building blocks of society, but families together form tribes, and tribes together form nations. And while tribal loyalty can bring strength, it also can bring conflict. The “troubles” between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland was essentially a tribal conflict. The killings between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the Muslim world, and Jews and Palestinians in Gaza are essentially tribal conflicts.
Yes, families are good – but they also can become hardened and narrow and protective of their own to the exclusion of others. Jesus knows this. He has experienced family divisions in the tribal life of his times, and he seizes the opportunity to urge his listeners to look beyond their own family boundaries.
This perspective will be critical to the early church as it struggles to identify itself as separate from the Jewish synagogues and to give themselves justification to move out into the Greek and Roman world, to be more than a Jewish sect, to enlarge their family. In fact, this is so important
that Mark picks up Jesus’ words and uses Jesus’ “teachable moment” in his gospel, making it his “teachable moment” as well to the early church.
And it is critical to us today as local churches – like Moosup Valley, Rice City, and Mt. Vernon – struggle with dwindling membership and tight money. We think of ourselves as “family churches,” but we must recognize that families are always changing as babies are born, children leave home, parents divorce, and the older generation dies. We read the histories of our country churches and talk about beloved members of our congregations who have gone before, but our churches will never be, again, in this secular age, what they are now in our memories. The
future will not be like our past. That doesn’t mean we aren’t still “family” churches, but unless we invite new people into the family – the family, of course, will die out.
One of my responsibilities as one of your ministers, I think, is to remind us of the obvious – to provide an intervention – to ask the hard questions and invite us to create a new “family” of the Larger Parish to carry on the ministry, to invite those who are outside to come in and to do things differently in a new age.
Sometimes a different setting can be an intervention is its own right. “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a classic story about how seven senior citizens from England who come to India for what they think will be a change of pace, a luxurious vacation, an adventure, a chance for love or reconciliation. They are people like us who are overcome with the vibrant colors and noise and languid heat of India. Separately and together they discover unexplored strengths, peace at last, lives worth living, even late in the journey. Through the intervention of a different culture, and the intervention of their relationships, they find themselves – what they had been looking for all along.
I often hear stories about people like us for whom travel was an intervention. Roommates in college become life-long friends. Soldiers who share a foxhole are buddies for life. People who met on a vacation abroad create a ritual of visiting each other every summer.
We can find ourselves, too, without leaving home, if we are open to meeting new people, exploring new ideas, engaging in new experiences, making new families. This is what Rhoda and Skip did all the time.
As I thought about today’s Bible lesson, I realized that the pandemic, itself, was an intervention, forcing us to do things differently, reinvent ourselves for a new age. This is something new Christians were called upon to do in the first century, and something we are being called upon to do in the 21st. And Jesus sets a high bar for those of us who think of ourselves as part of his family: “Whoever does the will of God . . . .”
How can we know what the will of God is? Read your Bible! Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The gospel calls us to redefine family beyond our nuclear families. Children in Haiti are our children. Asian women who are promised good jobs and then sold as sex slaves in the west are our mothers and sisters. Young black men who are locked up disproportionately for minor offenses are our brothers. Situations like these call for an intervention.
What needs in Foster and Greene and wherever we live call for our intervention? With whom shall we partner? They don’t have to be members of our churches or even Christians. All the religions of the world, not just Christianity, teach us to care for each other, to assist the less fortunate, to live lives of generosity and integrity. Whoever does the will of God is my family,…
And so let us open our arms wide to embrace each other. And let us find creative and compassionate solutions in order to provide justice and restore dignity to all the families of the world.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
Getting a Life
May 30, 2021
It’s that magic time of the evening when the sun has set but the light lingers. Twilight. A man walks cautiously down the narrow street, glancing behind him from time to time. He’s rather well-dressed for that neighborhood, out of place. Wary eyes look from a window. A mother in a doorway, crooning to a fussy baby, watches him pass by. A cat darts on padded paws in front of him. The man stops and asks a boy for directions, then turns down an alley. When he finds the door he is looking for, he reaches up and knocks – just as the first star shows up in the sky.
