Sunday Sermons

REVEREND BETSY A. GARLAND

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Open Hearts & Minds

Acts 16:9-15

May 22, 2022

Of all the gospels, the Gospel of Luke emphasizes the role of women in the Jesus movement that became the Way, and then the early Christian church.  And, since Luke is also the writer of the Book of Acts, it’s not out of character that he would include this story about Lydia – although her story is highly unusual.  Women were second class citizens in that society.  They lived under the protection of the male members of the family.  They were mostly invisible, confined to the women’s quarters, living outside the public sphere.  As they say, nice women don’t make history, so we don’t have many stories about women in our scriptures.

But here we have a story about Lydia who appears to live independently of a father, brother, or husband.  And she manages her own affairs.  This is a big deal for the time – and Lydia became a big deal in the developing Christian community.  Luke tells us that Lydia was a business woman, a dealer in purple cloth which, in ancient times, was associated with royalty.  Her cloth was expensive, so Lydia’s customers were the elite class in Philippi.  Because of her success, she was the head of her own household, a rarity in that patriarchal society.  She must have been quite a woman!

This story takes place in Macedonia, in Greece, the gateway to Europe.  Luke calls Lydia a “God-worshipper” which means that, although she was a gentile, a non-Jew,                                 she was attracted to Judaism, but she was not yet ready to take the plunge and convert to Judaism.  She lives between the already and the not yet.

Lydia shows up here in this story in Acts because she has gone to the river where God-worshipping people like her went to pray on the Sabbath if they were not able to go to the synagogue. This is where Lydia meets the apostle Paul who has seen a vision that calls him to take the good news of Jesus Christ to Europe.  Paul’s extensive missionary journey begins here and takes off with the help of Lydia in this unexpected encounter. 

As Lydia and her companions are walking along the river, she overhears Paul preaching to the crowd, and she stops to listen. Imagine her holding up her hand, signaling to the women to pause.  Imagine her standing at the edge of a clearing or sitting down on a rock, leaning in to hear.  Why does she stop, take notice?  Lydia must be hungry for something, for meaning or purpose in her life, for a life beyond comfort and contacts, beyond purses and possessions.  Something is missing for her, unfulfilled, a holy longing in her soul. And so she stops to listen to this foreigner, a man who introduces a God different from any she has considered.    

Who could think such a thing – a God who reaches out to women like her.  A God who values the poor, the outcast, children, the least of these.  A God who speaks through ex-cons and immigrants, which is what Paul and his companions are, given that they have recently been in prison and are now in a foreign country.

Lydia is so taken with their testimony that she commits her life to this God.  She asks Paul to baptize her on the spot, an act signifying her conversion to this new Jewish sect which we now know as Christianity.  She is open to sharing faith with these strange men, here at the river – of all places. 

This is the good news Lydia has been waiting for – Jesus the Messiah’s message of love and justice for everyone, not just the upper crust with whom she is used to dealing.  She dives in, hook, line and sinker and puts everything she owns at Paul’s disposal urging them and his missionary group to stay at her home, changing her plans for the sake of the gospel – in spite of her busy life. 

That day at the river, Lydia found what she was looking for – and she seized the day.  But she had to go outside of her comfort zone to embrace it, and she had to involve everyone else in her household. Together, they became home base for Paul’s missionary journey.  It must not always have been pretty or without argument – or safe – for a single woman.  But because of her boldness and generosity, she becomes the “mother” of the church in Europe.  Without Lydia and her passion for Paul’s message, we wouldn’t be sitting here this morning.

There at the riverside, Lydia opened her heart and mind to the Spirit, and it changed not only her life but also the life of the world.  Lydia found the God who was finding her.[1]  This God, this God, is the same God who reaches out to you and me, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey.

May it be so!

Amen.


[1] Ronald Cole Turner, Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 2, page 474.

***********************************************************

Moosup Valley Congregational Church UCC

The Road Less Traveled

Acts 9:1-20

May 15, 2022

Saul was a bully. He had approved the stoning of Stephen, watched over the coats of the mob that killed him.  Stephen, an early Christian who had testified about Jesus of Nazareth before the religious authorities, insulting them, calling them “stiff-necked people” and “uncircumcised in heart and ears.”  Stephen is considered the first Christian martyr – and the persecution that followed terrified the Christians in Jerusalem, and they scattered across the countryside.

In the passage from Acts we heard this morning, Saul sets out after them, breathing threats and murder against the People of the Way, that is, members of the synagogues who were both Jews, that is, followers of the Law of Moses, and followers of the Way of Jesus.  He was hell-bent on hunting them down and wiping them out, young and eager to show what he could do, expecting to put an end to this heresy.  And he set off for Damascus with official papers in hand.

But God has a different idea.  While Saul was on the road, suddenly a light in the sky flashed around him, and he heard the voice of Jesus, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asks. So Jesus tells him to get up, go to Damascus, and wait for instructions.  So Saul gets up and dusts himself off and, when he opens his eyes, discovers he’s blind. 

God has a way of turning the tables.  Saul’s companions take his hand and lead him into Damascus, and for three days he cannot see and refuses food and drink. This is a fairly familiar Biblical story of the conversion of Saul – whom we later know as Paul. The change of name is important for it signifies a new identity. I have watched two transgendered friends over the past few years choose new names, a big deal. One of them told me recently how she wakes each morning, grateful to be alive, and to be able to be who she is, without having to hide any longer.

But Saul’s conversion is not the only conversion that takes place in Damascus. There’s another man that God has chosen for a holy errand:  This is Ananias, one of the disciples who had heard about this Saul and all the evil doings in Jerusalem.  Ananias has a vision that God calls him to go to Saul and to lay his hands on him so that Saul might regain his sight, Ananias is dubious, to say the least.  “You must be kidding, God!”  But God has a way of insisting:  “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.”  

So Ananias goes to the house where Saul is staying and lays his hands on him and tells him that Jesus has sent him so that he may regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. “And immediately,” scripture tells us, “something like scales fell from [Saul’s] eyes, and his sight was restored.”  Saul rises and was baptized, a new man.  He is changed from being one who is a witness againstthe followers of Jesus to becoming history’s most powerful witness for Jesus.  And Ananias, the one who was hiding from Saul, becomes the one who anoints him for his mission.

Two men are converted in this story.  You have heard me preach before about turning, about conversion.  In Hebrew, the word for “turn” is shub, meaning to turn back, to return.  In Greek, it is metanoia, meaning a turning around of 180 degrees, not just of the heart but also of the mind.  For both Saul and Ananias, they come to a fork in the road of life – and take the one less traveled. 

Saul’s conversion is dramatic. Writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote of Paul, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.”  The text doesn’t say Saul was riding a horse, but her point is well taken.  Not all of us need to be knocked off our horses – but we all could do with a conversion:  from our tendency to thinking we always are right and not listening to all sides of an issue; from seeking revenge instead of reconciliation with those who have hurt us or someone we love; from preoccupation with ourselves and our own success; from loving ourselves more than our neighbors when Jesus says we are to love our neighbor as [much as] we love ourselves.

