Sunday Sermons

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Moosup Valley Congregational Christian Church

Moosup Valley Church UCC

How to Be Great

Mark 10:35-45

October 17, 2021

We continue today on the road with Jesus and the disciples. Where are we going?  To Jerusalem, to the seat of power.

The disciples don’t know this journey will lead to the cross, but Jesus does. He keeps trying to tell them, and just before today’s lesson, he has told them for the third time, about being handed over, and condemned to death, about the pain and suffering he was facing.  It goes right over their heads, in one ear and out the other. As Mark tells it, they don’t even seem to notice. I wonder how Jesus felt?  How would you feel if you just poured out your heart to your best friends, and they ignored you?

No, they have other things on their mind. James and John, like so many of us, want to be great – without doing any of the work to earn the honor. So they try to trick Jesus into granting them a wish, a ploy to make them “great” in the eyes of the world. We can understand these sons of Zebedee, can’t we?  We, too, covet a lot of things that we never admit out loud:  the ideal family, the best job with the biggest salary, a secure pension, a

life without fear – of bankruptcy, or terrorism, or illness.  We, too, want to be great!

But the disciples have observed how the ancient world “works” – what theologian Walter Wink refers to as the Domination System – top down, male-dominated, ruled by the elite, focused on power and control, built on the backs of the poor.  And the poor are losing their land and much of what they grow to support Caesar’s building campaign and wars. Fear keeps tyrants in power, and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. 

Martin Luther – we will celebrate him on Reformation Sunday  at the end of October – could have been burned at the stake for his challenge to the Roman Catholic Church, modeled after the Domination System. Although instead of suits and ties, they wear robes and stoles; refuse ordination to women; and withhold sacraments to punish those who break the “rules.”

We Protestants are a little more subtle and less controlling, although we still have our rules about who can be ordained and who can do what in our churches, like celebrate holy communion. And in the UCC, we talk about “settings,” not “levels,” that inform each other – an attempt to make our organizational structure less hierarchal.

Although we don’t burn people at the stake anymore in our society, the domination model is still visible.  Even in our day, we see that wealth equals power, and power equals position.  And once one has position, nobody wants to give it up voluntarily – not the religious right, nor the banks, nor the insurance industry, nor the NRA, nor the politicians, nor you, nor I.  

I was interested in an article in the news this week about pending legislation to force US banks to stop letting foreign investors hide money in their banks to avoid paying taxes. The banks, of course, will fight it! And Congress is reluctant to tackle the tax code to make it more equitable. The lobbies are everywhere, fighting for their own particular interests. And so, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. Then and now.

Everyone understands, the disciples included, that this is how the world works. They all assume Jesus will sweep into Jerusalem and take over.  The only difference is that Jesus will be on the throne, rather than Caesar, and all his followers will be rewarded with positions of authority.  It’s the same model, only the names and the faces will change.  It’s still about power and control, a top-down system.  James and John have no experience or the imagination to think otherwise. And perhaps we don’t either.  For them, and for too many of us, it’s the way the world works.  The other ten disciples are angry, probably because they didn’t think of it first.

Again and again, Jesus critiques the way things are. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”  But here comes a different vision: “But it is not so among you;…”  

In his book, Journey to the East, published in 1932, Hermann Hesse tells the story of a band of men on a mythical journey.  The central character is a man named Leo who accompanies the men as their servant.  He tends to their menial tasks and, when the work is done, sustains them with his spirit and his song.  We can imagine them sitting around the fire as the stars come out over the desert, with Leo strumming on his instrument. Everything goes well on the journey until Leo disappears. Without him, the men cannot function and the group falls apart. 

Years later the narrator of the journey finds Leo and is taken into the Order that had sponsored the mythical journey. Much to his amazement, he discovers that Leo, whom he had known as servant, is actually the head of the Order, a great and noble leader. Great leaders are great servants first. Long before Hesse wrote his story, Jesus gives the same lesson to the disciples: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”  

We can imagine such a teaching not sitting well with the disciples.  James and John have misunderstood what this Messiah is all about.  And most of us through the ages have as well.

Jesus treats the disciples gently, but one might imagine his frustration. It’s hard to change hearts and minds: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” he asks.  “We are able.” they say, not knowing what they are saying.  

Jesus doesn’t chide them for wanting greatness – but the greatness that Jesus wants for them comes not from being served – but from serving – just as Jesus did when he healed and fed the people. Greatness in Jesus’ kingdom has to do with sharing a way of life that embraces sacrifice, generosity, and love as the way. Greatness in Jesus’ kingdom has to do with loving God and one’s neighbor as oneself, the heart of his ministry. 

I often listen to books on CDs in my commute back and forth from the Cape to Foster. And I’ve just finished listening to “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman, which was on the NYTimes Best Seller list for 18 months. Ove is a crotchety old guy whose wife had died 6 months before, and he misses her so much that he’s decided he wants to die, too. Nothing to live for. So he plans his demise – by hanging, by asphyxiation in the garage, by throwing himself in front of a train, by shooting himself.

Each time, something happens that interrupts him – a neighbor needs a ride to the hospital, a commuter on the platform has a seizure and falls on the tracks and needs to be rescued, a boy is kicked out of his home because he is gay and has no place to stay in the dead of winter, an old friend is being forced into a home because of Alzheimer’s.

Gradually, Ove finds his way back into a meaningful life again as he serves others. He loves in his own way, although he complains mightily about everyone – Can’t a man find some peace, even die in peace? – and he gradually is loved by those around him. Against his will, Ove loves his neighbors and cares for them in small ways and in simple ways. He’s not a religious man; he and his wife spent Sundays in a Café, not in a church, reading the newspaper, not the Bible. But to his community he becomes great, because he is a servant to all, and through his servanthood, he finds himself, he saves himself.

We think great people need to be famous. We can name them Gandhi, a Hindu but a close follower of Jesus, brought freedom to India through a leadership of nonviolence, humility and service.  And there is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who led this nation in the Civil Rights struggle in the 1960s.  And Nelson Mandela in South Africa. And Mother Teresa and Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt. Who would be on your list?

But we don’t have to be famous to be great. Just plain folks like us – teachers, doctors and nurses and medical technicians, small business owners, social service workers, and public leaders who have taken positions to serve – not their own interests – but the public good. What about all those frontline workers during the pandemic –   hospital workers, teachers, grocery clerks, police and fire, and so many more.  You and I can be great when we serve others. We can be servant leaders, like Leo.

We can listen to each other, understand what we all long for. We can help us envision a preferred future for everyone and persuade people to move toward it.  Like Leo, we can sustain each other with our spirit and our song.  The Chinese Tao Te Ching captures this idea in this familiar saying, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists….”  And the people “will say: We did it ourselves.”

Servant leaders are on a journey toward wholeness – holiness – and are willing to serve as well as to be served.  This is the kind of leader we all are called to be in our homes, and in our schools, and in our churches, and in our workplaces, and in our governments. This is the kind of leader I’m always looking for and trying to be. I ask myself:  Who will put the common good first, not special interests?  Who will build bridges between constituencies?  Who will be the best servant?  Perhaps you and I can instill some stability in our communities that are so divided and fearful.  We can give our lives for the sake of others through serving them.

Through God’s grace, may it be so! 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

What Defines Us?

Mark 10:17-31

October 10, 2021

In Mark’s gospel, a “rich young ruler” comes and kneels before Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He has followed the commandments all his life, but something is still missing.  Obeying the rules is no substitute for a relationship with God.  He is wealthy, but his possessions are not satisfying.  Surely there is more to life than this.  And then Jesus looks at him, looks intently at him, sees him for who he really is, and Jesus loves him.

What was it that Jesus saw?  Was there an emptiness?  A deep-seated hunger?  Loneliness? 

Jesus knows the nature of his longing, and he offers a profound solution: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  Jesus holds out just what the young man longs for – a meaningful relationship with God, not simply a rote following of the commandments.  Jesus holds out a life worth living.  Will he take it?

But Jesus asked him to do the one thing he could not do – to give up all of his stuff.  Mark tells us that the young man “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  The rich young ruler had asked Jesus a big question – a profound question – and Jesus gives him a big answer – and a big choice.  The rich young ruler could go and sell and come back to Jesus – or he could go back to the life he had left, to business as usual.

Meanwhile, the disciples are dumbfounded!   They had left everything for Jesus – but they didn’t have much to lose:  a few fishing nets perhaps, a boat or two, some fishing buddies.   

In the ancient world wealth was an indication of God’s blessings; now Jesus is telling the young man to sell everything!  Even today, in our world, owning a McMansion in the right neighborhood, driving a classy car, or sending our children to the best schools, is taken as a sign that one has “made it,” that one is blessed, isn’t it? 

And money is playing havoc with our democracy where the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allows billionaires and their companies to buy ads … to sway public opinion … to control elections … to get the candidates that favor their financial positions.  As they say, money talks!

What is it about our stuff?  Jesus looked around and said to the disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  The disciples are perplexed, so Jesus paints a word picture for the disciples who have seen the gate in Jerusalem that is so narrow that a heavily-loaded camel cannot get through, even on its knees: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

So, how shall we, in the modern world, 2000 years later, understand this text?  If we sell everything we have and give it to the poor, then we become hungry and homeless, too,                         and we have too many people eating in soup kitchens and living in shelters and tents as it is. 

How would we clothe and educate our children?  And get to work?  Surely Jesus doesn’t expect us to sell all and give to the poor, does he? 

Is this an impossible demand?  Surely, it’s a simplistic one for the complex society in which we live!  Money makes the world go round!  John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement in England in the 1700s, knew this when he urged his followers to “Earn all you can, give all you can, save all you can.” 

But wait; maybe this text isn’t about money at all.  Jesus doesn’t criticize the man for having money, or say that the money is evil.  He loves the rich young man; he’s conscientious and devout and would be a real asset to any undertaking. Jesus invites him to join his inner circle of followers.  But Jesus knows that sometimes we are most afraid of, what we most need.  Will the young man accept the offer?  Or has Jesus asked too much?  What is it about our stuff?

Perhaps it’s not about the money but about whatever stands in the way of our discipleship.  For some of us, it may be money or possessions. For others, a title, or a position, or an attitude, or an achievement, or anger, or disappointment, or an unhealthy relationship – you name it! The rich young ruler’s entire life has been defined by wealth – and then Jesus comes along and challenges him to re-define himself.  

Jesus invites him to seek a new self-understanding, to imagine himself as a disciple.  But in order to do that, he must put money, and all his stuff, and all his relationships in their rightful place.  The young man must turn his whole world upside down.  How could he sell the new house he had just built?  Who would manage his businesses?  What would his employees do without their jobs?  So perhaps this passage is about whatever weighs us down, ties us up, prevents us from accepting Jesus’ invitation to discipleship. 

You’ve heard the story about the elderly woman who refused to move into assisted living because she had 10 rooms of furniture that wouldn’t fit in the small apartment, haven’t you?  What is it about our stuff?  Do we own it?  Or does it own us?It’s clear that our stuff is more than just stuff.  It’s our history, our identity, our security, our level of comfort. And it’s next to impossible to give it away, to change our self-image, to risk making changes, to try something new and scary. 