It’s Nicodemus, the Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, making his way to Jesus under the cover of darkness. Nicodemus in the night. He is a leader of the Jews, a keeper of the laws of Moses. What does he want with Jesus? What has brought him out on this dark night when he should be home in bed? What troubles him that he should take the trouble? All of his colleagues are upset with this know-it-all from Galilee who is stirring up the people – turning water into wine, healing the sick, creating a ruckus in the temple.
But Nicodemus is intrigued. Perhaps his life of privilege and respectability is not enough. Perhaps his insistence and reliance on observing the laws has left him unfilled. Perhaps he is hungry for more, soul-hungry for more meaning than he has experienced as a keeper of Israel. His unrest must have been deep for him to make this journey across town, out of his comfort zone.
Do any of us ever know what drives us – to pick up the phone, to make the call, to get in the car, to attend the event? Some deep need, perhaps one we are not even in touch with, drives us. So it must be with Nicodemus. What does Jesus have that Nicodemus wants? There must be more to life than rules. Jesus seems to have a life, a purpose, a mission. So he steals away to Jesus. With his questions. In search of a life with meaning.
In spite of the subtle attacks on Jesus by his colleagues, the Pharisees, Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus carries authority and has some special power. He calls him “rabbi” and “a teacher from God,” based on the “signs.” He shows Jesus respect – but Jesus doesn’t want his respect. He wants his soul.
So he’s not prepared for what Jesus says to him: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus is mystified. These two leaders of Israel – one wealthy, the other with no place to lay his head – lean toward each other in earnest dialogue well into the night, while the lamp sputters and grows dim.
Nicodemus struggles to understand. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” We, like Nicodemus,
miss the double meaning of anōthen, from the Greek, meaning “from above,” “again,” or “anew.” There is no word in English that captures the complexity of the Greek word anōthen.
Jesus is not talking about physical birth. Jesus pushes him further: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. . . . “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus is baffled: “How can these things be?” Jesus challenges him to move beyond the surface meaning to something deeper, a radical new birth in God’s kingdom, a birth brought by the Spirit at Pentecost.
Have you been “born again?” Some branches of the Christian community have trivialized the phrase “born again,” making it into a personal slogan. Beware! The new birth that Jesus is talking about is grounded in the cross, in a willingness to suffer for the gospel, a trusting in the Spirit to lead us outside our comfort zone.
Nicodemus doesn’t understand – and most of the time, neither do we. We like clear, concrete ideas that we can stand on. We want proof, safety, something solid to sink our teeth into. How can we trust ourselves to something as ill-defined and wind-like as the Spirit? Are we brave enough to trust God to lead us?
“God loves the world; God desires that all of us ‘have a life;’ God gives God’s Son that all may believe; God has acted in Christ not to condemn but to save. To trust in this is to have life anew, life eternal,” argues one theologian. But the way we demonstrate this life anew is to love the world the way God does. Getting a life may be harder than we thought. It may take us where we never expected to go: to overcome the prevailing social barriers of race and class, culture and gender; to speak for the marginalized who have barely any life at all; to bring God’s kingdom of love and compassion to earth.
Nicodemus stumbles out, heading for home in the pitch dark; a donkey raises her head and watches him pass, on his way to his warm bed in his comfortable home. He went looking for a new life, risking the unknown, risking his position, risking his reputation. Did he find it?
And, even more important, will we? We, too, are invited to steal away to Jesus in the dark nights of our soul and to ask our questions. Why am I here? What does God have in store for me? Am I living my life – my one and only precious life that only I can live – as I should? Where is the wind of the Spirit blowing in my life? To what new possibility am I giving birth? Into what new life am I being called?
Jesus didn’t demand that Nicodemus give up his life, only that he become a new creature in the life he already has, only that his life be transformed through God’s grace and love.