We all are in need of a conversion.  Saul is turned from one who breathes threats and murder to one who proclaims the way of love.  Ananias is turned from one who holds back and hides out to one who steps forward to do what God needs to have done.  What are we waiting for?   Perhaps to be knocked off our horses!  But I’ll bet, if I were to ask you about your conversion stories, many of you would have them.  Perhaps not as dramatic as Saul’s, but you could point to a time when you felt the grace of God and something changed in your life. 

In yesterday’s New York Times, I read the story about a young man, Domingo Morales, who grew up in the projects, and his only goal in life was to live to be 18 in the rough neighborhoods where gangs ruled. His conversion came when he met a man who hired him to work for a nonprofit that taught young people about solar energy and gardening and other green jobs. And a kid who was afraid of germs fell in love with composting and learned how to turn table scraps all over NYC into vegetables while cutting methane emissions from landfills. Morales was named “New Yorker of the Week,” and turned his prize of $200,000 into compost and showed hard bitten New Yorkers how to grow a garden.

Perhaps your conversion came when you agreed to do something that was scary, or that you didn’t think you were qualified to do, or that interrupted your life in a way that made you uncomfortable – and afterwards, you realized that you had made the right choice. For me, the scary conversion was doing High Ropes at UM Camp Aldersgate up on Snake Hill Road – 40 feet in the air! I was in a seat harness and wearing a helmet, yes, but I was afraid I would die. After that I realized I could do anything!

God touches the lives of unlikely people like you and me to change the world.  We have all been on the wrong path; we have all been stubborn or afraid; we have all been closed-minded and racist; we have all been addicted to something that is not good for us – substances, too much work, insisting on perfection, you name it….   

And then there is this blinding light – or at least a gradual coming of the dawn.  We see the world differently.  God is at work in us.  Something changes our mind, our perspective, our behavior. Was it a friend’s persistent question?  Was it an illness that knocked you on your backside?  Or was it your soul’s restlessness that cried out in the middle of the night? 

One of those times for me was when the UCC Conference Minister asked me if I’d ever considered the ministry – something I’d been avoiding for 50 years. And here I am.  We think that our scriptures are archaic and have little to do with our lives, but in truth, we all are walking on the road to Damascus, and we all need to see the light.

What happens when we see the light?  We are converted, we are turned around, we turn toward the life for which God has made us.  Robert Frost says it this way, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Love grabbed Saul, turning him into Paul, and saving him from a life of hatred and violence. We can love each other like this.  May God’s light shine upon each of us and through us in the Mt. Vernon Larger Parish, and our little country congregations as we make choices for the future.

Amen.

******************************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Life-Giving Acts

Acts 9:36-43

May 8, 2022

What will people have to show of your love when you die?  Will they be hand-sewn quilts or afghans knitted for your children?  Or fishing flies that you tied with your grandson?  Or a beautiful poem or a scrapbook of family pictures? Maybe people will talk of the Concerts you worked on or how faithfully you maintained the webpage and the books, or how you built the stage. Or how you drove people to medical appointments.

Or perhaps what you will have to show for your love will be happy and successful children, a beautiful flower garden, a well-maintained church yard, or parents well-tended at the end of their lives.  Whatever it is, could be as big as an invention that saves lives – or as unassuming as a kind word or a smile or a helping hand.  What will people have to show of your love when you die?

In today’s scripture from the Book of Acts, Tabitha has died.  She was a church lady, one of those women who serve the church faithfully (and there are church men like that too) who are always there when you need them.  Tabitha, as she was known in Aramaic, was that kind of servant in the church in Joppa.  She was a widow who worked with other widows, a disciple when women weren’t given the honor of being called disciples.  

Yet she was known in the wider community, too, so the writer of Acts tells us that the Greek translation of her name is Dorcas.  A woman with two names, two cultures.  Tabitha / Dorcas, whose name means “gazelle,” was a seamstress, a strange name for a woman who sat and sewed.  Her hands must have flown over the fabric, a stitch here, a tuck there, to clothe her community.  For when she dies, the widows come with proof of her love in the garments she has made. We hear echoes of Matthew’s “When did we see you naked and give you something to wear?” in this story.

The Book of Acts, which records this story, is a strange little book, sandwiched as it is between the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and the letters from Paul and others that circulated in the early church.  My New Testament professor described it as a “romantic novella,” telling the stories of conversions and healings and early missionary activity.  In our secular day and age, we might think Acts quaint and magical. Acts comes to say that God is still working in the church and the world, in the lives of individuals and of society, to restore brokenness and bring wholeness.  God is still speaking – in your life and in mine. 

Tabitha’s community is devastated when she grows ill and dies – just like all of our congregations when we are wracked by illness and loss – whether we are in Joppa or in Foster.  We know, because we, too, have lost our saints, pillars of the church, and so Joppa sends for help. Peter is nearby in Lydda, and he comes at their bidding to restore Tabitha. The importance of the story is not in Tabitha’s healing, for apparently it’s not her time to die, but in the community of faith that cried together and prayed together and acted together.  Commentator Stephen Jones notes, “The emphasis of this text is not upon a return from death, but upon the community honing all of its spiritual strength and resources passionately on life and wholeness.”[1] 

The Tabitha story is interesting from another perspective, too:  Tabitha is worthy.  Nowhere else do we read in the Bible, in quite the same way, that someone deserved to be saved, and a woman at that!  Women’s lives had little value in that culture, just as they do in some cultures around the world today.  Women are born, they give birth, they serve, they die.  Our African friend Irene tells of her husband in Zimbabwe who kicked her out of her house with nothing.  “Go away.  I don’t need you anymore; I’ve found someone prettier, younger,”  he told her. But God’s value system is different from the world’s system, and this time, Tabitha is restored to her community – at least for a little longer.

On Mother’s Day we celebrate our mothers, as we should, but our observances tends to be sentimental – flowers and candy, cards and loving words, maybe a dinner out.  But our recognitions tend to stop at our front doors.  What about other mothers’ life-giving acts in the larger community?  How do they carry God’s love out into the world?  I think of this poem written by Chenjerai Hove:

If you stay in comfort too long

you will not know

the weight of a water pot

on the bald head of a village woman…

If you stay in comfort too long

you will not know the pain

of childbirth without a nurse in white…

You will forget

the unfeeling bare feet

gripping the warm soil turned by the plow

You will forget

the voice of the season talking to the oxen.

I think of Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi, a poor black women who picked cotton with her family at the age of six and grew up to be a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Because she was able to read and write, she was given the job of “time-keeper” in a sharecropper system designed to keep black workers in debt.  As an adult, she reached out to her neighbors to help them get ahead by starting a pig bank. She bred pigs and gave the piglets away so other families could breed them, a way out of poverty, a way out of hunger. 