Many, many years ago, I attended a meeting in the home of a woman who had been told by her doctor that she had only months to live.  She invited us to look around and take anything we would like – a piece of furniture, a lamp, whatever.  She wasn’t going to need it much longer. 

Several years ago, I ran into her at a concert at Grace Church, in downtown Providence.  She looked great!  “Weren’t you dying?” I said!  The doctor was wrong. They misdiagnosed me.”  

She was certainly no worse for having given away her worldly possessions. She had discovered what really mattered – life itself! 

Jesus holds out a relationship with God.  We put up excuses.  Not now!  Maybe when I retire, I’ll think about being a disciple.  We hang onto our material stuff – and our emotional stuff – that holds us back. Well, we’d like to be disciples, but not now. Maybe later.

Discipleship is about letting go of anything and everything that clutters our lives and keeps us from finding the way to God’s door. And God wants all of us – not just a glimpse of us on Sunday, some Sundays, or a dollar bill in the offering plate, or our left-over time, if we have any.  Being a disciple doesn’t mean that we have to give up what we have – but that we give everything we haveto God, that we use who we are and what we have for God’s work in the world.

We can become disciples right where we are, doing what we are doing, but understanding and redefining our work as discipleship to the glory of God. We can create loving families that grow loving people, choose work to exercise our gifts and give us fullness of life, contribute to our community and tending to the least of these. We can use our intellect to speak truth to power and to work for justice.  And yes, we can spend our money wisely, and we can be generous with those who have not. 

What defines each of us as individuals and families?  What defines us as a congregation?  The Jesus who looked lovingly at the young man, and saw what he needed to do to have eternal life, holds out his hand to us and invites us to “come and follow.”

Let’s not keep him waiting!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Enfolding Love

Mark 10:2-16

October 3, 2021

The text in Mark’s gospel really contains two different matters – first, the question of whether or not a man could divorce his wife, and second, the place of children in God’s kingdom.  While these two scenarios may not seem to belong together, they both have to do with two classes of the most vulnerable people in the ancient world – women who are divorced and little children. Jesus treats these situations as an appeal to God’s mercy.  And it reminds us why we find so many references in the Bible to caring for widows and orphans.

First, women in the ancient world depended on the men in their lives – fathers and husbands and brothers – for the necessities of life and for protection in a patriarchal, violent world.  The Jewish code allowed a man to divorce his wife for any reason:  perhaps another woman had caught his eye, or he wanted a wife who could give him a son, or someone prettier to show off.  No matter what:  he could simply write out a certificate of dismissal, and out she went into the cold – homeless, vulnerable, destitute!

This text often has been used by churches to keep couples in unhappy unions, even in marriages that are abusive and dangerous. Too many women have been told by their pastors that they must suffer beatings and alcoholism and philanderers because Jesus says that, “…what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  And too many women believe it themselves and suffer shame if they find themselves divorced.  And some denominations won’t let divorced persons receive the sacraments or remarry in the church.  I’ve often done a wedding for a couple under such circumstances. 

At the same time, we know that many people treat their marriage vows too lightly. They walk down the aisle with more interest in the party about to begin than in the new relationship they have entered into for life.  Roughly 50 percent of all marriages these days end in divorce.  Divorce hurts everyone.

But the interpretation that divorce is always wrong comes from a superficial reading of the text and a misrepresentation of what Jesus was actually saying about relationships.  We know that the authorities were always trying to confront Jesus with questions that had no easy answers.  Mark says, “Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  How is Jesus going to respond to this, the latest trap?  Jesus will not be forced into a corner:  So, he gives them the legal answer – Yes, one may divorce his wife according to Moses’ law. Then, Jesus reframes the debate and gives them the pastoral answer – God’s intention is maintenance of the marriage bond, wholeness in relationships, mutual respect, and kindness of heart.

Some of us here this morning have been divorced, myself included.  I went into my marriage with the expectation that I would be married to my husband for life, that I would raise my children with him, that I would live out my days in that relationship.  In the movie “Moonstruck,” Loretta says, “How did I know that this man was a gift I couldn’t keep?”  I had grown up in a happy home, and I expected my marriage to be happy.  It was not, and I knew that I would need to end it for everyone’s sake. 

The children knew:  One night at dinner, Sarah when she was three, leaned over in her highchair and put her sticky little hand on my arm and said, “I know daddy doesn’t love you, Mommy, but I love you!”  It took me a few years, but what gave me both the courage and the rationale to do what needed to be done was a verse from Deuteronomy, “. . . I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live . . .” (30:19).

Yes, divorce is tragic – but surely not the worst evil in the world.  We remember that Jesus has said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  In the same way, he might have said, marriage brings love and joy and stability, but God does not mean for us to be trapped in a marriage that destroys us.   

The second part of this morning’s text is about little children being brought to Jesus for his blessing.  It’s hard for us, who are devoted to our children, to understand that in the ancient world, children were not important – except perhaps to their mothers.  They were really non-persons.  So the disciples try to shoo them away.

Here again, Jesus uses this situation as a teachable-moment to describe what the kingdom of God is like – where innocence and simplicity, trust and wonder say more about what God values than the political snares of the Pharisees.  “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”  The measure by which Jesus judges situations is the measure of love, not rigid law.

I am not suggesting here that we shouldn’t invest our best in our marriages, that divorce is the right answer in every situation.  I also believe that we should discipline our children, although, of course, with kindness. In fact, the gospel calls us to treat each other with kindness.  In the Christian community, we are called to hold each other in holy arms, and not only the members of this local church but the larger community, wherever the vulnerable, the least of these are found. 

And the gospel calls us to go further on this World Communion Sunday, not only to have our arms around each other, but around the whole world. We hear that expectation in Jesus’ response to the question about which commandment is the greatest.  You know the answer:  “You shall love … God . . . and your neighbor as yourself.” They are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

Who is our neighbor?  The one who is hurting, the one who is lonely, the one who is going through a divorce, the one who is homeless, the one who is hungry, the one who is in prison, the one who is not allowed to go to school, the one who is orphaned, the one trapped under debris, the one who has lost a loved one, the one wounded by a roadside bomb, the one whose village has been washed away, the one who lives in a refugee camp.

Jesus calls the church to be one body and to wrap our arms around the world.  We may not always agree; we may not always even like each other.  But on this Sunday, and every Sunday, we come together as one family to eat the bread and drink the wine and to remember what unites us – and who calls us. 

We are not called to be perfect; we are called to be a family in the best sense of that word, to wrap our arms around each other – and all those in the larger family that is Mount Vernon Larger Parish and beyond, and to hold on tight!

May it be so. 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Whoever Welcomes One . . . Welcomes Me

Mark 9:30-37

September 26, 2021

Another Sunday, another hard teaching from Jesus.  Last week, the scripture was about losing one’s life in order to save one’s life. And now this, about being last in order to be first!  Who can understand this Jesus!  The gospel-writer Mark is trying to help his community understand who Jesus is and what that means for them and their lives in the first century.  And we’d like to know, too, in the 21st century! 

This morning I’d like to reflect on the second part of the lesson, the argument the disciples had on the road about who was the greatest.  In Mark’s story, the disciples have absorbed the values of the culture around them, the competition for power, wealth, and prestige – those worldly values, then and now. But we know that our Jesus is an upside-down hospitality kind of a guy, a Messiah who turns the world upside down – who preaches God’s values. Who cares for the least of these – the poor, the sick, the hungry and homeless, the immigrant, the prisoners, those lowest on the social pyramid.

In Bible Study we would be using this story to address an issue about Jews and Gentiles and opening up the Jesus Movement to newcomers.  It’s an important issue for our time, too, as we consider the plight of the Afghans and the Haitians, lives in peril, both trying to enter the U.S., although for different reasons.

This morning, however, I’d like to bring the issue closer to home and think about what being welcoming means for us as a church – not so much around justice issues as around membership and participation in churches in general – as we emerge from the pandemic.

We had a wonderful example of what welcoming means last weekend with the Concert in the Valley, so I’d like to just make what we did explicit so we can do it again, and again – with, for example with the Haiti fundraiser the end of October and Rice City’s havest event in November.

Moosup Valley is one of the most welcoming churches I’ve ever seen, so my reflections come as a way of broadening the discussion and giving us something to think about  as we move together as pastor and people.  We say, “No matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” But what does that mean as a practical matter?  We’ve had new people come on a regular basis, particularly because of Zoom.                                  We’ve doubled our attendance, and we want to keep it that way. 

So some general observations first about churches:  People come – and people go.  That’s the way it is in churches. Sometimes they’re just passing through on their way to somewhere else, not looking for a place to connect, and there’s no long-term expectation on either side. They’re just visiting.    

Other times we work hard to provide a warm welcome to bring people in the front door –                but completely overlook that we lose others out the back door.  Sometimes we don’t even notice until someone says,  “Whatever happened to so and so?  I haven’t seen them in months!” So retention is important – for those who are not just visiting. One of the ways we do this is by inviting new people to work with us on this or that until they get connected and invested in the life of the church. Keeping people has to do with friendship, meaningful work together, and of course, fun!

But sometimes people who are connected also disappear.  They move away to go to college and make new lives for themselves. Or they move away to be near family, like Laila and Clive, or for warmer, drier weather like Alicia and Rikki, or the drive gets to be too much if their health is declining. Often people drift away because they get interested in something else and then they’ve missed a Sunday or two, or three, and then they are too embarrassed to walk in – and so they don’t!

Churches are like families and our expectations are high for getting our needs met. I know what crosses people’s minds, such things as . . .  Do they appreciate that I went out of my way to volunteer?  Is my contribution acceptable?  Why didn’t anyone send me a card when I was sick?  Why hasn’t anyone been to visit me lately?  Or . . . I’ve been away from church for months; how come nobody called to ask if I’m all right?  That has happened to me, too, over the years, before I was a pastor!

When we come to church, we bring helpfulness and joyfulness and gratefulness –and a lot of trepidation – when we walk through the door, as well as unmet needs and wounds                                          from our families of origin; anger at life’s unfairness and grief for its losses.  If you were snubbed at the store, you’d shrug it off as someone’s poor manners, but if you were snubbed at church, you’d feel the insult and quip that, “They think they’re so holy and self-righteous!  And they call themselves Christians!” 

If you volunteered to sing in the civic chorale and they said, “Thank you, but we’re not accepting any more singers this year,” you’d say, “Well, maybe I’ll apply next year.”                            But if you volunteered to sing in the church choir or to help at the turkey supper and nobody called to tell you when rehearsal was or what time to show up with an apron on,                                                      you might feel unwanted and unworthy. And you’d likely walk away, feeling rejected. 

Churches are more to us than just another organization. We come, trailing life’s hopes and hurts, looking for a place to heal.  We come hoping to be seen and heard and valued.                               We come needing to be found and loved and saved.  Often, thank goodness, that happens in our churches!  Other times, our needs are not met. Yes, it’s true, sometimes we have unrealistic needs.  Sometimes our hurts may be overwhelming or inappropriate.  And sometimes, we’re just all sinners doing the best we can!  And people leave – and you know what?  We let them go without a fuss! 