May it be so.
 Fred B. Craddock, et. al., Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year B, p. 291 (adapted).
Moosup Valley Church UCC
The Gift of Understanding
May 23, 2021
Today we celebrate the birthday of the Church – Pentecost – with the coming of the Holy Spirit to launch Christ’s mission to the world. God has been planning this party since the beginning of time. The poetry in the Genesis creation story describes God’s spirit blowing over the formless void and breathing life into the world. This time is not the first time. God’s Spirit has been poured out again and again – accompanying the Israelites as they flee Egypt through the Red Sea in the Exodus story, as a cloud by day and a fire by night; the Glory of the Lord streaming through the temple, in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, accompanying them as the Israelites are led into exile in Babylon, and then, 50 years later, leading the way as they return to the land with a clear Jewish identity forged in suffering.
The Holy Spirit has been in the Israelites’ midst all along, but today she has come anew. This is what Jesus’ followers have been waiting for. This is the promised Advocate. God’s breath – ruah – has been poured into the messianic community, giving it legitimacy and power. The world will never be the same. The occasion is the Jewish harvest festival of Pentecost which happens to be 50 days after Easter. People from all walks of life – but heavy on Galilean fishermen and carpenters – women in the inner circle who had traveled with Jesus, like Mary of Magdala – Visiting. Praying.
Picture the scene. People coming and going. Food being prepared and shared. Jews from every nation, here in Jerusalem, the crossroads of the world. Poor Peter, trying to keep order. They must have been loud, too, because bystanders thought they were drunk. Singing, perhaps, psalms of exultation, cries for help and thanksgiving for healing. And yes, prayer: sometimes murmuring, sometimes shouting, rising and falling above the noise in the street. Everyone, praising God, in their own languages. They were out of order, of course, all these different people together, men and women interacting socially in public. What would the neighbors think!
And then an amazing thing happened! A rush of wind, the roar of sound, the appearance of tongues of fire resting on the gathered community, symbols of God’s presence. In Hebrew, ruah elohim, the creative wind of the Lord, has come, to bring life out of chaos. The Holy Spirit has come! Something happened that day that empowered these people, just plain folks, not so different from you and me, that they went out and turned the world upside down – in spite of persecution, in spite of imprisonment, in spite of torture, in spite of oppression and death. It all started at Pentecost – a time for knowing God’s presence and having the courage to name it.
Two images are lifted up in this text as symbols of power and signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit, indeed, we can think of them as gifts of the Holy Spirit. First, the tongues of fire resting on each person there. One cutting-edge New Testament scholar notes that Roman coins in first century Palestine showed divided tongues of fire appearing over the head of Caesar as a sign of royalty – even as a sign of his divinity. “Caesar is the Son of God,” the coins proclaimed.
But God has a different idea! Here, in the streets of Jerusalem, the tongues of fire rest on Jesus’ followers, not on Caesar’s. They rest on Peter and John and Mary Magdalene, and all the others, instead of … on the powers-that-be. Those who follow Jesus are identified with divine power, not the appointed and elected leaders, the politicians. It’s no wonder they say, Jesus turned the world upside down!
And the second image, the second gift? The gift of understanding. The languages being spoken and understood by Jews from every nation on earth, different languages but everyone knew what was being said. Luke (the gospel writer who also wrote Acts) describes the crowds as “bewildered, amazed, astonished, and perplexed.” “We can imagine them milling around, stepping on each other’s toes, faces red, voices rising.
We can imagine all these people, divided into different language groups as described in the story of Babel in Genesis (11:1-9), coming back together at Pentecost, a mending of the human family. Instead of widening confusion, there is dawning comprehension. Instead of separation between people, the Spirit comes with power to unite them.