She wanted her community to get ahead – which almost cost her her life. She was extorted, threatened, harassed, shot at, and assaulted by white supremacists and police while trying to register for and exercise her right to vote. But she lived and took her story all the way to Congress. She attended the National Democratic Convention in 1964 and later co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus to help women of all races who wish to seek election to government office. Fannie Lou Hamer was a mother of four children, but she also mothered the nation, took responsibility for its future.  But we don’t have to go that far away to know that some of our mothers mothered more than their own families. 

Pat’s mother was active in the larger church community, and I hear that Rose Hawes was “mother” to a lot of kids, not only Cheryl, Kathy, and Brenda.  Sonja often talks about her mother here at Moosup Valley.  My mother encouraged me to join Church Women United, and I learned a lot from those women on the national level. And think of Phyllis, Foster Grandparent in Robin’s class, who loved the children and whose family is still caring for them.

Without our mother’s examples, many of us wouldn’t be here today.  And some of our mothers are still making a difference.  Look at the way Martha and Evie “mothered” some of us.  I heard story after story at Evie’s memorial service at Summit Baptist Church. Most of the time, except for those who willingly put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of the greater community – like the mother who intercepted a bullet in the California synagogue a couple of years ago ago – we are not called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.

But the community of faith is called on through the ages to make life-giving acts central to its calling.  Few of us are called upon to die, but we all are called upon to care for each other – and for the least of these. This means collecting food for the hungry at Rice City’s Music Night, supplies for Ukrainians, and food for our families in Haiti, and, not too long ago, rushing to put a tourniquet around a severed limb in Boston. 

It means becoming knowledgeable about legislation that helps to lift people out of poverty, cleans up our environment, puts people to work.  It means thinking about our shut-ins, taking in a meal, providing transportation, working on church projects, raising money for Foster Social Services, sitting with a friend whose mother is dying.  It means acts of courage and kindness and love, acts to lift up the lowly, acts to serve the world.

Tabitha’s church gathered around her, weeping, vulnerable, hopeful, showing Peter what she meant to them – and celebrating her life.  What will people have to show of your love, or my love, when we die? 

May it be miracle enough! 

Amen.         


[1] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, page 431.

*******************************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

John 21:1-19

May 1, 2022

Breakfast with Jesus

I read a piece by a retired English teacher in which he noted that “pandemics are like comets, they have long tails. We stand in their wakes and wonder years later why we are still shaking.” We know this, those of who have lost loved ones to Covid.  I find myself marking time “before the pandemic and after the pandemic,” the same way people in England talk about “before the War and after the War.”

And it has occurred to me this year, perhaps for the first time, the overwhelming PTSD that those at the cross must have felt.  Imagine the horror of it, the shame, the disappointment, the dreams dashed. We can only imagine how the disciples must have felt.  A triumphant entry into Jerusalem, followed by a night of betrayal and an armed arrest, their beloved leader tortured and killed, and then, gone missing from the tomb. 

Yes, he had appeared to them afterwards – to Mary in the garden outside the tomb, to the disciples – twice – in the locked room in Jerusalem and on the road to Damascus, according to the Gospels, but that was so confusing!  First sorrow and fear, then amazing appearances by One who claims to be – or acts like – Jesus, but how can that be?

Imagine how the disciples must have felt – because we, too, often feel overwhelmed by our lives: a doctor’s grim diagnosis on the other end of the phone, a spouse who walks out of a marriage, the boss who gives notice, violence in our families, crises in our world. 

The disciples had had a “resurrection experience,” a “mountain top” experience, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called it, but it was too much to sustain.  They needed the comfort of familiar things and so they go fishing. They need some time, some emotional space, to assimilate what they have experienced.  They need to get away from it all, so they go back to their ordinary lives.  

And even here, after working all night long, they have “come up empty.”  So often, we, too, come up empty.  Weary with working so hard for so little reward.  Longing for connection with something greater than ourselves.  Hungry for meaning in our lives.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says to the disciples.  “Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says to you and me. Imagine that, breakfast with Jesus! 

Where would you go?  To Rice City?  Shady Acres?  Probably.  Jesus doesn’t seem like a Country Club kind of guy.  He was always eating with tax collectors and sinners, engaging in conversation with women and other “least-of-these” kinds of people, inviting children up onto his lap.  Yup, it could well be Shady’s.  Might you spot him in the booth, or at a table by the window?

Would you know Jesus if he wandered into our Camp Fire?  He would bring his own kosher hotdog, share his potato chips with those around the circle, fill empty cups with his own special wine.  He’d be the guy in the plaid shirt with red suspenders and hiking boots for mucking out the stalls.  He’d be the one with the stories, with you and me, hanging on every word.

Or, maybe, you could invite him to your house for breakfast.  Jesus could bring the bagels and cream cheese.  You could put on the coffee pot.  Would you worry that your house wasn’t clean enough, dog hair all over the cushions?  Or not nice enough?  Big enough?  Somehow, I don’t think Jesus would care. “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” Jesus said. 

No, Jesus isn’t into material things.  Jesus is into you.  It is people he cares about:  the sick and the poor, the widows and orphans, the lame and the lonely, the discouraged and the broken.  Jesus is into the homeless man on the park bench, the mother and children at the Texas border, the family that can’t make enough money to afford a safe place to live, the children hunkering down in Ukraine. He is into the worshippers who are afraid when they go to church or synagogue or mosque to pray, into the students who listen for gunfire in their school. 

“Come and have breakfast.”  What would you talk about with Jesus?  Could you share your hopes and hurts?  Your fears and fragility?  Your dreams and disappointments? 

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.  

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow. 

Sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m down,

Nobody knows but Jesus,” sang Louie Armstrong.

Jesus has many gifts, but his greatest gift – the gift of the gospels – is compassion.  Loving and forgiving us – so we can love and forgive others.  It’s that simple – and that profound. 

Come and have breakfast with Jesus. 

He’s waiting for you.

Amen.

**************************************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Breathed On Ones

John 20:19-31

April 24, 2022

It is still the first day of the week in today’s reading, still the Sunday we call Easter. At dawn, remember, Mary Magdalene, the lead disciple according to recent scholarship, had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body and found him gone.  She had summoned the disciples who confirmed what she already knew before they went back into hiding. But Mary’s grief held her at the tomb, and she was rewarded by meeting with Jesus himself. One of our favorite hymns, “I came to the garden alone,” celebrates Mary’s time with Jesus.

But now it is evening, and the disciples are gathered in a safe house.  And then, through locked doors, Jesus comes to them, too, and stands among them.  Imagine how afraid they must have been, thinking Jesus a ghost.  “Peace be with you,” he says, and proves, by his wounds, who he is.  Thomas, who was absent, doesn’t believe it, of course.  Would you?  Would any of us?  We can imagine Thomas’ thinking that his friends have had too much wine or that they have snapped under the stress of the past three days. 

There are a lot of unanswered questions in this passage:  For example, why don’t Mary and the disciples, in both of these occasions, recognize Jesus as soon as they see him?  Is his appearance altered in some way?  Is he there, but not there?  Their senses must be tricking them.  And then, a week later, Jesus returns and stands among them.  This time, Thomas is present and can see for himself; he can touch Jesus’ wounds.  “Seeing is believing,” it is said, but perhaps it is also, “Touching is believing.”  And for Mary, at the tomb, it was “Hearing is believing,” when Jesus spoke her name.