This is the amazing thing!  Are we too wrapped up in ourselves?  Are we afraid of being rebuffed?  Are we glad to see them gone?  But we’re family, right?  Families may not always agree, but healthy families stick together and work things out. Let me put it this way: If your cat didn’t come home, you would be talking with the neighbors about coyote sightings and nailing up posters.  Or if your dog were lost, you would run ads in the local papers, and visit the animal shelters and check every cage with hope – and leave in tears in your eyes if your dog was not to be found.  And heaven knows, people are more precious than our pets!

People leave our churches all the time.  Some leave because they never connected. Some leave because they are angry or grieving.  Some leave because they don’t feel heard. Some leave because of theological or political differences.  And we let them go with barely a notice or a whimper. Somehow we have the mistaken idea that churches should be wonderful places of peace and harmony, where there is no disagreement and no unkind word is ever spoken. 

In Mark’s gospel lesson for today, Jesus hears the disciples arguing about who is the greatest, and he says to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Jesus was always turning the world upside down, making the “least of these” more important in God’s order of things than those who had power and status. And when we read the Apostle Paul‘s letters to the little house churches in the first century, we realize that much of what he writes has to do with resolving church fights – over personalities, over behaviors, over social and cultural issues, over responsibilities.

But being welcoming is more than a friendly hello; it’s reaching out to the Valley               and offering people who live nearby what we all want:  a place to bring our hopes and hurts, a place to heal from the wounds of life, a place where we can be seen and heard and valued, a place where we can be found and loved and saved – and where, all together, we work to bring God’s grace to the larger world, to reach out beyond ourselves.

Our scripture today reminds us that Jesus treasured everyone – especially the most vulnerable and powerless – and at one point or another, that’s every one of us, is it not

And Jesus calls for us to welcome them into our circle.  “Whoever welcomes one . . .  in my name . . .  welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me” . . . welcomes God. 

Let us reach out to those who might have drifted away over the years, and those who might have moved into the Valley over the years, and those who don’t think a church would want them anyway, and those who had a bad experience with a church years ago                        and vowed never to go back.  Let us reach out to those who need to know that God loves them – and show them that we do, too!  Let us begin today.

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Who Are You, Jesus?

Mark 8:27-38

September 19, 2021

For some time now Jesus and his disciples have been traveling all over Galilee and even into Gentile territories.  It’s been an amazing journey:  People have been healed and fed.  Stories have been told that have enlightened and confounded. Great crowds have gathered and miracles have been experienced.  Yes, it’s been an amazing journey.

Imagine what it must have been like to be a disciple – in love with Jesus, enthralled by Jesus, confused by Jesus, frustrated by Jesus, trying to understand what this rabbi-prophet man is all about.  They had left everything to follow him; he is their hope for any kind of a future.  Imagine the conversations on the road during the day and the whispering around the campfire at night.  Proud to be his disciples – but unsure of what will come next.  And waiting patiently for him to show Rome a thing or two.  Waiting for him to overthrow the oppressors.  Who are you, Jesus?     

Jesus brings the question to a head:  “Who do people say that I am?”  They respond with the usual suspects – John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets . . ..  Then Jesus brings the question home:  “But who do you say that I am?”  They can no longer drift along, wondering the same thing.  Time to declare themselves – what they have suspected, hoped for, all along – that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. 

Peter admits it.  Jesus doesn’t deny it.  This must have been a high moment for the Jesus movement, filled with possibilities for a glorious future:  someone in King David’s line is coming into power.  But then Jesus begins to teach his disciples what being the Messiah really means, what the “glorious future” looks like.  But suffering and death is not what Peter had in mind.  Naming the Messiah is one thing.  Suffering with the Messiah is another. 

It’s our problem, too, is it not?  Picture Peter – big and burly – rebuking Jesus.  He expects a military Messiah to overthrow Roman rule and take back control of their land.  So Peter seizes Jesus and rebukes him – literally, turns him around, confronts him forcefully, with the intent of changing his mind.  We can picture Peter grabbing Jesus by the shoulders and trying to shake some sense into him!  What are you thinking, man?  No! No! No!

It is inconceivable to Peter that Jesus should be humiliated and killed.  In all this time, he has not understood what this Jesus is all about. Now it’s Jesus’ turn to rebuke Peter, and he does so with passion:  “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  What is Jesus feeling?  Misunderstood?  All alone?  Temptation to walk away from his mission?  A powerful passage, a turning point. Jesus knows where he is going – to Jerusalem and certain, painful death.  For Jesus, so in love with life, there must be grief in this realization!

And so he gathers the crowd together with his disciples and clarifies not only what it means to be a Messiah – but also what it means to be adisciple: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Is he opening up the ranks of the disciples to any and all who choose to follow?  He must be frustrated with Peter, preparing for vacancies in the tight knit group.  Then Jesus goes even further.  He names the risks involved – and the rewards: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

“Follow me,” Jesus says.  An invitation to be a disciple. Can we assume that we’re disciples – you and I are disciples – because we’re sitting here on these deacons’ benches, participating on Zoom?  Coming to church is a good thing to do.  I’m glad we’re all here.  Worship lifts us up, takes us out of ourselves, connects us with a divine reality beyond ourselves, points us toward and supports us in discipleship.  In fact, worship is the way we love God back. But, is it enough?

Can we assume we’re disciples because we call ourselves Christians?  Wear crosses around our necks?  Listen to Christian music?  Does doing these things make us disciples?  Naming Jesus as our Savior is a good thing to do:  It provides us with a moral compass in a confusing world of good and evil, helps us identify life-giving and life-destroying choices.

And reading the scriptures and spending time in prayer are good things to do, too.  These activities connect us with the Spirit, build our understanding of God’s world and our place in it, and give us an anchor in a crisis.  Don’t stop doing these things!  They are good things to do, important steps to discipleship. But know this: Jesus didn’t ask us to do these things, any of these thing!  And Jesus didn’t ask us to worship him, to believe certain teachings about him, to recite creeds set forth by our churches.    

What Jesus asked us to do was to follow him.  Jesus asks us to travel with him on an amazing journey.  Jesus asks us to help him feed the hungry and heal the sick and clothe the naked and visit the lonely and set the prisoners free.  He asks us to raise up the children and teach the adults in the ways of wisdom. He asks us to reach out to the poor and to put right systems in place and to restore the world to righteousness – tikkun olam, to repair the world, our Jewish friends and neighbors would say as they celebrated Yom Kippur this week, their Day of Atonement.

Jesus asks us to get behind him, to assume our rightful place as his followers, to be disciples, to be learners, and he will be in our midst – leading, challenging, and blessing us – and saving our lives.

May it be so! 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Unlocking Grace

Mark 7:24-37

September 12, 2021

This morning we have two stories about secrecy, about things hidden, about that which is locked being opened.  The stories take place in pagan country:  the first in the region of Tyre and the second near the Decapolis.  Both of the stories, then, are about Jesus and Gentiles, foreigners, not Jews.  The first story is about a Syrophoenician woman with three strikes against her:  She is a Gentile, an outsider.  She is a woman, and, therefore, a second class person.  And, third, she harbors a demon who has possessed her little girl, a sign, in ancient times, of God’s punishment.  

But she had heard about this Jesus, and here she comes, this wealthy woman – desperate – walking right up to this scruffy itinerant rabbi, and kneeling at his feet.  We know this kind of desperation!  And Jesus doesn’t want to hear it, at least not at first.  He’s on vacation, of sorts, and he’s turned off his cell phone, shut down his laptop, told his disciples to cancel his appointments.  His response seems out of character: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he tells her – for that is what Jews called Gentiles, “dogs.” 

We listeners in the 21st century expect Jesus to embrace everyone and are shocked and offended that our loving Jesus is being so rude!  On the other hand, Jesus’ followers in the 1st century are shocked that he does heal her!  Cultural norms and expectations change over generations.  And these early Christian forebears of ours were having a hard time making the transition from a proscribed law watered down to “shall” and “shall nots” – think the Ten Commandments – to the heart of the law of compassion and love.

This Syrophoenician mother will not be put off.  She is desperate to save her little girl from whatever demon has hold of her – perhaps epilepsy, or schizophrenia – so she is bold enough, and quick enough, to talk back to Jesus: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  She accepts his priority that he is here for the children of Israel, yet she wants a few of the crumbs for her child from the banquet that is Jesus’ himself, so she challenges him. 

And then our loving Jesus is back in character.  Jesus’ earlier prejudice was very human – yes, he was called to reform Judaism, to save Jews, not Gentiles – but his insight soon becomes divine.  His mission will no longer be restricted to the Jews. What opened Jesus’ eyes in this story?  Perhaps the woman’s honesty about the resident evil that lurks in her home in the very flesh and blood of her daughter.  She might have been hiding her from the neighbors, but she is quick to share this family secret shame with Jesus. And in her humility, she puts aside all the social protocols, bows down to a stranger, and admits she is powerless. 

Certainly, her sure faith that this rabbi can heal her little girl, if he chooses, must be transformative for Jesus.  It’s not that long ago since his own home town turned against him – and yet this foreign woman embraces him!  Jesus instantly understands about “crumbs” and “abundance.”  The woman has honesty, humility, and faith, and all these graces have unlocked God’s grace.  Instead of scolding her, Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go … the demon has left your daughter.”  God’s love, we learn, expands beyond all barriers and man-made boxes.

The second story also is about an outsider, a man who is deaf and unable to speak.  An outcast, and a disabled one at that, living on the margins of society, perhaps as a beggar.  No disability pension for him in ancient times!  But for some reason, the friends have taken up his cause, and they bring him to Jesus, begging Jesus to heal him.  Or perhaps they want to see this Jesus “do his stuff,” see for themselves the rumors.

Jesus is moved to respond but doesn’t want the crowd’s attention, so he takes the man aside, to a private place.  And there he does what healers did in the days before modern medicine, he uses his spittle to open up the man’s ears and release his tongue.  Mark makes clear for his readers that the healing comes from God by reporting that Jesus looks up to heaven when he commands, “Be opened.”  Jesus is no ordinary healer; he has God’s ear, and he invites the very grace of God to bring this man back to the fold.  With his hearing restored, the man’s life is now restored, and he is an outcast no longer.  Jesus not only healed him physically but he also healed him socially.

When compiling his Gospel, Mark had lots of stories he could choose from.  But he chose these two and put them side by side.  He was writing to a growing community of Christians about 40 years after Jesus’ death.  And Mark is seeking, among other things, to confront attitudes and to instill values in his fledging Christian community that is embracing Gentiles as well as Jews. 

And these stories serve to confront attitudes and instill values in us as well!  What do these stories mean to us?  What is being revealed to us?  Here are some possible “take aways.” 