That first generation, 2000 years ago when Jesus walked the earth, experienced darkness and distress in the world, just as we do today: the growing gap between the rich and the poor; growing poverty and unchecked disease; division, hatred, pain, doubt and fear; debates and disagreements. Polarization and growing intolerance of any opinion or ideal other than our own. We need Pentecost in our time!
And so the Spirit comes with two gifts: First, the gift of the power vested in Jesus’ followers to make a difference; and, second, the gift of understanding to open our eyes to each other and each other’s truth, to build consensus about how to use our power to bring about the world that God envisions.
Nine centuries ago, St. Francis traveled to Egypt to try to convert the Muslim sultan to Christianity, seeking to bring an end to the Crusades. After an initial attempt by both St. Francis and the Muslim sultan to convert each other, they began to listen to each other, to see each other as precious human beings. Out of his own experience, St. Francis writes, in his well-known prayer: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Stephen Covey in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, writes that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Too often, we only want to prove the rightness of our own position, not to understand each other’s, something we all do too often. We need the gift of understanding which only comes from listening to each other’s stories, each other’s hopes and fears and dreams.
Harvard professor of psychology, Ellen Langer, was writing a sermon on forgiveness, and she came to understand that there was a better way than forgiveness. She began “to consider that making an effort to understand why people act a particular way is potentially even better than forgiving or blaming them.” She believes that “a person’s action makes sense from their perspective or else they wouldn’t have done it.” (“Is There Better Than Better?” Harvard Magazine, May/June 2021.)
The most dramatic sign of Pentecost in our time is the miracle of mutual understanding across impossible boundaries of class, ethnicity, and religion like that in the first congregation at Pentecost. As we struggle with the national crises of our time, Pentecost prompts us to recognize the human faces of other peoples and “therefore, the face of the Spirit in all the wretched of the earth and in all the movements of justice and liberation of our time.” (Wendy Farley, Connections, Year B, Vol. 2, page 315.)
Through Pentecost, hearts will be transformed to increase understanding of the issues, to heal division between people, to empower leaders who act with divine inspiration – whatever their faith tradition or none. And so today, as we celebrate God’s Pentecostal party, let us remember our connection with the first generation, when the Spirit of God came to embed the Gift of divine Love in just plain folks like you and me, and to demonstrate the Gift of Understanding to bring life out of death and hope out of despair.
Come, Holy Spirit, Come!
 Jana Childers, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, 19.
Moosup Valley Church, UCC
May 16, 2021
About 25 years ago, Norman Cousins, editor of the respected literary magazine Saturday Review in New York City, was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, an incurable and fatal spinal column illness of unknown cause. He tired all sorts of alternative remedies, including vitamin B-17, large doses of vitamin C and others, with little or no effect on his condition.
So, one day, against the advice of his doctors, he left the hospital and closeted himself in his apartment for one month doing what he enjoyed most – reading humorous stories and jokes, watching comedy movies and reading his favorite comic books. He did nothing but laugh each day for one month. He also wrote original jokes which he would read aloud to himself, then laugh like crazy. He noticed that every time he laughed, his pain was eased.
At the end of one month, Cousins returned to the hospital for a checkup. To the surprise of the medical staff who examined him, they found no trace of the dreaded disease. He was completely cured! So they asked Cousins what medicines he took that cured him. They would not believe him when he replied he had not taken any medicine since he was told his ailment was incurable. They said, “You must have done something you never did before.” He finally replied, “All I did was to laugh myself to health.”
He became known as the man who cured himself through laughter, and he was even appointed a faculty member of the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine, although he was not a doctor. Cousins went on to write a number of books about illness and healing and recovery. If you google “Laughter the Best Medicine,” you will find lots of options that advocate the power of laughter to heal ourselves.
The writer of Proverbs 17:22 knew this millennia ago when he wrote, “A cheerful heart is a good medicine.” Perhaps, in our fast-paced, frantic world, we have forgotten this. Now, I’m not suggesting that laughter can heal everything, but it certainly helps. I know when I’ve been very busy and tied up in knots, and I spend time with friends laughing, my stress is relieved. I’ve been accused all my life of being too serious, but I found myself laughing as I put this service together!