Second, another question:  Why does Jesus need to show them his wounds?  Do his wounds define him?  In the same way, do our wounds define us?  Perhaps we are known, at least in part, and shaped by our woundedness, by our suffering, by our life experience.  To be human is to suffer, just as Jesus suffered.  It is part of our lives:   We lose loved ones and livelihoods.  We suffer cancer and accidents.  We live with regrets and lost opportunities.

Also, think about Thomas:  He has been wearing a “doubter” chain around his neck for 2,000 years.  But all of the disciples, except for Mary Magdalene, are doubters.  Perhaps being a disciple means, at least in part, a readiness to doubt, to question, to get to the bottom of things that matter.  We have all been told that we must believe what we are told, in order to be considered faithful.  That we will believe by-and-by – a theological idea, for example, like the Virgin Birth, or a creed that was formulated in ages past, or a verse of scripture taken out of context.  There’s the story of a cranky old minister who once said to a girl in his confirmation class, “The church is no place for questions, young lady!”

Well, I disagree.  In the UCC, remember, we believe that “God is still speaking,” and so it is.  Keep in mind that Jesus did not ask for blind obedience of the disciples, only that they carry on his ministry, with the words, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  And then Jesus does something that gets lost in the text when we get caught up with too much “believing” and “doubting” and “proving.”  He breathes on them. 

Imagine being breathed on by Jesus.  What would his breath have smelled like?  Was there something of springtime in his breathe?  Of heaven, beyond ordinary experience?  Or would it still carry the hint of bread and wine that he shared with his followers in that upper room three days earlier?  Or the taste of gall that he had been given to drink on the cross?  The heavy odor of spices from his embalming?  Or perhaps the disciples smelled the fish and olives and bread they had shared in Galilee, in what must have seemed like a lifetime ago. 

A very real Jesus, a human Jesus, breathes something divine into his followers, and, by extension, into you and me:  He breathes the Holy Spirit, God’s divine presence, God’s never-ending love for all of God’s creation, into us.  Take a breath.  We receive that breath to give oxygen to our lungs and life to our flesh, but we are not allowed to keep it for ourselves.  Life comes as in the cycle of breathing in and breathing out. 

We can only hold our breath for so long, and then we must let it go.  In the same way, Jesus sends us out to carry his divine life-breathe, God’s Holy Spirit, into all the locked rooms of fear in our world, and to breathe out judgment and forgiveness and peace.  

Faithful discipleship is not measured by believing the right words as they have been handed down to us (although words are important).  This gospel, with its pressure to believe without real flesh and real breath has been used to fill us with fear, to make us feel guilty, to worry us about the extent of our faithfulness.  

Doubting is part of using all of our God-given gifts of intellect and experience and reason to create a faith that is our own, that rings true to us, that makes sense in the 21st century. 

Faithful discipleship, rather, is about doing:  breathing the love of God and Jesus’ resurrection breath into our own lives and then breathing it out into all the wounded people around us, breathing it in and then out into all the dead places in this troubled world of ours, breathing out that divine presence in the halls of government and on the battlefields of war, in our homes and schools and communities.

After meeting the resurrected Jesus and touching his damaged hands and the wounds in his side, Thomas is transformed.  Tradition has it that Thomas traveled beyond the limits of the Roman Empire, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ even as far away as southwest India.  I hear that there are a number of believers there in that part of India who call themselves “Christians of St. Thomas.”  And Thomas is the patron saint of architects because he built so many churches.  Not bad for a doubter, I say!

Close your eyes and take a breath.  We are the “breathed on ones.”  Imagine Jesus’ breathing the Holy Spirit into you.  Taste his breath; feel his wounds; see him beckoning you out into the world to preach good news to the poor, to heal the wounded, and to bring peace to the world.

May it be so! 

Amen.

*********************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Unbinding Love

John 20:1-18

April 17, 2022

The end of a long week, and the beginning of the rest of their lives.  The political forces in Jerusalem had conspired to put an end to this trouble-maker from Nazareth.  And they have succeeded:  Jesus’ body buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.  His followers in hiding.  Pilgrims heading home.  The religious leaders have kept a lid on things.  Zealot uprisings averted for another year.  Pilate prepares his legions to go back to the coast. All’s well that ends well.  Jerusalem sighs with relief.

The Sabbath is over; the Galilean women who have been traveling with Jesus, are anxious to come to the tomb to anoint his body with spices, the custom after the death of a loved one – one last loving touch.  The gospels differ on how many women come.  In John’s account, Mary comes alone.  He was her best friend and she, his closest disciple – until the politics in the early church pushed her to the background, scorned her as a harlot. And so she comes, broken-hearted, to be near her beloved teacher, to stand at his tomb, to witness to love. 

Jesus had taught them a new way of being, of caring for one another, of serving the least and the lost.  They had had such hope.  How can they possibly go back to a life without him?  Just hours ago when they celebrated the Passover in that upper room, Jesus had talked about love, demonstrated his love for them by washing their feet, commanded them to love one another.  And now it is over.

Imagine her shock, her confusion, her disbelief, when she arrives at the tomb and finds the stone rolled away.  Has she gone to the wrong tomb?  Has his body been moved to another?  Even worse, stolen?  Does Peter know something she does not?  She runs to tell, the first witness to the empty tomb.  We can imagine her, breathless, heartsick, “Help me find him!”  Peter and Thomas come running.  They enter the tomb but find it empty – except for what Jesus has left behind:  The burial linen that had bound Jesus is laid there by itself, alongside the strips of cloth that had bound his head.  Grave robbers wouldn’t have taken the time to unwrap the body, surely.  What could have happened?  Indeed, what on earth has happened?  The disciples fail to understand, draw no conclusions, return home.  Jesus is not only dead – but now he also is gone.

We call this gospel story a resurrection story – except that it’s not a resurrection story at all, not yet!  It’s an empty tomb story.  How can this be?  William Jones in his imaginative poem titled, “Day One,” writes, of Jesus’ awakening:

                    wondering what next after this,

he woke to cave’s pierced-darkness

edged by light stone sought to block,

but could not this bright morning

loosing the wrappings death held close,

falling to floor he reaches his hand

un-bent, un-bleeding, into cool air

and, risking life, begins breathing

slowly it dawns it has been undone,

bruised yet healing from wounding

wondering what next after this,

he rises and eases through walls

clinging close the still-moist earth,

upending the plot tended by mourners

stumbling, tripping what they hadn’t sought,

newly un-dead, rooting deep seed

pulling himself up into the living,

harder than dying his hand gripping mine

dried blood and cooling the fever his brow,

he rises and eases through walls.[1]

How can we understand the resurrection?  Surely, not as science, as fact.  But what, then?