  • All people of faith are worthy of God’s love – whether they are Jews or Gentiles, Christians or Muslims, Sikhs or Buddhists.  God’s love is not confined to one religious group.
  • In God’s kingdom, there are no outcasts.  One may be an immigrant, a homeless person, a drug addict, blind or deaf, mentally ill or disabled, but he/she belongs to God, part of God’s family.
  • Persons who are healed do not approach Jesus alone.  We are called to advocate for others.
  • Honesty is the best policy.  The foreign woman is honest about the evil in her daughter which makes it possible for Jesus to heal her. 
  • Abundance is meant to be shared.  Jesus can’t keep God’s love just for the Jews.
  • Faithfulness means confronting attitudes.  Jesus had to change his attitude about his ministry; the woman had to change hers to ask for help; the deaf man’s family had to confront society’s attitudes by bringing him out of the closet.
  • We are meant to share the glimpses of God’s love and truth with others.

May it be so!  Amen.

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Mossup Valley Church UCC

Doers of the Word

James 1:17-27

September 5, 2021

The letter of James was written relatively late as the Biblical letters go, probably about 30 years after Jesus was crucified, and directed primarily to Jewish Christians who were dispersed across the known world.  The letter weaves together two strands of thought:  Greek cosmology – a Greek view of God and the universe in which God is referred to as the Father of lights – with a Jewish view of the law, the teachings of the Torah, which include the law to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and might in Deuteronomy 6:5, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself, in Leviticus 19:18.

About some things, James agrees with the Apostle Paul, who had written earlier.  Both see faith primarily as trust in God, and both agree that faith should produce a response in one’s life, both personal and communal, that is, faith should bring about a change in a person or a church, in the way they live in the world.  It’s less clear that they agree on other things, such as the relationship of faith and works. Paul teaches that justification was “by faith, apart from works,” while James stresses that “religion that is pure … is to care for [the vulnerable].” James’ letter is a general letter, written to the church at-large and not to any one particular church, like the Corinthians, for example.  And it was circulated by missionaries and read widely, apparently because it struck a common cord. This letter was an important resource for the church.

The early churches were rife with conflict due to the diversity of their membership – Greeks and Jews, men and women, slaves and free, people from all walks of life and religious backgrounds.  So the members of these little house churches had to learn how to get along with each other and adapt to different cultures.  And at the same time as they were figuring out how to live and work together, they had to figure out what they believed as they integrated the life-changing message of Jesus the Jewish Messiah into the Greek and Roman world view.  It’s amazing that the church survived and didn’t die out in the first century – long before it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. 

Now, James was a keen observer of human nature and what makes for community.  He knows how important words are and that personal morality – practices such as guarding one’s tongue, checking one’s anger, learning to listen – makes for healthy communication. And the letter indicates that he paid close attention to details of everyday living – generous acts of kindness, gestures and words that build each other up – creating what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called the “beloved community.”

And, finally, James urges his listeners to be responsible for their behavior – not just for the ideas they hold, what they think.  No, for James, hearing the Word, the story about Jesus, is not enough.  One has to do the Word by showing mercy, striving for peace, helping the needy, loving their neighbors, and recognizing matters of social justice.  Actions speak louder than words, James says. 

In one of the commentaries, I discovered an old sermon that illustrates his point:  Legend has it that a Christian believer who had been lost at sea washed up on the shore of a remote native village.  Half-dead from starvation, exposure and sea water, he was discovered unconscious by the people of the village and was slowly nursed back to full health.  He lived thereafter among the people for some 20 years. 

During his time with them, he lived out his Christian faith. However, he uttered no sacred songs. He preached no pietistic sermons. He neither read nor recited Scripture in public. He made no personal faith claims whatsoever — except by his actions.  When people were sick, he visited them, sitting long hours into the night.  When people were hungry, he gave them of his own food.  When people were lonely, he kept them company.  He taught the children. He always took sides with those who had been wronged.  There were few, if any, human conditions with which he didn’t identify. After 20 years passed, missionaries came from the sea to the village and began talking to the people about a man called “the Christ.”  After hearing of this “Jesus,” the natives insisted that he’d been living among them for the past 20 years.         “Come,” they demanded, “we’ll introduce you to the man about whom you’ve been speaking!”

So James, the writer of this open letter to the little house churches cropping up all across the known world, urges his listeners to be the church by doing the Word, not just hearing the Word, but by doing the Word, living their lives in the Way of Jesus – loving God and loving their neighbors. The little house churches that sprang up in the decades after Jesus walked this earth were founded in troubled and troubling times – not unlike the times we are living in today – political turmoil, wars, poverty, mass migration, violence, persecution, hunger, growing disparity between the rich and the poor.  It’s amazing, isn’t it, that they not only survived, but thrived? 

Perhaps we can give some credit to James and his letter for urging his listeners in that first century to be “doers of the Word and not hearers only.” And may the same be said of us as well, in our troubled and troubling time, that we were “doers of the Word” in this, the 21st century, that we may not only survive but thrive and become a strong current that helps to transform the world.

May it be so! 

Amen.

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At Home with God

Psalm 8

August 22, 2021

“When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” Psalm 8:3-5, a psalm of David. 

Imagine David the Shepherd Boy, in the high pasture, keeping watch over his sheep under those stars.  How vast and mysterious the universe must have seemed.  And now King David, remembering, in his ascent into Jerusalem – a physical climb, yes, but also a spiritual one.  And knowing that God cares for each and every one of us.

I have always loved this Psalm, Psalm 8, ever since church camp when we would gather round a storyteller who would make the constellations come alive.  And when I am at my family’s cottage in New Hampshire, I put down my book and go out on the beach, beyond the pines, where I can see the sky and make out the Big and Little Dippers and Cassiopeia’s Chair, and locate the North Star, a before-bed ritual. Perhaps you saw some meteors earlier in August during the Perseid 2021 shower.  I was on the beach at 3:30 in the morning. It is then that I pray in the vastness of the universe with an occasional grrrrrrump from a frog, the sound of night insects, and the occasional call of a loon.

Christianity made it to the British Isles very soon after Pentecost.  When Pope Gregory sent Augustine to Britain to convert the heathen in the late 6th century, he was met by a well-established church – at least for that day so far from the world’s centers of power – which did not take kindly to demands by Rome.  So Christianity in the Celtic lands developed somewhat on its own, and it holds that God is equally present in scripture and in nature. 

We share that truth with other religions, too.  My colleague, the Swami, a Hindu, at the Vedanta Society in Providence, has as his tag line on his email,  “May we feel the whole world to be our Holy Mother.”  And so this morning I will share a few of my favorite poems that celebrate the spiritual in the natural world, and in between the poems we will sing a verse or two of hymns that celebrate God’s presence in nature.  

How can we not, after hearing these words, “When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers,” break out singing “How Great Thou Art?” 

                  O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder,

                  Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made;

                   I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,

                  Thy power throughout the universe displayed. 

                  Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee, 

                  How great Thou art, How great Thou art,

                  Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee, 

                  How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

We have grown up thinking of “sanctuary” as a room in a church. But Mary Oliver reminds us that all the world is sanctuary because God is there.  Listen to her poem,

“Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?”

There are things you can’t reach.  But

you can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away.  The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily,

out of the water and back in ; the goldfinches sing

from the unreachable top of the tree.

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around

as though with your arms open.

And thinking: maybe something will come, some

shining coil of wind,

or a few leaves from any old tree—

they are all in this too.

And now I will tell you the truth.

Everything in the world

comes.

At least, closer.

And, cordially,

Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyed fish; the unlooping snake.

Like goldfinches, little dolls of gold

fluttering around the corner of the sky

Of God, the blue air.

Let us sing together “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

   All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small,
   all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.

            Each little flow’r that opens, each little bird that sings,
            God made their glowing colors, God made their tiny wings. Refrain

            God gave us eyes to see them, and lips that we might tell
            how great is God Almighty, who has made all things well. Refrain

Poet Wendell Berry finds a freedom from concern on the untamed banks of nature. 

In “The Peace of Wild Things” he writes,

“When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear

of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water,

and the great heron feeds. 

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. 

I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. 

For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

Anais Nin, a French-Cuban author, who published her journals spanning 60 years,

wrote,

                    “And the time came

when the risk to remain tight in a bud

was more painful

than the risk it took to blossom.”

Let us sing together “God Is My Shepherd,” the 23rd psalm:

                  God is my shepherd, I’ll not want, I feed in pastures green.

                   God grants me rest and bids me drink from waters calm and clean.

                  Through daily tasks, I’m blessed and led by One I have not seen.

Poets are always reminding us to pay attention.  The Persian poet Rumi who lived in the 13th century, wrote:

“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.  Don’t go back to sleep. 

You must ask for what you really want.  Don’t go back to sleep. 

People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.  Don’t go back to sleep.”

In “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver reminds us that the act of attention itself

is a form of prayer.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean –the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Summer is almost over.  Labor Day comes in two weeks.  Children are starting back to school this week in many communities.  UCC minister and poet Maren Tirabassi has written this Prayer with Elementary School Teachers that Robin will read for us.  It takes us back to where we started with the psalm:

When I look at the children,

I see that each one

is crowned with glory and honor,

and, while they are certainly

not angels, they are your very image.

I teach them to look

at the heavens—

the moon and the stars,

and I want to teach them

to reach their small fingers

for the stars, too. 

Can I teach them

how precious they are,

how sacred their caretaking

will be on earth and animals,

birds of the air,

forests and rivers,

and whatever passes

along the paths of the sea?

They come to me, each one

a tightly woven trinity,

of child’s body-mind,

parents’ influence, and a

waking wondering spirit. 

Empower me, O God,

to protect their bodies

and open their minds,

to be alert to the signs

of abuse and neglect,

to be aware of the stifling

of culture, the damage

of gender-bashing,

the fragility of family.

Empower me, O God,

even in the middle of

overcrowded classrooms,

shortage of crayons,

too-old textbooks,

out-of-tune pianos,

snow days,

chicken pox seasons,

mornings when the

gerbils die,

to whisper into each

free holy spirit

that out of the mouths

of such children as these

the word of the future,

the majestic, sovereign

naming of life itself

for all your creatures,

is crying out from the desks.

High summer is coming to a close.  The days are growing shorter, the nights are a little cooler, and the stars are a little brighter with the approach of autumn.  The psalmist invites us to look up and to look around and to find God in the world around us, in the beauty of nature.  “How majestic God’s name is in all the earth!”

Amen.

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Give Us Wisdom

I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

August 15, 2021

If you found a bottle on the beach this summer and popped the cork, and discovered a genie in the bottle, and the genie offered to grant you one wish, anything you wanted, what would you ask for? Fame?  Fortune?  The usual stuff? What request could make a genie smile?

Imagine that when young King Solomon asks God for wisdom, God’s ears must have perked up. Finally, someone had the gumption to ask for something beyond his own personal needs and wants, beyond his own comfort, for something that might serve God – the fulfillment of God’s desire for creation.

For some of these summer Sundays, we have been following the story of King David – David dancing before the ark as it is carried into Jerusalem, and David wanting to build a house for the ark.  In Bible Study, we read about David and Bathsheba, and how David used his power to dispose of her husband, Uriah the Hittite, so he could have her. David was a great King, but he was not without his faults.

