Sunday Sermons

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Moosup Valley Congregational Christian Church UCC

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.