Perhaps we can understand it as an “unbinding…”.  The one who commands his followers to “love one another as I have loved you,” cannot be kept in the grave.  Love loosens the bindings and sets him free.  The symbolism of the grave cloths appears in the Easter gospels – but it’s not the only place where it appears.  Remember the story of the “unbinding” of Lazarus. It was love, was it not, that called Lazarus forth from the tomb?  And it was love that commanded the crowd, “Unbind him, let him go free.”

What if the mystics are right?  Can we conceive of love as the foundation of the universe?  Can we fathom love as the ground of our being?  That we are made for love, the ultimate reality?  I wonder if we are all so “bound up” that we are blind to the love that surrounds us, that we live in a darkness of our own making and can’t imagine a light to unbind us in that darkness. Surely, you and I are made for love and light – just as we are made to lead others to the love and light. 

When Jesus is asked by the Pharisees, “What is the greatest commandment?” he immediately draws on two commandments in the Torah, and makes them his own: You shall love the Lord your God….” from Deuteronomy (6:5), and then adds: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge . . . but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” from Leviticus (19:18).  He reiterates this in his last words to his disciples: “Love one another as I have loved you.”  This is the heart of the gospel.

We think the Easter story is an account of an event that happened on a hill far away, 2,000 years ago.  But Easter is a story about you and me, and rolling away the stones in our own lives, and loosening the guilt and grief and shame that bind us so that we can really live and love. Easter is a story about unbinding the strips of sorrow, peeling away the layers of anger, loosening the grip of fear, so that we can be free – free of addictions, free of destructive behaviors, free of negative attitudes – free of everything that binds us and walls us up in the tombs of our own making. It’s

easy to roll the stones in place, but it’s hard to roll them away.  We’re all in need of unbinding and resurrection. 

Jesus tells us that he has come that we may have life and have it abundantly.  And he demonstrates new life by example:  Imagine how he is wounded – the nails in his hands – the spear in his side . . ..   Imagine his disappointment in the religious establishment that has orchestrated his execution.  Imagine his loneliness when his disciples run and hide to save themselves.  Imagine his sorrow when Simon Peter denies him.  We all know what it is like to be ignored and misunderstood and betrayed.  It happens to all of us!  Yet, Jesus is fully human in a way that we are not:  He was able to be unbound.  He was able to embrace the dark side of temptation, the pain of rejection, the despair over what looked like failure, and rise above it. 

What does Jesus do in the face of adversity?  Does he stay locked in the tomb?  No!  He rises above tribulation, and suffering, and evil.  That’s what Easter is all about.  He, and all the love of heaven and earth, unbind the grave cloths and roll back the stone.  Jesus brings his woundedness out into the sunlight.  He acknowledges and accepts his hurt and, in so doing, is able to transform it and use it for good.  The mystics tell us that the way to become enlightened is not to dwell in the light but to carry the light into our own darkness.  “O, death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?”

What happened at the tomb?  We don’t know.  Had it been a struggle to work his way out of the grave cloths?  There is no videotape of a resurrection.  No public factual account.  No witnesses to the actual event.  Jesus is in the tomb one day – and gone the next.  Yet, he’s not gone, he’s everywhere.  His love is everywhere.  After the resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” “Look at my hands and feet; see that it is I, myself.  Touch me and see;…”   And they find him on the road to Emmaus and cooking for the disciples on the beach after they have gone back to fishing.

The real question is not did it happen?  Or how did it happen?  The better question is what does the empty tomb mean?  Is the resurrection a spectacular miracle, a demonstration of the power of God?  Is it proof that Jesus is God’s son?  A chance for Jesus to say, “I told you so?”  Is it the promise of an afterlife?  When we get hung up on the scientific facts – or the lack of them – we miss the meaning of the resurrection.  And the meaning is the same for us as it was for Jesus’ followers.  And this is the important part, the part that removes the distance between the first Easter and ours this morning.  For Jesus’ followers continued to experience Jesus in their lives.  They knew him in the present, not just in the past.  It was not their belief in the resurrection that changed their lives – but the real presence of the living Christ who lived in their midst. 

“Easter is God’s ‘yes’ to [love] and God’s ‘no’ to the powers that killed him.  Easter means “Jesus lives” and “Jesus is Lord of our lives,” just as we proclaim today[2] So the miracle of resurrection is this:  For resurrection we have been created. But first, we have to let love unbind us from the people and the things and the attitudes which we should let go of, from whatever we cling to that does not bring us life.  For most of us, it is a struggle to work our way out of the grave cloths.  But that’s what Easter is all about:  We are called to be God’s resurrection people!  Come, Lord Jesus, come….

May it be so! 

Amen.


[1] William B. Jones, “Day One” (Maren C. Tirabassi & Maria I. Tirabassi, eds., Before the Amen:  Creative Resources for Worship, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1989), 80-81.

[2] Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006) 274.

*********************************

Moosup Valley Church, UCC

Spellbound

Luke 19:28-4

April 10, 2022

As the procession grew closer, people could see the dust kicked up several miles away. Watchers could hear marching feet, the beat of drums, the creak of leather harnesses, the glint of sun on golden eagles and sabers. Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, was riding in from the west, from his garrison on the coast, heading a column of cavalry and soldiers.

It was Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year.  Pilate rode in like this every year at this time, as did all the governors before him, to keep the peace.  They knew these Jews, celebrating liberation from an earlier empire, the Exodus from Egypt, were likely to cause trouble.  Some who watched were curious, spellbound by this show of imperial power; others were resentful, surly, fearful. 

At the same time, another procession was coming into the city from the east; this was a peasant procession which was making its way down from the Mount of Olives.  A lone figure sat on a donkey, and as he passed, watchers spread out their cloaks and laid down palm branches in his path, singing the words of Psalm 118, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

It was the spring of the year 30.  Jesus of Nazareth, from Galilee about 100 miles to the north, had pre-arranged this counter-procession, even down to the colt of a donkey he was to ride.  He comes to fulfill the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey,…”


This crowd is enthusiastic, wild with joy!  Spellbound….  Some Pharisees in the throng call out to Jesus, “Order your disciples to stop!”  Are they embarrassed by all this emotion?  Do they resent that Jesus identifies himself with the Messiah?  Are they afraid Rome will see all this commotion and, fearing an insurrection, retaliate?  Probably all of these! Jesus retorts, “I tell you, if these [people] were silent, the stones would shout out.”

To understand what is happening on Palm Sunday, we must understand the significance of the City of Jerusalem, this city of the prophets, the city over which Jesus cried and wished he could gather them in like a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings.  Jerusalem had been the capitol of Israel for 1,000 years.  King David and his son Solomon had reigned from the city during the greatest period in Israelite history.  Particularly under David, it was an era of power and glory, tempered by goodness and justice.  It was a golden time, etched in people’s memory.

But by Jesus’ day, Jerusalem has become the seat of political oppression.  The religious leaders in the temple have colluded with the Roman occupiers to preserve their own position of wealth and power.  Peasants have lost their ancestral land and are taxed heavily to support Rome. The elite live in luxury; the poor are hungry. 

The pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem to observe the Passover yearn for the Jerusalem of memory, for justice and peace, for God’s restoration.  Even now, as our friends and neighbors prepare to sit down to their Seder meals later this week, they will recite the hope, “Next year in Jerusalem” (which is not the same as saying, “Next year in Florida.”)

Into this city, then, the City of David, come two processions, two parades – one from the west representing the power of empire; one from the east representing the power of God. The question then and now, for all of us, is – in which parade are we marching?  Church and state have often colluded, over land and property, over ideology and special interests: the Crusades in France; the Inquisition in Spain; the church’s going along with Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and gays in Germany; even our witch hunts in Massachusetts.  We see it happening today in our so-called “culture wars” and the tension between church and state in today’s issues.

So, two parades; the parade of empire and the parade of justice. Which one are we marching in? How do we even know? These days with our global economy, it’s difficult to tell.  When I was serving Edgewood Congregational Church 13 years ago, one of our members who was vacationing out-of-state had fallen and broken her wrist.  I telephoned her in Florida to see how she was managing. She told me that her splint was designed in England, made in China, packaged in Mexico, and distributed from California. When we purchase a shirt made in Guatemala, or a computer with parts made in Malaysia, do we know if workers were exploited, oppressed?  When we buy a chocolate Easter bunny, do we know if child labor was involved? It’s difficult to tell.  Maybe we don’t even want to know….

Some countries, today, still mirror the oppression of Jesus’ day:  you know who they are….  How can the world respond?  It’s difficult to make a difference.  We are tied together by trade and dependent on each other – as we see with Russian oil and gas. We’re all over a barrel, so to speak.

It’s at such a time that the moral leadership of the church is called for, not to bow down to political ambitions. More than 100 religious leaders in the U.S. joined together in March to urge the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, to speak up as Russian bombs rained down on hospitals, schools, desperate families and vulnerable children. As the world watched in horror, they wrote,

          “With broken hearts,” they said to Patriarch Kirill, “we are making an earnest plea

that you use your voice and profound influence to call for an end to the hostilities and

war in Ukraine and intervene with authorities in your nation to do so.”

Pope Francis reminded him: “The church must not use the language of politics but the language of Jesus.” We would not have had a Civil Rights Movement in this country if it were not for the moral leadership of the Black church. And our own Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this when he said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”

Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, asks of religious leaders, “Are we bedfellows, court chaplains or prophets?” On this Sunday, that we now call Palm Sunday, we’re called to exercise our prophet-hood, and to celebrate the One who stood up to power, knowing the great risk it involved.  Jesus invites us to reject the parade and the peace that is kept by those who sweep in on chariots, with swords ready to maintain power and control for their own benefit. And to choose instead his parade, led by one who comes alone and vulnerable and who brings the peace of healing and hope – aid workers building clinics and schools in villages, churches digging wells in villages in Ghana; people like us collecting rice and beans to fill a barrel for hungry children in Haiti.    

“Order your disciples to stop!”  Jesus protests, “The very stones will cry out….”  The truth is too good to be silenced.  If these disciples fall away, God will raise up others – Gandhi, King, Mandela, Zelensky….  And us?

What parade are we marching in?  It’s difficult to know for sure:  We live in a complicated world.  We can be spellbound by pomp and circumstance, lulled by smooth talk, blindsided by prejudice.  It’s hard to know what is going on and what parade we’re marching in, isn’t it? The world is a complicated place!

Today, I’m feeling like the donkey that Jesus rode and that poet Mary Oliver writes about:

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
   leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
   clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.

And us?  For those of us who pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth,..” there is nothing to do but to call out, “Blessed is he who comes….” and to wave our palms and to lay down our priorities and to sing not only for the peace of power and glory, but also for the peace of goodness and justice!

Hosanna!  Save us!

Amen.

***********************************************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

The Ache of Love

John 12:1-8

April 7, 2019

There are few stories in the gospels that are more beautiful than this one:  Jesus’ coming to the home of his beloved friends, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, perhaps for comfort, perhaps to say goodbye, and perhaps because Bethany is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the cross. 

We can only imagine the atmosphere. 

Surely everyone knows that Jesus is in danger.  In the previous chapter of John’s gospel, days earlier, he had raised Lazarus from the tomb, an outrageous demonstration of his power.  So it is that Jesus’ love for this family, these friends, has aroused and intimidated the powers-that-be in Jerusalem.  Lazarus is the last straw.  The Jewish leaders call a meeting of the Council.  High priest, Caiaphas, leads the plot to kill Jesus.

In this week’s story, in this visit to Bethany, Judas is there and perhaps other disciples, too.  The family is giving a dinner for Jesus, probably inviting friends and neighbors; Lazarus is sitting at table, though the text doesn’t tell us how ragged he may be after three days dead. And Martha, as usual, is serving. 

During the meal, Mary takes “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard” and anoints Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair.  It was common in those days to anoint the head of a guest as a sign of respect, but in those cases only a few drops of oil normally would be used.  But to lavish the oil the way Mary did, was the kind of sacred anointing usually reserved for designating someone as a king or priest – marking that person for divine service.

Judas is outraged by her extravagance and says, “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?”  Three hundred denarii was a lot of money, perhaps an entire year’s wages; it might have done a lot of good.  Where could Mary have gotten it?  And why?  What had she been planning?  Perhaps it had been purchased for her brother’s anointing after his death – or for Jesus’ anointing after the crucifixion, if they suspected that’s what was coming. But Judas thought Mary’s act wildly extravagant – and wasteful.

Jesus comes to her defense, speaking sharply. “Leave her alone.  She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”  Surely by then, if he continues to Jerusalem, Jesus knows he’s a “dead man walking.”  What must Mary’s anointing have meant to him?  A bit of tenderness?  A chance to receive a loving touch?  A confirmation of his ministry and mission?  The fragrance of perfume to remember when the only stink he will have soon enough is the smell of blood?

He loved Mary; and she, in turn, is loving him in the only way she can – with an outrageously extravagant act.  Would that we be so comfortable reaching out, touching, going out of our way, making time, saying “I love you,” with those who matter. We don’t know what Mary is thinking, and why she is doing what she does.  Why the rush to use her precious oil while he is still alive?  Perhaps she anoints his feet – not for burial, but for his short, resolute walk toward death.

Perhaps Mary had bought the oil for her brother Lazarus, and then never had a chance to use it.  This time she is hesitant to wait.  What do we do when the time grows short?  Writer Annie Dillard offers this advice to other writers: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place … give it, give it all, give it now.”

This is good advice for life, to be present to what each moment requires.  And this moment requires of Mary a reckless act of beauty.  We only witness, through the gospel, her non-verbal act of love.  She is a disciple, not by what she says, but by what she does.

In an article in The Christian Century, the Reverend MaryAnn McKibben Dana tells the story of a man who, on his 70th birthday, was presented with letters of appreciation from his friends, colleagues, and loved ones.  His wife bound them into a book, all 100 of them.  Sometime later, when he was asked what was in the letters, he paused and got tears in his eyes.  “I’ve never been able to bring myself to read them,” he said.  It was too much love; he couldn’t bear it.