And now David has died after forty years – I love the phrase “slept with the ancestors; it offers such a sense of continuity – and royal succession is firmly established as Solomon takes his place on the throne of his father. Solomon, young though he is, a “child” he says, is already proving to be a humble and righteous king.

And God comes to him in a dream to ask what God can give him.  And what does Solomon ask for?  Not for a new chariot or a faster horse or – something I imagine most teenagers would want – but something that every leader needs: the ability to govern with wisdom, to have insight and understanding, to discern between good and evil.

Commentator Julian DeShazier, writing for The Christian Century magazine, suggests that this is almost a perfect answer to the theological question, How do you make God smile? I imagine God rejoices when people ask not for their personal enhancement but for the greater good, that which fulfills God’s plan for creation.

I thought of this when the United Nations released its devastating Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on Monday.  Top climate scientists in the world, representing over 100 countries, released a new report that confirms what we already knew as storms increase in intensity, fires rage out of control in the American West and in Turkey and Greece, rainfalls exceed anything in our experience.  Climate change is here, and it’s exacerbated by human activity. That reality has been denied by the fossil fuel companies for decades, but now it’s irrefutable. We have to do something, and we have to do it soon!

The world must cut our greenhouse-gas emissions to stay below 1.5°C of warming. And even if we do that, some changes are not reversable. We will continue with heat and drought and fires, rising sea levels, and mass migrations. Disruptions and tragedy as our planet Earth becomes less habitable.

So I pray that the world’s leaders will seek wisdom. And I pray that we will take this seriously and make wise choices for the sake of our children and grandchildren. As I listened to this report while driving to New Hampshire, I vowed that my next car would be a hybrid.

Our UCC Minister for Environmental and Economic Justice, Emma Brewer-Wallin, wrote right away, sensing our distress: “Perhaps you, like me, have long been concerned about climate change, so you found this report simultaneously unsurprising and devastating. Perhaps you, like me, wanted to turn away, to keep your heart safe from bearing the awful truth that some climate degradation is already irreversible. Perhaps you, like me, heard God’s calling through the scientists’ voices, affirming that human communities – working together – can still make changes that are solely needed.”

What can we do? Emma suggests five things for churches:

  1. “Acknowledge our feelings of grief, guilt, and despair at the climate news, and be willing to talk about them, preach about them, pray about them.
  • “Remember that God calls us, as beloved community, to work together as co-creators of creation.
  • “Choose one small step to reduce our energy use or waste at a time, then celebrate that and move on to something else.  Carl, I think, is considering solar panels….
  • “Stay connected to other churches or organizations who are doing something to share ideas.  We could join the Green Congregation Challenge, for example.  
  • “Ask our elected officials to take the climate crises seriously.”

DeShazier notes that “throughout the Christian tradition the answer has been the same: we please God when we seek the ways of God. When we seek to live to a standard worthy of our divinity. When we seek justice, love mercy, go with humility; when we care for the stranger, widow, and orphan; when we offer hospitality to God’s beloved at the margins.” The story about King Solomon helps us add another: when we seek a discerning mind above all else, God is pleased with us.

Every time I asked Bob Salisbury what he wanted to pray for, it was always the same: peace. Bob thought big thoughts; he cared about more than his own wellbeing.  He cared about human community and God’s creation.

Wisdom is a major thread running throughout the Hebrew Bible. We find it in Proverbs 9, one of the other lectionary texts for today: “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. … “You that are simple, turn in here!” she calls.  We have watched a public health crisis be turned into a political football. Please let’s not let that happen to the climate crisis. And it might because big money buys influence and votes and spreads misinformation. We can’t leave this to the leaders alone; we have to work with them – and with each other!  What can the Foster Churches Association do with the town? I plan to put that on the agenda for our meeting next week.

The Proverbs passage continues, Wisdom calls to us: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of my wine I have mixed. “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (vs.1-6).

May it be so!

Amen.

A Place for Every Gift

Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16

August 8, 2021

In her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging, cancer doctor Rachel Remen tells a story about walking with her mother through the crowded streets of New York City when she was in the Third Grade. Rachel had just been put into a gifted class in school, and her teacher had told the students that, because they had been assigned to her class, it meant they were smarter than most of the people in the country.  And so Rachel told her mother, with an eight-year-old’s pride, that she was smarter than most of these people hurrying around them.  Her mother stopped walking immediately and knelt down so that she and Rachel were eye to eye. Rachel writes: 

As the crowd flowed past us on either side, she told me that every one of the people around

us had a secret wisdom; each of them knew something more about how to live, about being

happy, about loving than I did. I looked up at the people passing by. They were all adults.

“Is this because they are all grown-ups, Mama?” I asked her, taken aback. “No, darling. It

will always be that way.” She told me. “It is how things are.” I looked again at the crowd

moving around us. Suddenly I wanted to know them all, to learn from them, to be friends.

Rachel’s mother was teaching her that everyone has something to offer, that everyone has a gift that is needed by others, that we grow when we embrace difference, and that humility goes a long way.

This is what the Apostle Paul is trying to teach his community.  He’s writing to a little church that met in someone’s home in the Greek city of Ephesus. It was the beginning of an in-between time, a time after Jesus and long beforeChristianity, a period that lasted a couple of centuries.

Life was difficult in these little house churches that had been planted by missionaries like Paul in far-flung cities as they traveled across the empire. Jesus was a Jew and the first Christians were Jews. They observed Jewish dietary laws, observed the Sabbath, and circumcised their baby boys. Then along come these Gentile converts who are hungering for meaning, and these Christians seemed to be onto something.

So the question was, “Did they have to convert to Judaism first in order to be Christian?” Much of the New Testament is a struggle to answer that question, and unfortunately it has repercussions in antisemitism, even today. If the answer to that question is yes, then all the adult males must be circumcised, what they can eat must conform to ancient rules around food that kept the Israelites alive in the early days, and they must study the Torah.

And the Gentile Greeks and Romans had many gods. That’s what the Pantheon was, a display of them in their niches, a god for agriculture, a god for love, a god for everything. Just imagine the “culture shock” to go from many gods, to one!

People 2000 years ago weren’t so different from us today. When we read Paul’s letters, we find lots of dissension. There must have been challenges at meetings, angry exchanges at the village well, and difficult conversations in families about a women’s place in public.

So Paul – a Jew himself like Jesus – has to invent a new theology for a new time. It’s no wonder that he writes to the church in Rome, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Rom. 8). Those of us who have given birth can attest to the struggle to bring forth a new life. To step outside of our one experience is always difficult. I remember once in Divinity School I had written a paper – I don’t remember the class, maybe Black Theology? – and the professor said that it was a good paper but I hadn’t been able to step outside of my own experience. I don’t know what it was I couldn’t get beyond, but hopefully I’m a little older and wiser now.

We are all creatures of our own cultures, boxed in, in a way, and Paul seeks to build a bridge out of those boxes between the Jewish and Gentile members of these little churches he has started. And so he does three things:

First, he compares the church to the human body, each part different but all necessary to the functioning of the body, every organ as important as every other, every part “joined and knit together,” to promote the “the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” Some of us are hearts, and some of us are heads; some of us are helping hands, and some of us are strong voices, or eyes to see or ears to hear. Where would the body be without all of us? Everyone is needed, everyone has a vital role to play in the body’s health – regardless of one’s theology or pedigree or status in society. We would be in trouble if we were all alike.

Paul’s second idea is that the church must be led by the gifts that the Spirit has given to each person. Members came from different backgrounds and were accustomed to operating from their positions and roles in the households from which they came.  Some were used to being in charge by virtue of their birth or gender or the balance in their bank accounts, used to giving orders rather than taking them. But not so in the church. Here, division needs to be according to one’s gifts and graces. Some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ….”

Are you a good teacher? Then share your knowledge, even though you are a woman! Are you a good organizer? Then set up a ministry to widows, even though you are a tax collector for Rome.

Are you a good evangelist? Then speak to people in the marketplace, even though you are a servant in your day job. The meditation at the top of the bulletin this morning is Margaret Mead’s quote that Laurie has as the tag on her emails: “An ideal community is one in which there is a place for every human gift.” Perhaps my most important task as your pastor is to help each of you find and use your gifts in the world.

Paul’s third strategy is to enhance the quality of relationships in the church.    That’s what Pat and Carl were doing Friday night with the Whiner’s gathering at their house.  I heard stories.  For example, Robin and Ellen discovered their grandmothers had been friends, and they talked history. We all got to know each other better.  It’s only through listening to each other’s stories, sharing our experiences, that we learn and grow.

Paul’s vision looks a lot like an AA meeting: Humility in the midst of brokenness, gentleness toward one another; patience because we’ll be imperfect again; bearing one another in love.

Because the church was able to build relationships and meld cultures, it grew and thrived and became a force for compassion in the world.

What do people look for when they are coming to church?  Four things, I’m told:  Clarity of passion and identity, Acceptance and belonging, Making a difference, and Mystical encounters with the Holy. As we come back from the pandemic and rebuild for the future, let’s remember that and create a place where there is a place for every gift.  

Dr. Remen’s story ends long after she became an adult and had forgotten this lesson from her mother kneeling on the street in NY City.  She writes, years later, after college and medical school, and years of life experience:

After I became a physician, I had a dream that was so powerful that I remembered it even

though I did not understand it. In this dream, I am standing in the threshold of a door. I

seem to have been standing there a long time.  People are passing through the door. I

cannot see where they are going or where they have come from, but somehow this does not

seem to matter. I meet them one at a time in the doorway. As they pass through, they stop

and look into my face for a moment and hand me something, each one something different.

They say, “Here, here is something for you to keep.” And then they go on. I feel

enormously grateful.

Perhaps we are all standing in such a doorway. Some people pass through it on their way

to the rest of their lives, lives that we may never know or see.  Others pass through it to

their deaths and the Unknown. Everyone leaves something behind. When I awoke from

that dream, I had a sense of the value of every life.

I think that this is what Paul was trying to say.  Everyone is important and needed and has something to teach us, just as we have something to teach others.

May it be so! Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Practicing Love

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

August 1, 2021

How do you win a gold medal at the Olympics?  You practice!  How do you play at the Newport Music Festival?  You practice!  How do you become good at doing the crosswords?  You practice!  In his best-selling book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that people who are fabulously successful have almost always put in more than 10,000 hours of practice time in activities related to their success. 

What’s the key to success?  Did they do it on their own?  Gladwell wanted to uncover the secret to successful people – how intelligent they are, what kind of personalities they have, the special talents they’re born with.  He discovered that successful people don’t come from nothing:  They benefit from their parentage, when and where they grew up, their education, the opportunities that came their way.

So, the age-old question:  Are successful people born or made?  The truth is, they’re both.  They are the product of timing, talent, and tenacity, but timing and talent are meaningless without tenacity – without practice.  We’ve heard it said, “Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.”  And so it is.  Practice is what undergirds success. Was it the cellist, Yo-Yo Mar, or the trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis,  who said, “When the other boys were out playing ball, I was inside practicing!” 