Heaven knows the world could use some humor right now – and not just any humor – but holy humor, good clean fun that helps us to laugh at ourselves. Humor that doesn’t hurt anyone or put down a class of people. Humor that unites us rather than dividing us. Here’s an example: “A guy goes to his barber and he’s all excited. He says, “I’m going to go to Rome. I’m flying Alitalia and staying at the Rome Hilton, and I’m going to see the pope.” The barber says, “Ha! Alitalia is a terrible airline, the Rome Hilton is a dump, and when you see the pope, you’ll probably be standing in back of 10,000 people.” So the guy goes to Rome and comes back. His barber asks, “How was it?” “Great,” he says, “Alitalia is a wonderful airline. The hotel was great. And I got to meet the pope!” “You met the pope?” “I bent down to kiss the pope’s ring.” “And what did he say?” “He said, ‘Where did you get that crummy haircut?’”
John Cleese, The Human Face, BBC Television (2001), writes, “I’m struck by how laughter connects you with people. It’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance or any sense of social hierarchy when you’re just howling with laughter. Laughter is a force for democracy.”
Author Anne Lamott, in Anne Lamott shares all that she knows: ‘Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared,’ writes about Grace as “Spiritual WD-40, Water wings:
“The mystery of grace is that God loves Dick Cheney and me exactly as much as He or She
loves your grandchild. Go figure. The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and our world. To summon grace, say, “Help!” And then buckle up. Grace won’t look like Casper the Friendly Ghost, but the phone will ring, or the mail will come, and then against all odds, you will get your sense of humor about yourself back. Laughter really is carbonated holiness, even if you are sick of me saying it.”
Long before Anne Lamott, Mark Twain in his unfinished manuscripts, “The chronicle of young Satan,” puts these words in Satan’s mouth: “Your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon – laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution – these can lift at a colossal humbug – push it a little – crowd it a little – weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laugher nothing can stand.”
And so we’ll continue to laugh and heal what we can in ourselves and in our world with the singing of our next hymn, “Take Time to Be Funny.” And we will sing in the spirit of Psalm 98:4, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.”
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
May 9, 2021
“Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” Charlie played to open the service. “Abide in my love,” Jesus tells us, “I command you to love one another.” Because this is how we bear fruit and where we find joy. This is a tall order, is it not, in our fractured world? And if not a tall order, surely an oversimplification to solving the world’s problems – or even a sweet, sentimental bit of trite! We throw the word “love” around carelessly. I love ice cream. I love New York! I loooove you in that hat!
What kind of love is Jesus talking about? Not the Greek eros, the desire between lovers, as in “erotic.” Not philia, brotherly love, as in “Philadelphia.” In this passage, the word Jesus uses is agape, which comes into Latin as caritas and then into English as charity and the gradual shift to our English word “philanthropy,” which comes closer to agape – love for the other, the way God cares for us. Jesus is talking about agape, the kind of love God has for Jesus and that Jesus then shares with his disciples. Agape is the love that Jesus has demonstrated that takes him to the cross, the kind of love he is urging upon his disciples – a “doing” love, not just a “feeling” love.
Jesus commands them – and us – to love each other in the same way – even to giving up their lives, something we might be called on to do figuratively, if not literally. They are going to need it.
In our text today, Jesus is delivering these instructions as he prepares to leave his disciples, his closest friends – his “loved ones” – on his way to the cross. What kind of love will they need to survive his arrest and torture and crucifixion? They need agape love that binds them together as a community that can carry on without their dearest friend. Jesus has set a high bar, literally giving up one’s life for one’s friends. To survive, they need to be “loved ones” to each other.