The anointing at Bethany is Mary’s “letter,” written in the fragrance of death.  Jesus reads her meaning loud and clear.  And we can hear the ache of love in her act of anointing.  And we know it as our own – from worrying ourselves sick over our children, even grown ones, when we’ve hugged a brother or son or daughter off to war, while we watch a once vibrant spouse die in pain, as we’ve anguished over loving someone we’re not supposed to love.  We know about loving and anguish and grief – and helplessness.

And Judas.  Who is this Judas?  He is you and me, when we criticize, when we are too practical, when we are lost, when we are too wrapped up in ourselves, when we operate out of a mentality of scarcity rather than abundance. And who is this Mary?  She also is you and me when we cannot be generous enough, when we cannot find an adequate way to express our gratitude, when we long for a different outcome, when we cannot say a word in our own defense, when our world is collapsing in front of our eyes, when our sorrow is almost more than we can bear. It is for both of them – and for all of us – that Jesus is going up to Jerusalem, a place of treachery and betrayal, to make a gift of himself for the world, as an extravagant act of compassion to make all things new. 

We think of Lent as a time of self-reflection and atonement, a time to prepare ourselves for betrayal and terror and death.  But Lent is also a time, as this Gospel reminds us, to take the time to grieve beloved ones wrenched from us, to acknowledge the ache of love, and to act without delay – because life is too short and the world, too treacherous! Perhaps the anointing gives Jesus the courage he needs, and Mary, the strength to face what she must face. Strength we need as well. 

May it be so! 

Amen.

************************************************

Moosup Valley Congregational Church UCC

Lost and Found

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

March 27, 2022

The writer of the Gospel of Luke is fond of “lost and found” stories.  In this chapter alone, we have three – the story about the shepherd who has 99 sheep safely in the pen and goes to find the lost sheep; the story about the woman who sweeps her house until she finds the lost coin; and, our lesson for today, the story of the son, called prodigal, squanderer, because he recklessly spent his inheritance.  To the family, he is the lost son. Jesus tells these stories in the context of a lot of whining, by the Pharisees and scribes, who complain that Jesus spends too much time with sinners – and, furthermore, that the sinners are enthralled by him, likely why these religious leaders are “bent out of shape.” 

So Luke is making the point that Jesus has come for the lost, just as he declared in the synagogue in Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry, when he opened the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, … to bring good news to the poor…  release to the captives, . . . sight to the blind, . . . freedom to the oppressed….”  

In the first two stories it’s clear what is lost and found – a sheep and a coin.  God is like a shepherd who looks for us when we are lost, even us, and God is like a woman who turns her house upside down until she finds what she has lost.  On the surface, we can assume, then, the prodigal son story is about God who loves us and welcomes us home, no matter what.  And it is – but there’s more to it than that.

You heard the text:  Tell me if it doesn’t feel like a dysfunctional family case study, and as family therapists tell us, “dysfunctional family” is an oxymoron – all families are dysfunctional.  It’s only a matter of degree.  So, in the case of this biblical family, what was lost — and what was found?  Clearly the prodigal son loses his innocence and his arrogance.  What about the others?

There are four family members in this story, three who speak and one who is silent:  the young son, the older brother, the father – and the mother.  Where was she?  What was her role in all this?  Usually, we look only at the boy who squanders his inheritance and the father who welcomes him home.  Today, let’s look at everyone.  For which role would you try out?   Which part are you going to play?  Maybe there’s a little of all of them in all of us….

First, the prodigal.  He’s young, full of himself.  It’s all about him and what he wants.  So what, if the ancestral land he is to inherit is sacred land, passed down through generations as God’s gift to his family.  So what, if he is shaming his father by asking him to sell land in this land-based economy, and fork over the proceeds.  So what, if he is diminishing the entire family.  It’s all about greed – and I want it now:  He must have been a teenager, the “me” generation.  The world is his oyster, and it revolves around him.  We know about teenagers – we were teenagers and we, many of us, have raised teenagers.  And we all know adults who are still stuck at 15, adults in age only.

So this boy packs up his things and goes off to find his fortune.  It’s the stuff of fairy tales.  But life in the real world is difficult.  He squanders everything he has on wild living, and when his money runs out, and he goes to look for a job, the economy in this far country has been hit by famine and is in recession.  The only work he can find is working for gentiles, on a pig farm, no less, and he a Jew!  This is insult added to injury! 

He comes to his senses, the text says; that is, he grows up.  And he realizes what he has lost, that he is lost, he sees himself for who he is, and he wonders if it is too late to make amends, to have some kind of reconciliation with the father he has shamed.

Then, the older brother, all this time, the dutiful son.  He was the first-born with all the responsibility that first-born children carry.  Many of us are the oldest children in our families and take leadership seriously.  It’s all about the job, taking charge, and holding the family together.  I wonder what it was like for him to watch his younger brother growing up.  Was he pushed aside when the new son was born?  Was he jealous?  Did he resent that his brother was pampered?  Got away with things that he had not been allowed to do?  Perhaps he was secretly glad when his brother left:  good riddance!  Maybe he even had seeded the idea, led him on, encouraged him.  In his heart of hearts, however, I wonder if he felt guilty. 

And now the brat has come home, looking like he’s been living in a pig sty!  Mixed emotions.  Jealously that his younger brother has gotten to do all the things they had dreamed about together, lying in the hayloft on warm nights.  How come he gets to screw up – and then come home to a royal welcome? 

But perhaps he also feels relief that his little brother is safe?  I wonder if he can admit that he colluded in this, that he bears some of the blame for his brother’s leaving, that he’s not so innocent after all.     Almost forty years later, I still look at my former husband, should I run into him, and wonder what blame I share for our divorce.  People have confessed to me, “I regret that I slapped my kid.”  “I regret that I cheated on my spouse.”  “I regret that I stole the money.”  I regret, …”  No one of us is squeaky clean….  

But his father, the head of the family, to carry on like this?  Life really is not fair…!  He has worked night and day on the farm, year after year, being the “good” son, doing what was expected, honoring his father, supporting the family.  Lots of us are like the older brother – miffed that someone else is successful, resenting it, in fact.  Life is a contest, and we’re out to win! 

And the silent one:  Where is the mother?  There’s always a mother.  Was she in the women’s quarters?  Relegated to the kitchen?  Did she miss her youngest son?  Long for his return?  Perhaps she treasured a dove that he had carved for her when he was 10, a crudely shaped thing he had made for her with love.  She would take it out when she was alone, to caress the memory of him as a little boy, bright-eyed, excited with generosity.  If she had seen him coming, would she have hiked up her skirts and gone running down the dusty road to embrace him?  Had she dreamed of such a possibility, lying awake in the night?

Or perhaps she – a beloved wife – had died in childbirth, bringing this new baby boy into the world.  Maybe that’s why the father coddled him, was so generous with him – instead of disowning him.  After all, he had his mother’s eyes, and he would give his kingdom to have her back!