What about the followers of the Way of Jesus?  How do we get to be successful at loving? We come to church and settle ourselves down on our deacons’ benches and pews, and we assume we’re saved – whatever you think that means.  We have been baptized, after all, and that’s the end of the journey – or so we think.  Well, apparently not, according to the Apostle Paul.  Baptism is the beginning of the journey, not the end, he says to the Ephesians.  Even Christians need to practice at being Christian, being loving, even if we might not feel like it at the time.

The early church in the Greek city of Ephesus is filled with new Christians, both Jews and Greeks.  They have been baptized like us, that is they have “put on Christ,” as we have. They are members of the body of Christ.  But they are anything but Christ-like.  “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice….” Paul writes, of their behavior.

The early house churches were troubled places because they brought together men and women, slaves and free, from so many different walks of life, and so many different ethnic and faith groups who had different ideas about authority and participation.          Church fights are as old as the church.

Paul tries to intervene by urging them to be “…kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  Lying, spreading false information and deceiving each other has created a cloud of suspicion and secrecy in their church, and so he urges them to “speak the truth” to each other, because truth-telling is necessary for trust, the foundation upon which all community is built. 

Members are angry at each other, and so he warns about a simmering resentment which endangers the stability of community.  He chastises them for loose and evil talk, often the norm in our communities, and in our families, as well as in our society as a whole.  Just listen to the hate spewing from talk shows and watch political candidates’ TV ads with their half-true sound bites. Facebook employees hired to screen content don’t last long because of the graphics and the violence portrayed – beheadings for example.

Like any fledging organization – and the early church is fledging — and the Ephesians are vulnerable to the damaging effects of discord.  What do they need to do?  Paul gives them a check-list:  First, they need to practice telling the truth to one another, and after 10,000 hours of doing so, you’ll have a healthy community.  And practice dealing honestly with anger, and after 10,000 hours, you’ll have a greater sense of self-control and be more forgiving – which will lead to restoration of community.  Also, practice seeing your work not as just a paycheck but also as an opportunity to serve those in need. And, especially, practice making your speech more kind, so that your words build others up rather than tearing them down, saying nothing, Paul says, but “words that give grace to those who hear.”  Practice that for 10,000 hours, which equals 416 days, more than a year.

Paul warns about grieving the Holy Spirit, which is another way of saying we violate our baptism and our role of building up the community in holiness.  Our conduct and thoughts should reflect the Spirit’s mark on us, the Spirit’s presence in our lives.  All these things make for peace in a family, in the workplace, in a congregation, in a country. 

It takes practice to be loving. “Jesus spent 30 years or so practicing on his own before he launched his public ministry of healing and teaching and saving, which is far more than 10,000 hours.  Practice may not make us perfect, but it will certainly make us better and more authentic followers of the Way of Jesus.  

And what about practicing love in the age of the internet?  Paul did not do a good job of anticipating Facebook and Twitter.  All his advice is given to people who are looking each other in the eye. What would he say about how to engage in an electronic relationship with thousands upon thousands of people we will never meet in person?  We do know that Paul urged his little house churches to “speak the truth in love.” And that love is always patient, kind, understanding— and not a smackdown or belittling.  But it’s not easy being loving online with people you don’t know and who may be out to do you harm.

“Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” Paul says, but anyone who’s ever been engaged in a heated conversation online knows that sometimes sleeping on it is a way better strategy than responding with a snarky comment. Paul did not do a good job of anticipating ethics in the age of the Internet, but we can practice being loving in new and different situations.  And often we have to figure out how to be loving in new circumstances and new environments and with new and different people like Paul did, writing to the church in Ephesus.

Sometimes we have to learn how to be loving and we have to practice being loving because it may not always come easy in an unpredictable and tragic and polarized world.  But this is our journey of faith.

May it be so for us! 

Amen.

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Will There Be Enough?

John 6:1-21

July 25, 2021

Many years ago I was taking care of my grandchildren.  It was early morning, and Alden was helping himself to a bowl of cereal. Although a box of Captain Crunch was already open,           Alden opened a new box.  I asked him why he hadn’t started with the open box before opening another, and he looked up at me – standing in his PJs, hair all mussed up, eyes wide in innocence, and said, “I was afraid there wouldn’t be enough!”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Alden had hit the nail on the head – the root of all the problems in the world. “I was afraid there wouldn’t be enough!” There won’t be enough for me, we think, and so we take what we can, even more than we need, to be sure that we have enough. Perhaps three-year-old Alden had hit upon the root of greed, at least a lot of it, I think. We are afraid there won’t be enough, and so we take all that we can to be keep ourselves safe. We do it as individuals and as families and as nations. To make sure we have enough. Enough money, enough oil. Enough food and water. Enough toilet paper, just in case.  Enough of the earth’s resources, so we don’t have to worry about running out.

Today’s story of Jesus’s feeding the multitudes is told in all four gospels – a miracle in itself, and an indication that this was an important story in the early church when resources were limited and the mouths were many – all those widows and orphans that Jesus had taught should be provided for, the vulnerable, the poor.

Like in many of our communities today: In Memphis, First Congregational Church has set up a community refrigerator outside their door for hungry families. Anyone can put something in, and anyone can take something out.  Volunteers oversee the program.  In the richest country in the world, some of our neighbors are hungry. It’s not a new problem.

Dorothy Day, a Catholic lay woman, who helped the poor and homeless a half century ago, wrote:

          “How many times, all though my life, have I surveyed these tables full of people and

wondered if the bread would go around; how many times have I noticed how one heaps

his plate and the last one served has little, how one wastes his food and so deprives his

brother. German George grumbles as he brings out more sticks of margarine, and refills

bread places, coffeepots, sugar bowls.

“Where does it all go? Where do all the people come from? How will it all be paid for? But the miracle is that it does get paid for, sooner or later. The miracle is, also, that seldom do more people come than we can feed.

Will there be enough?  It was a problem for the disciples. Too many people in Palestine were hungry. The Roman occupation bore down hard on the common people, sucking up resources in the form of taxes for Caesar’s building campaign on the Mediterranean.

And so, when they hear this rabbi-turned-miracle-worker is in the area, thousands come to see for themselves. And they are famished for justice and mercy. There were no picnic baskets, coolers or fried clam shacks on the beach.  The disciples are unprepared and unnerved. But one little boy had brought his lunch – 5 barley loaves and 2 fish – and he is willing to share with Jesus. 

Jesus breaks the bread and shares it with the crowd.  And there is enough for everyone and – amazingly – some left over.  Jesus feeds their hunger – and now he is in real trouble!  They have heard stories about his healings, about his bringing the dead back to life, about his concern for the common people.  The people-turned-mob press forward: Jesus is the king they have been looking for!  This is the messiah that will put down the Romans and restore Israel.  All their worldly troubles will melt away in his presence!  Or so they think! 

You and I may not be hungry for food, per se, but we may have other hungers and afraid we may not have enough – financial security, a satisfying job, a happy marriage, a picture-perfect family, the best of health, you fill in the blank.  We busy and harried people have a tendency to look for quick solutions, immediate gratification.  And we consume more and more “stuff” – to feed our hungers. 

What are we really hungry for?  When I was the volunteer chaplain at the Women’s Center of Rhode Island, the staff had posted a sign on the refrigerator, “HALT.”  Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?  If you are hungry, help yourself to a snack.  But if you are angry, lonely, or tired, food is not what you are hungry for!  We might add fear to that list.

It’s easy for us to misunderstand John’s story about the feeding of the multitudes.  We get caught up in analyzing the miracle:  How did he do it? we wonder.  Perhaps when the boy shared his lunch, everyone else did as well – potluck on the hillside – and there was enough hidden under everyone’s cloak to feed 5,000.  Maybe so.

But when we try to explain the miracle, we miss the real miracle.  Homiletics magazine proposes that, “Jesus didn’t come to help people get what they want.  No, he came to be what we want. He didn’t come to be a sort of “short-order savior,” there to simply crank out whatever it is that will satisfy our earthly needs.  He came to be the food that we feast on.”[1]

If we want Jesus to solve all our problems, we’ve got the wrong Jesus. “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” Jesus says later in John’s gospel (6: 35).  Jesus is the bread of life.  When we follow Jesus, no matter what happens to us, we will never be empty, we will never be hungry!  We will always have enough, plenty – and with leftovers – to share with those who are physically hungry, here at home and abroad, and the willingness to do so!

What if we trusted that?  What if we trusted God … the universe …the Source … the Force … and we didn’t take more than we needed for ourselves?  What if we left something for those who have little?  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:6).  Those who are in a “right relationship” with God.  But the miracle about feeding the 5,000 is less about generosity than it is about the power of God to care for our needs.

What are we hungry for?  In our materialistic society, we are not only hungry but starving for God, for meaning, for a taste of the divine, for a spiritual meal.  Why else would books on spirituality fly off the shelves in record numbers?  Scripture gives us a promise: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” Jesus says, according to Luke (6:21). 

This is the promise:  God in Jesus comes to us in powerful ways to give us what we need – food, faith, grace, salvation, abundance to overflowing – and God’s abiding presence.

All this should be more than enough!

May it be so! 

Amen.


[1] Ibid, page 28.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Building Plans

2 Samuel 7:1-14a

July 18, 2021

Last Sunday’s story was about King David bringing the Ark, a wooden crate signifying the presence of God, up to Jerusalem and installing it in a new tent in the city. Today’s story is about David’s feeling badly that he, the King, lives in a house while God lives in a tent. And he wants to rectify that situation.

But, is God in the market for a house . . .?  King David seems to think so. David has moved into Jerusalem, settled down in a new house.  But – where is the ark?  It’s still in a tent!  So David decides he wants to build a house for God – but God says “no!”  Instead, God will build a house for David.  Are you confused yet?  Who will build a house for whom?

What we have here is a play on words:  The Hebrew word “báyit” is used 15 times in this chapter.  “Báyit” can be translated house – or palace, temple, dynasty, nation.  Our New RSV translates them all as “house.”  When we understand the Hebrew words, we realize that David wants to build a house, i.e., a temple, for God. God wants to build a dynasty for David.  (Remember the Christmas scriptures that “Jesus is of the house and lineage of David”?) 

Is God in the market for a cedar house, like David’s?  No!  It appears that God is quite content to live in a tent – God likes being mobile!  “I have been with you wherever you went . . . ,” we read in today’s text.  Yes, God is in the market for a house, but not a building; God is interested in a different kind of house

We often refer to the church as “a house of God” but the Greek word for church, ekklesia, means “assembly of the people” of God, not the building.  In Sunday School, you may have sung, “The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.” 

Our buildings have value; they are a resource for the community, yes, but I don’t think God cares about the building for itself.  God doesn’t want to be tied down to a piece of real estate. And God doesn’t want to be confined, locked in by four walls, kept in a box anymore.

We go to church, we say, to find God, and, yes, God is there/here. But God also is at the hospital beside the nurse in ICU, at Stop & Shop with the clerk whose back hurts from standing, in the apartment with the elderly woman who doesn’t have A/C during the heat wave. And God is sitting around the table with climate scientists, and rushing the family out of the house in front of the wildfire, and searching the rubble in Miami. God is everywhere – everywhere we are and everywhere else God is needed – whether we think of it as sacred space, or not.  