Those who came a few generations after Jesus walked this earth needed it too. Biblical scholars think that John was writing his gospel toward the end of the first century when the Christians were facing crises on two fronts: growing persecution by the Roman Empire and serious conflict with the Jewish synagogue. Remember, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, come to reform Judaism, and the first churches were synagogues. Different theological ideas were emerging, and Christians were being expelled from synagogues. So not only did the disciples need to love one another the way Jesus loved them, but the members of the early church, several generations later, also needed agape love to survive in a hostile world, to bear fruit, to be “loved ones.” If they had not had that kind of selfless love for each other – a readiness to lay down their lives for each other – the community would not have been able to withstand the persecution on all sides – being thrown to the lions, literally and figuratively – and we would not be here today.
And what of us? Where do we find that kind of agape love today? Where do we find deep, fulfilling relationships, the kind of love that Jesus is talking about? Certainly we don’t expect to find agape on Facebook. We know there is a difference between friends we accumulate with a click on “Accept” – and “loved ones” who will be there for us when we need a ride to chemo or for cataract surgery, a meal brought in, a deep conversation about things that matter.
So, where can we find agape? Can we find that kind of love in our families? We certainly celebrate the ideal that is Mother’s Day, which we celebrate today. Well over a thousand years ago, someone asked the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) to whom on earth we owe our deepest gratitude. “To your mother,” he replied. “After that, who?” He was asked again. “To your mother again,” he replied.
Families are sometimes loving, and sometimes not. One of Kim’s cousins married a woman over his mother’s objections, a woman who already had two children who have Downs Syndrome. I met these children, Sara and John, children so beautiful and soulful, and so sad that Kim’s mother died. And their parents are so devoted to providing them with a quality of life in spite of their disability. Surely there is agape in that home!
But you know families: the disagreements and “put downs” and sharp words, the sisters who don’t speak to each other, the relative who thinks her way is the only way. Sometimes, loved ones are not very loving at all. How do we put the agape back into “loved ones,” that Jesus calls us to be to each other in our families?
There are many ways to give up our lives that don’t involve death, for example: Giving up a good job to stay where our kids are happy. Taking care of an elderly parent when we’d rather be seeing the world. Choosing to care for handicapped children rather than institutionalizing them. Agape love is known as much, if not more so, by its deeds than by its feelings.
We see agape love in our churches, too, wherever a church is bearing fruit. I see it in the phone calls, the emails, the prayers, the church cleanup days, the concerts, the way we reach out when someone is hurting.
Friends, “loved ones,” are companions on the journey of life – perhaps that’s a good way to understand what a congregation is called to be – to bear fruit that shall last: dwelling – abiding – in God’s love through the act of discipleship.
Last week, we reflected on Jesus, the vine, and we, the branches, staying connected with the divine source of our nourishment. Why? Because Jesus is depending on us to be his hands and feet in the world, to carry out his mission. And what is God’s mission? It’s bigger than we can understand, but suffice it to say, to live out God’s love for all of creation.
And we find agape love beyond our families and beyond our churches. We don’t have to be practicing Christians – going to church, being baptized, receiving communion – to be Christ-like. There are many ways to lay down one’s life for one’s friends in response to Jesus’ call to be disciples.
We think of soldiers who throw themselves on a hand grenade to save a buddy. But what about Doctors Without Borders, who travel to out-of-the-way places to bring medical care, in keeping Jesus’ commandment to serve the poor.
And think of all those who boarded Freedom Buses during the Civil Rights Era, after signing their wills, knowing that they might be killed for integrating a lunch counter.
Think of the women – many of them mothers, I’m sure – who were arrested on November 10, 1917, just over 100 years ago, for protesting outside the White House for the right to vote. They were taken to a Workhouse in Northern Virginia where they were beaten, clubbed and tortured by the guards. The event is known as the Night of Terror.
Think of Jahaira DeAlto, a 42-year-old transgender woman of color, who was stabbed to death in the Boston area last Sunday. She was an advocate for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and she was heralded as a fierce advocate and a “mother” to many.