So then, what kind of a “house” is God looking for? 

God is looking for hearts — your heart and my heart!  So the real question is not what kind of a building God is looking for but what kind of a heart God is looking for.  In what kind of a heart will God will feel at home?

From our scriptures, we know God is looking for a big heart, lots of them.  It will take big, old, fat, merciful, compassionate hearts to help this broken-hearted world of ours.  “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.” we sing.  Jesus was all about compassion – with his feeding and healing and encouraging us to love our neighbors as ourselves, wasn’t he?  And this story in the Gospel of Matthew, “When did we see you hungry and thirsty and give you food and drink” is pretty clear when Jesus says, “When you did it to the least of these you did it to me.”

And we know that God is in the market for just hearts, lots of them, to overcome oppression and to set this world aright.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus says right up front at the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Luke, “to preach good news to the poor, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free,” he reads from Isaiah.  “O for a world where everyone respects each other’s ways, where love is lived and all is done with justice and with praise,” is another hymn we sing.

And we also know God is in the market for peaceful hearts, lots of them, not only hearts like ours that can breathe deeply of God’s spirit, but also hearts that will work for peace in the world, as in such a hymn as, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me….” 

These are the hearts God wants us to be building – we sing about them – the kinds of hearts God is watching for to come online in the housing market, the kinds of hearts God is hoping to inhabit:  compassionate hearts, just hearts, peaceful hearts. And with God in our hearts, we need to be on the move, taking our cue from like God.

Why is it so hard for us to be hearts that are compassionate, just, and peaceful?  Perhaps because every one of our hearts has been broken! And we live in a broken-hearted world. Poet Mary Oliver, who was abused as a child, writes, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”

We are not helped when we deny our own tragedies.  Some of us here this morning – or our neighbors – were sexually abused as children.  Some of us here were beaten by our fathers.  Some of us were terrorized by our teachers, or told we were lazy or dumb.  Some of us were bullied because we are gay.  The more we can be in touch with our own broken hearts, our own anger, our own disappointments in life, our own low self-esteem and resentment, the more we are able to overcome them, to move beyond them.

I have found myself saying before our Prayer of Confession, “We know we are not perfect people.” And the more we can accept ourselves with all our warts, the more we will be able to be compassionate toward others.  It has been said that, “Tragedy hollows out our hearts to make room for God” – the compassionate, just, peaceful heart of God.   There is a limit about what you and I can do about tragedy in the world, but we can recognize that our church is one place where we can help each other by being a safe place to be who we are, to find acceptance and love and the courage to move on.

Jesus is the role model for the compassionate, just, and peaceful hearts God wants us to build, and our scriptures are the blueprints for the building plans for the hearts God is waiting to inhabit.  Come into our hearts, Lord Jesus; come into our hearts today!

May it be so!

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Dance, Then

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 17

July 11, 2021

One of Kim’s “Writing Sisters” works for the Boston Globe, but she got her start at the Cape Cod Times.  Recently, we invited Susan to dinner at our condo in Mashpee, and she happened to tell us an old story about Ella Fitzgerald, the Queen of Jazz, Lady Ella – known for her purity of tone, diction, and phrasing.  Ella was performing on the Cape, and young reporter Susan had landed the opportunity to interview her for a front page story.          She was ushered into the hotel room with big shot reporters from other papers, awed to be in Ella’s presence. What to ask for the article she had to write?

The interview was not going well for anyone. Ella seemed bored by the questions reporters were asking, and so Susan spoke up: “What do you do when you go home?” “Ah,” Ella said, “I take off my shoes and dance!”

When was the last time you danced? When you danced for joy?  When a loved one came through surgery with flying colors?  When you finally got your COVID vaccine? When your grandson got the job? 

In the summer, it’s easy to remember that joy comes with the smell of newly mown grass or the beachy smell of sand and salt water or the warm earth in your garden or the way the rain smells. after a dry spell.  Or, perhaps, when your family was together on the 4th and you raised a glass to each other and stood arm in arm for a picture, joy may have overtaken you, just a week ago. 

Like you and me, King David danced for joy when all was right with his world!  The loose confederation of northern and southern tribes – not yet divided into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah – have come together as one nation Israel, and David has been made “shepherd king” of all the tribes.  He was able to conquer Jerusalem without much bloodshed, and now he is bringing the Ark of God into the city.  Yahweh’s city, not just David’s – to make it the religious capital of Israel. 

This Ark, referred to some 200 times in the Old Testament, is a wooden chest; later in the Old Testament story it becomes an elaborate golden shrine, but now it’s a simple box, revered because it represents the presence of Yahweh. Perhaps it held sacred objects, like a stone from a sacred place like Sinai, that spoke to them of the Mystery of God. And David is bringing it from an out-of-the-way shrine into Jerusalem, placing God at the center of the people of Israel, cementing his power in this “me and God together” event, cause for much rejoicing!  This is a story about David’s faithfulness and his leadership – at least in part.

And then tragedy strikes: The lectionary selection you just heard omits the part where the oxen pulling the cart stumble, the ark tips, and        Uzzah reaches out to steady it – and, the text says, God struck him down on the spot. They blame his death on God, of course, but I wonder if he tripped and was kicked by one of the oxen or got caught in the cart’s wheel and was hurt. But it makes for great drama! Remember the film with Harrison Ford, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? 

One doesn’t take God lightly!

Regardless, David is now afraid of God, and he abandons his plan to bring the ark to Jerusalem.  So this also is a story about David’s humility and the harm he caused by claiming the presence of the holy to consolidate his own political power. It’s a time to grieve and reflect on his motives.

So the ark sits in the house of Obed-edom for three months, and since nothing bad happens to the people there, David decides he would like to have it in his city after all, and this time the journey is successful.  David, clad only in a loincloth, leads the procession, followed by the band. Uzzah is forgotten as well as the need for self-reflection on the weight of moral responsibility and trust that come with positions of power. We all would do well to remember Jesus’ words, “Unto whom much is given, much will be required” (Like 12:48).

It’s interesting that David himself brings the ark, isn’t it? He could have sent some servants while he tended to official business. But no, his relationship to God is primary, and he dances as he brings it into Jerusalem and sets it up in a special tent and offers sacrifices to God and distributes food to the people – kind of like coffee hour after church.  

This is a story of celebration for this young king, remembered and honored through the centuries. A story of dancing with joy!

Now, the Hebrew verb for “dance” also has the meanings of “laugh” and “play,” so there is spontaneity and lightness in this ancient celebration that’s hard for us to see so many centuries later.

When was the last time you felt spontaneous and light?  In her book, “Living Well While Doing Good,”[1] the Reverend Donna Schaper makes the point that we don’t expect joy as our everyday “due.”  We plod through life; our noses to the work before us, our thoughts on the mundane.  When are we, to use C. S. Lewis’ famous phrase, “surprised by joy?”  Schaper urges us “…to simplify joy, [to] teach ourselves to expect it.”  Joy is God’s gift to us, and we have permission to open every day to joy. 

When was the last time you felt joy?  Don’t tell me you the serious type!  We can be both serious and playful.  Schaper writes, “Sometimes I think that joy is simply grace, realized.  Grace is the undeserved gift of life; joy is when we know it.” 

I think of times when I came up with a special gift for someone, something exquisite that I made or bought just for a certain someone.  Something my mother would exclaim over, or would make my grandson’s day.  I remember waiting with anticipation for a loved one to open the gift, to see the eyes light up, to hear the intake of breath with the surprise and joy. I wonder if God is waiting for us to notice and open all God’s gifts to us. I wonder if, when we do, we give God joy.

Here are three strategies for finding joy – or letting joy find us:  The first is, “Pay deep attention to life and what is still living is us.”  She would encourage us to celebrate the everyday things:  the shade under the maple on a hot day, a hug from your grandchild in the kitchen, a cup of tea with a friend.  Writer Alice Walker says, “Expect nothing, live frugally on surprise.”  And poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning reminds us to be open to the miraculous with this simple verse: 

                               Earth’s crammed with heaven,

and every common bush afire with God;

                               But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.

                               The rest sit ‘round and pluck blackberries.

Second, Schaper recommends that we go out of our way for someone else, to do something inconvenient, to take on another’s burden.  It could be a simple act of kindness, offering to watch the baby while new parents go out to dinner, or visiting a shut in with a listening ear and cookies or writing a note of appreciation to someone you love, sharing what his or her life means to you.

Her third recommendation is to mimic God in graceful behavior.  She tells the story of how her college senior advisor let her graduate without having written her English thesis because she was involved in anti-war protests in 1969.  She notes that he didn’t even agree with her politics but recognized that the world is a big place and calls for big statements.  He put in a good grade for her and trusted that she would write her thesis during the summer.  And, of course, she did.

Many years ago, I blew someone away with a check for $1,000 – something she really needed and something I could spare at the time!  I experienced more joy – and for much longer – than she did, I’m sure.  When I think of it, I still feel my heart leap! 

How are you at dancing for joy?  God knows we need to do just that – not only when all is going right, as it was for King David, finally, but also, and especially when it’s not, when the world may be falling apart around us.  We witness too many atrocities, see too much pain and suffering, feel too much fear – and we are overcome with doom and gloom far too often.

We can dance because we know that God is with us, that God’s grace will never abandon us, that God in Jesus is the Lord of the Dance, and wills us to be whole and happy and healthy.

It can’t have been easy for Ella Fitzgerald to break down barriers to African Americans in the music world in the 1950s, but she did, and when she got home she would take off her shoes and dance! And we can, too!

In her poem, “Welcome Morning,” Anne Sexton writes about the simple joys of living:

There is joy

in all;

in the hair I brush each morning,

in the Cannon towel, newly washed,

that I rub my body with each morning,

in the chapel of eggs I cook

each morning,

in the outcry from the kettle

that heats my coffee

each morning,

in the spoon and the chair

that cry “hello there, Anne”

each morning,

in the godhead of the table

that I set my silver, plate, cup upon

each morning.

All this is God,

right here in my pea-green house

each morning

and I mean,

though often forget,

to give thanks

to faint down by the kitchen table

in a prayer of rejoicing

as the holy birds at the kitchen window

peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,

Let me paint a thank-you on my palm

For this God, this laughter of the morning,

Lest it go unspoken.

The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,

dies young.[2]

Amen!


[1] New York, NY, Church Publishing, Inc., 2007, pp. 95-106.

[2] Anne Sexton, “Welcome Morning,” found in Dancing with Joy, Roger Housden, ed., c. 2007.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

Embrace This History

Mark 6:1-13

July 4, 2021

The gospel of Mark is a story of disruption, always describing something new, from the first chapter with the shredding of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism … to the empty tomb in the last chapter.  Today’s reading brings Jesus back to Nazareth, his hometown of perhaps a few hundred people, where everyone knows everyone else – just like in Moosup Valley and Greene.  But the visit doesn’t go well. The neighbors have heard what Jesus has been doing beyond their village gates, and they don’t welcome him with open arms.  Perhaps they resent that he has gone off and left his widowed mother and siblings to fend for themselves.  It was not what they expected of an oldest son.