Think of the Christians who hid Jews in Poland and France during the Nazi invasions, and ended up being arrested and executed themselves.
Think of the environmental activists who risk their lives standing up to logging companies and the oil industry and city councils who try to save money by drawing water from unsafe sources. Last year, Gomez Gonzelez, an advocate for Monarch Butterflies in the UN World Heritage Site in Mexico, pushed for tourism instead of logging, and in January 2020, he was found killed. He was an advocate for replanting trees that are the butterfly’s habitat.
Allan Boesak, Dutch Reformed minister in South Africa, who opposed apartheid and was sentenced to prison, asked, “Is there nothing worth dying for?”
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” There are many kinds of friends to die for and many ways to do it. As we head toward Memorial Day, let’s expand the list of the people we honor. Certainly, we should remember those who died in combat. But why not also those who died in peacekeeping? Who died advocating for the rights of those the country or world had left behind?
There are many ways to “mother” besides giving birth, although that’s mind-blowing and dangerous in itself!
The love we need to change the world, the love that Jesus demonstrates as he feeds the hungry, heals the sick, and advocates justice, is agape love, the love that lays down its life for the “loved ones.”
Our Christian story is a big, divine, mind-blowing story. And our story at Moosup Valley Church and Rice City and Mt. Vernon, is a little piece of God’s big story. All we need is love, God’s kind of love, to make it happen.
May it be so!
Moosup Valley Church UCC
May 2, 2021
If you have ever visited a vineyard, you would have noticed that the vines in the vineyard curl around each other, creating a tangled mass of vines and branches, stems and leaves. Some branches are bare, some with fruit. The gardener enters with knife in hand and cuts out the dead wood, then goes on to prune back the old growth – the secret to bearing fruit. Among vineyard keepers today that’s what’s called “canopy management.”
Vineyards have always been an important part of our agricultural economy. In the ancient world, great care was taken to prepare the ground; strong walls and watchtowers were built to protect the vines from people and animals. A productive vineyard was a sign of God’s favor and that the vine-grower was obedient to God’s commands. Wine imagery is frequent in our Bible. Ancient Israel was often called “the vineyard of the Lord” (Isa.5:7). “To bear fruit” was a common image of the faithful community.
Jesus knows this, of course, when he talks with his disciples about his leaving them. He is the vine; they are the branches. The disciples understand his vine/branch metaphor and the importance of being connected to the vine in order to bear fruit. This is a “no brainer” for them – whether or not they understood what was about to happen. It must have been comforting for the disciples to hear Jesus’ talking about “abiding” in him, about being connected to him in order to bear fruit – just as it is for us.
There are three key ideas here in the vineyard metaphor: First, in order to bear fruit, there needs to be some cutting involved – and this sounds painful. Vines live out in the open air, subject to the elements, and some branches die. They are in the way, useless. Others may bear fruit but not as well as they might. Pruning a healthy plant – while it may seem cruel – stimulates more growth. Laurie told us this when we were putting out a plant table at our Concert in the Valley a couple of years ago. Divide your plants, she said. It’s good for them! Pat’s doing this right now with the hostas by her porch.
Now, the Greek word for “prune” also means “cleanse.” If we are being honest, “…we know there are aspects of our lives that need to be cleansed, cut away or redirected”—pruned. Pruning is healthy for a plant – just as pruning or cleansing our human lives of burdensome things, meaningless pursuits, and unhealthy relationships can give rise to new life in us. Good can be nurtured; wasteful activities or hurtful behavior can be eliminated.
In an article in my most recent Harvard Magazine, I read about the importance of self-reflection. We tend to focus on two ways of operating – blaming or forgiving. The author suggests another, better way: understanding. Why we do what we do. We might ask ourselves when we are angry or afraid, why? “What past experience is being triggered in me?” “What am I afraid of?” The past is always with us – until we can resolve it.