And so they are offended by him, prompting Jesus to say, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown….”  This must be an important story in the early church because all four of our gospels include it – and even the Gospel of Thomas which didn’t make it into our New Testament canon – also says (adding to its legitimacy) – “No prophet is welcome on his home turf” (Thomas 31:1).  Jesus was not welcome everywhere, or universally respected and admired and followed.  History is like that – there is always opposition and confusion in some places, just as there can be healing and wholeness in others.

Today we celebrate a big part of our U.S. history, Independence Day. We talked about it at Bible Study on Tuesday – the family get togethers, the picnics, the fireworks.  But not all of our memories were happy.  Pat talked about a teenager who picked up a firecracker which exploded in her face in Fairhaven.  Barbara remembered a neighbor who had a faulty firecracker imbed in his arm and about being afraid when a fight broke out at Oakland Beach. Acknowledging the sad memories makes us more careful; when we embrace all of our history, we become more cautious and wiser, and it enables us to learn from our mistakes.  “Those who cannot remember the past and condemned to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana in 1905.

And the same is true for our nation’s history:  One of my ancestors fought as a colonel in the Revolutionary War; I was named after his daughter, Betsy Sanborn.  I celebrate this history, and I honor my heritage.  How blessed I am, we all are, to live here, with our freedom to live where we choose, and say what we think, and organize for the common good.  Our forebears died for this!

America is a great nation!  But we should not celebrate in ignorance!  There is always more history to come to light, or as radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say in his deep voice, “The rest of the story.” My mother loved him!

We forget, most of us, most of the time, that our beloved country was founded on land stolen from Native peoples, and our economy was built on the labor of African slaves and immigrants who came to America to make a new life, like your ancestors and mine, like some of our church members. 

We are ignorant of the true nature of our past and have never been held accountable for our actions.  We talk about “discovering” America while not acknowledging that Native peoples were already here – why Columbus Day is being renamed Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  But cosmetic “corrections” cannot hide the fact that, in our Declaration of Independence, not too far below the words, “All men are created equal,” we find the phase “merciless Indian savages.” 

We need to learn about – and teach our children about – the Trail of Tears when 60,000 Native Americans, between 1830 and 1850, were marched at gun point from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States by our government to worthless lands west of the Mississippi River that were designated “Indian Territory.”

Our history has been “sanitized,” too, when we hold up slavery to the light of the Declaration.

On July 5, 1852, escaped slave Frederick Douglass risked arrest and possible death when he spoke to the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, NY, on “The Meaning of the Fourth of July to the Negro,” in which he noted the hypocrisy of the nation and renounced slavery as the great sin and shame of America.  He said, “This 4th of July is yours, not mine.”  That speech in its entirety is being read all over the country this weekend.

Today we celebrate the ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but, as Pastor Bob reminded us in Friday’s newsletter, we know that these ideals were granted only to white men who owned property – not to women and of course, not to slaves, both of whom owed their very lives to the men who wrote the Declaration.

In July of 1862, 159 years ago this month, President Lincoln read a draft version of the Emancipation Proclamation to grant freedom to slaves as of January 1, 1863. It was Lincoln’s most controversial document, and it was met with controversy, even in the north.  This is part of our history. 

And even after people of color were granted the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” it remained out of reach. This week skeletal remains are being dug up in mass graves in Tulsa, Oklahoma, victims of the massacre of people of African heritage who lived in the Greenwood district in Tulsa.  Mobs of white residents attacked Black residents and destroyed homes and businesses, stealing what they could, before burning what was left. The black community’s crime? They had been successful: They had achieved life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; they had built their own “Wall Street,” and they were being punished.

Yes, we have a proud American history, and we cherish our unique freedoms that make our country so great. Yet I, for one, am ashamed of our sins as a country and however my ancestors perpetrated those sins. 

So let us embrace all our history.  Georges Erasmus, an Aboriginal leader from Canada, said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”

Unless we can embrace these stories, the stories of genocide and oppression, terror and tears, the dark side of our American heritage, in addition to our narrative of “liberty and justice for all,” unless we can embrace this history, we will continue to be plagued with slaughters in our public places       and unrest in our cities, we will continue to misunderstand the root causes of poverty and the breakdown of society.

“White people,” wrote James Baldwin, “are trapped in a history they don’t understand.”  It’s time we tried.  And so, on this 4th of July weekend, let us commit to the beginning of understanding, to embracing the history, so that we can work for a country – and an economy – whose narrative is one of “liberty and justice for all.”

This is what today’s scripture is about:  going out into the world with God’s power to bring about healing and reconciliation.  The place for us to begin is to embrace all of our history.

May it be so. 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church, UCC

Healing Powers

Mark 5:21-43

June 27, 2021

Do you believe in the power to heal?  The gospels abound with stories of Jesus’ healing all sorts of people of all sorts of illnesses and conditions.  It seems that Jesus was always ready and willing to heal.  He was always healing someone – or on his way to heal someone – or just returning from a healing.  In fact, the gospels contain 58 references to healing.

Do you believe in the power to heal?  For the early followers of Jesus, this was a new development – a sign that Jesus was the Messiah, the one for whom they had been waiting.  For them, the healings are “Proof Positive” that Jesus is the Son of God!  When John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he were the Messiah, Jesus said to them, “Go back and tell John what you have seen . . . the blind see again, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them” (Luke 7:22).

This is a change from how the Old Testament conceives of illness.  Although the ancient Israelites were offered the Law of Moses to keep them healthy – laws about maintaining personal hygiene, eating clean foods, getting enough rest on the Sabbath, and so on – the Hebrew Bible approaches illness and disease as the result of disobedience (and, of course, some Christians still do so today).   

Ancient people tried to make sense of world they lived in; we see this reflected in wisdom literature where illness is the result of one’s not being wise enough to understand how the universe works.  You may have heard someone say, “Why me?”  “What did I do to deserve this?” as if he or she is being punished.  I’ll bet you’ve even said this yourself, once or twice!

And we, 21st century people, try to make sense of our world we live in, too:       When we get cancer or COVID, we ask, “Will I be healed?”And we don’t understand why some people are healed – and others are not.

In today’s gospel lesson, we have two healing stories sandwiched together – a desperate woman who has been ill for years and a 12-year-old girl who is near death. For the woman, the problem is not just about the bleeding but about the social isolation that she experiences because of the bleeding. She is ritually unclean, and she has to remain separated from her family and her village. They would have avoided her on the road, afraid that her touch would make them ritually unclean, too, especially men.    And here she is, brushing against people in the crowd, reaching out to touch Jesus, desperate to be healed.

And then we have the story about the little girl.  Those of us who have lost children and grandchildren know that heartbreak, and we fear for the safety of all children who are ill or in pain or traumatized by events beyond their – or our – control. We recognize in Jesus’ tender Aramaic words, talitha cum, “little girl, get up,” his love and compassion – not only for the child – but also for her desperate parents.

In the New Testament, the New Covenant that God makes with us, sickness and disease are not seen as punishment for sin and rebellion and disobedience.  Jesus says so himself: 

Remember the story of Jesus encountering a blind man (John 9:2-3).  The disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents . . . .”, assuming that someone is to blame.  “Neither this man nor his parents,” Jesus replies, and then he mixes saliva with dirt and puts it on the blind man’s eyes and tells him to wash, and the man is healed.   

God wants us to be well, to be whole.  In fact, the words “health,” “whole,” and “holy” all come from the same ancient root in Old English, to make sound or to restore, to make a person spiritually whole, to make a person holy.  

Do you believe that God can heal us?  We know that God heals through the skilled care of doctors and nurses. But does God heal beyond the ministrations of the professionals?  Can we help the doctors heal us?  We live in a modern age.  The meditation I chose this morning makes that point, “Science and religion meet naturally, if uneasily, in healing.”[1] 

We don’t know why some people are healed when we pray – and others are not.  We don’t know why some tumors shrink and disappear when we go though chemo and radiation – and others do not.  We don’t know why some people experience critical brain damage and come out of a coma and recover fully – and others do not.

We do know treatment is more effective in those who take advantage of guided imagery and meditation, massage and Reiki.  We do know the one who is secure in the love of family and friends recovers faster.  We do know that prayer and meditation change the stress response and give healthy cells a boost to fight the rogue cells.

But – when healing does not occur, it does not mean that we are bad or unworthy or lacking in faith.  It may mean that one’s immune system is overwhelmed and that the body is too sick to take advantage of healing strategies.  It may mean that one’s soul is so damaged by some tragedy that healing cannot occur until the memories are healed.  It may mean that one harbors a private grief or guilt or resentment that has hold of his or her soul and that needs to be confessed so healing can take place. 

We pray to be healed – and for those we love to be healed. And sometimes they are – or perhaps our prayers are answered in a way that we had not expected. Perhaps we are healed of the fear of the illness, if not of the illness itself.

Does God wish us to be well?  Of course!  Our scripture this morning focuses on two healing stories – and Jesus’ response to them. In both cases, Jesus reaches out, treats them as precious persons: The woman, he calls “daughter,” not “unclean;” he does not chastise her, ostracize her, for touching him. The little girl, a child of little worth in that culture; yet he takes the time to go out of his way, to attend to her, to restore her to her parents. The Messiah, who teaches us what God is like, is never too busy to listen and respond – no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey.   

UCC pastor and poet Maren Tirabassi reflects on the complexity of illness as it affects our bodies, our minds, and our souls in this prayer poem: 

“Was it a tumor in her uterus that made her bleed so

          long?

Was it an abortion she regretted that would never

go away?

Was she beaten every day,

or did she hurt herself?

I do not know, gentle God,

what made this woman so desperate

she would touch a strange man in the street –

But I feel my own reaching . . . .

Was it anorexia that killed the teenage girl?

Was it self-doubt, pregnancy, or fear of growing up

too soon?

Was it loneliness, responsibility, or did she hate her

          body?

I do not know, gentle God,

what laid this girl so still that a

death-raiser had to come to her –

But I feel my own powerlessness . . . .

Desperate or powerless –

          sometimes I reach out for the fabric

          of your garment, silent, furtive with hope,

          choking the words I dare not say.

          sometimes another must intercede for me,

          entreat and bring your presence

          to the bed where I am paralyzed.

When I am desperate, Savior, offer me peace.

When I am powerless, teach those I love to feed me.

Amen.[2]


[1] Laurie Zoloth, Living Under the Fallen Sky, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Spring 2008, p. 36

[2] Maren Tirabassi, An Improbable Gift of Blessing: Prayers to Nurture the Spirit, Cleveland, Ohio, United Church Press, 1998, p. 149.

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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 peacefilled.

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! 

Amen.

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Moosup Valley Church UCC

The Parable of our Lives

Mark 4:26-34

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!

Amen.

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The Intervention

Mark 3:20-35

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! 

Amen.