It’s important to note that the cutting is not done to punish the plants but to make them more productive. Jesus is not pulling up entire plants and throwing them into the fire, only the dead wood that gets in the way of a faithful life – attitudes and values and assumptions that don’t belong in a Christ-like vineyard. God can help us prune ourselves.
The second key idea in this passage is that fruitfulness is communal, that is, we cannot do it alone: There are many branches on each vine, all drawing their nourishment from the same vine. All together, the plant produces fruit. One individual branch, one cluster of grapes, doesn’t mean much. Our Western civilization model of individuality – the Lone Ranger mentality – the de-valuing of community lives, works against us here. I could do this service by myself, but look how much richer it is with all of us! Carl could have cleaned up the grounds by himself two weeks ago, but look how much fun we had and how beautiful the church looks when we all were here!
So the metaphor of the vineyard, has something to teach us about the common good. What affects one, affects all. We need to balance individual rights with the right of everyone to be healthy, prosperous, and safe. Kim and I had this discussion Thursday night with a friend over dinner: Should people be required to wear a mask to get on an airplane? To be vaccinated in order to attend a class or to be cast for a part in a play? How do we balance individual choice with the common good? The vineyard metaphor may give us a way to think about these questions; help us to flourish together during a pandemic. As a society we will continue to struggle with these issues.
We struggle with lots of issues. We hear calls to “defund the police.” Writer Mitch Albom, who manages an orphanage in Haiti, wrote in a guest editorial in the Cape Cod Times yesterday that, defunding the police, would make us like Haiti where the police don’t have enough support and where gangs rule. Instead, I’d like to see us increase funding for the police in order to put social workers in every police car who might be better trained in mental illness to avoid a tragedy and better equipped in conflict management to de-escalate a tense situation.
And I’d like to take money out of politics. Let Congress decide on the merits of the ideas and not on the deep pockets of the lobbyists and billionaires who buy elections. We dismiss politics as grubby business, and too often it is, yet that is how we move the world forward. Too much self-interest in politics and too little attention to the common good! How can we make politics work for the people?
The vineyard metaphor reminds us that we are all in this together. Acting out of self-interest, brings ruin to the vineyard. The productive vineyard is a community enterprise. We produce more quality fruit when we grow it together!
The third key idea is that we are to abide in Jesus. Jesus said that he is the vine, and the disciples – by that he means you and me – are the branches, and our task is to bear fruit. So how do we do that? What does this mean, to abide? Is it not to care about the things that Jesus cared about – the poor, the hungry, the vulnerable, the stranger, the immigrant, to work for a just society where everyone thrives? Our faith reminds us that we are held to a high standard to love God and our neighbor as ourselves; we are called to abide in love.
As we emerge from the pandemic, let’s pause and remember moments this past year when hope seemed lost and we felt alone, abandoned, afraid, and helpless. Thousands of people felt this way.
Let’s take the opportunity to think about what we’re called to be and do as the church as we labor in the “vineyard” that we call Foster and Greene, what our ministry should be going forward, how we serve these people, who and what needs us now, as we reorganize and rebuild.
Will Rice City go back to suppers and Moosup Valley, to concerts? Will I continue with the newsletters? Will Mt. Vernon develop a ministry beyond hymn sings? What will our “new normal” become in these changing times? What will it mean to abide in Jesus in this new decade? The world is still broken; the world is not what God desires for humankind. There’s work to be done in the vineyard.
The promise of scripture is that, as we abide in Jesus, we begin to see the world the way God sees the world. And we are reminded that, with God, all things are possible. I ran across an interesting idea in one of the commentaries on this text, and I quote: “Churches that move through hardship to increase commitment to the mission have, indeed, been pruned. Those that pull back in concern for their own comfort and security have, indeed, been removed.”
Through a relationship with Jesus, the true vine, the connection that brings meaning and life to us, we can bear the fruit of love in the world and witness to the gospel of justice in our lives, even if
God needs to prune us to get it!
May it be so!