Where is the mother?  In his painting, Return of the Prodigal Son, Dutch master Rembrandt, painting in the 17th century, shows a young man kneeling at the feet of his father, old and heavily bearded, bending over him.  His hands are splayed on the boy’s back, pulling him toward him.  If you were to look closely, you would notice that one of the hands is a man’s hand, and the other, a woman’s hand.  Rembrandt had great empathy for the human condition, and was known as one of the great prophets of civilization.  Rembrandt understood that the love of God can be understood as a father’s love –         but also as a mother’s love for her child.  Remember Jesus’ parable of the woman who sweeps until she finds us?  God is like that….

Finally, let’s look at the father – who is, for all intents and purposes – a prodigal himself, because he is extravagant in his love.  He has been robbed of the land he has tilled all the years of his life, shamed by a son who forsakes him for loose living, left in his old age without the comfort of the child of his heart and precious grandchildren on whom he might dote.

Yet, he, too, squanders his love lavishly on the son, giving out of his abundance everything he has for this lost one who has returned home.   “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost and now am found,…”  Who deserves the father’s lavish banquet?  Not the young son who has been blind but now sees….  Not his self-righteous older brother who resents the extravagance….

You see, Jesus’ story is not about right and wrong; it’s not about what’s fair and what’s not fair; it’s not about human standards and conventions.   It is about love:  And in God’s world, mercy trumps justice; forgiveness trumps sinfulness; the extravagant love of God trumps all expectations.  We humans “dumb” God down to our own narrow-mindedness and selfishness.  In the hymn, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” one stanzas often is left out of our hymnal:  “But we make his love too narrow / By false limits of our own; And we magnify His strictness / With a zeal He will not own.”

Jesus’ parable presents the truth of a God who loves us – lost and sinners all – a shepherd who searches through the dark until he finds us, a housewife who sweeps herself frantic until she finds us, a father and mother who forgive us and long to bring us home, with a love that we cannot begin to comprehend and that multiplies with each new one found. 

Whoever we are and wherever we are on life’s journey – Pharisees, scribes, tax collectors, fishermen, innkeepers, brick-makers, soldiers, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, God is calling us home during this Lenten season and all seasons. 

And our spendthrift, prodigal God will throw a lavish party for us, and hire the best caterers, and bring out the best California wines, and bring in Susan Boyle and Bruce Springsteen, and invite all the neighbors and the street people and the people behind bars, and the people in barrooms and drug dens and mental hospitals, and the elderly who live alone, and our children who are unable to live alone, and our wounded veterans who need to learn how to live again.

There will be feasting and music and dancing, and when the wine runs out, there will be more, enough for everyone.

May it be so!

Amen. 

****************************************************

Moosup Valley Church

Thirsting….

Isaiah 55:1-9

March 20, 2022

When was the last time you were really thirsty?  Really thirsty?  Often, when I’ve been busy all day, I forget to take time to eat or drink anything and then, at bedtime, I’m so thirsty!  

When I am that thirsty, I remember the story my friend Irene told me about her trip back to her country, Zimbabwe, in Africa, several years ago to see her mother before she died.  She watched thirsty people in her village stop at a puddle and gather up dirty water in their hands.  And I remember the people in Flint, Michigan, waiting for the truck to bring bottled water when they are thirsty.  Safe, clean water is getting to be more and more of a problem around the world, including in the US. And think of our sisters and brothers in Ukraine, thirsty for water!  Thirsty for freedom! Thirsty for peace!

When was the last time you were really thirsty?  When you were working in your yard last summer?  When you were hiking in the mountains?  When you donated blood and couldn’t seem to get enough to drink for long afterwards? 

Are you thirsty?  Are you hungry?  Isaiah is addressing his people in Exile who have been hungry and thirsty in captivity in Babylon but who now contemplate returning to their homeland.  But Isaiah is talking about more than bread and water.  Are you trapped by circumstances?  Are your finances dried up?  Are you lost and lonely and afraid?  Are you thirsting for life to return to normal after Covid, or for something out of reach – an unrequited love, perhaps, or the face of a beloved parent, child, or spouse long since gone?

Isaiah addresses a conquered people – in exile, struggling.  “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;…” all those who are hungry but without money, come and buy and eat.  Isaiah holds out a new life and a different reality with a series of imperatives: “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,…”  See! And seek!  And forsake!  And return! 

At the same time, Isaiah chastises his people for wasting their resources and striving for things that have no benefit:  “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”  Isaiah spreads out God’s banquet and issues an open invitation:  “Come, everyone who thirsts….”  Isaiah presents a God who loves us in the flesh:  a God who knows we have bodies that need water and bread and touching, a God who uses our physical eyes and ears to draw us to Godself, a God who uses our brains and hearts to build a lasting covenant with us.

Too much of Christian thought neglects the body and concentrates on our spiritual selves, as if they are disconnected from our flesh and blood. Picture us all in a swimming pool together, bathing caps of different colors bobbing around in the water, heads without bodies, faith without substance. 

Isaiah connects us – body, mind and soul. God wants all of us – no matter how young or old, no matter how fat or skinny, no matter how sexy or uptight.  In the Genesis creation story, God looks at all of creation, including us, and pronounces it very good.  God loves us in the flesh. Ho, everyone who thirsts – that would be you and me, and everyone – … come to the waters;…”  Note that the way we experience God is in our body-ness. We take in the nourishment that God gives as we take in water through our mouths.  

I love the concrete earthiness of Isaiah.  But there is a challenge here, too:  How do we use our bodies and minds?  Do we use them to build a relationship with God?  Isaiah urges, “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.” We have sought after drink that does not quench our thirst, bread that does not satisfy our hunger, material goods that do not bring us fulfillment.  We thirst after reputation and money and status in the marketplace.  We despoil the earth’s body and use more than our share of the world’s resources.  We are disconnected from each other.  Isaiah says, “We spend our money for that which is not bread, and our labor for that which does not satisfy.”

But God does not give up: God speaks to us through the Word become flesh to dwell among us – Jesus of Nazareth – in the body of a human one who ate and drank and slept, who listened and taught and wept, who laughed and loved and walked the earth.  God speaks “body” language; this is why God sent Jesus to us, someone who offered living water to the Samaritan woman at the well, and the bread of his own body that satisfies, someone who would show us through his life how our lives should be lived and cared for.

Spiritual dryness can become a chronic condition, and on this third Sunday in Lent, Isaiah calls to us with a “Ho!”  And a reminder to come to the “living water” and drink deeply on a regular basis.  It is during Lent that we recognize that we, too, are living in Exile in our time, that we are estranged from our own best selves and the God who made us. 

Poet Mary Oliver, in her book Thirst, writes of “Coming to God” and how difficult that is for her:

“Lord, what shall I do that I can’t quiet myself?   . . .

“To enter the language of transformation! 

To learn the importance of stillness,

with one’s hands folded!  . . .

            “Lord, I would run for you, loving the miles for your sake.

            I would climb the highest tree

to be that much closer.

            “Lord, I will learn also to kneel down

into the world of the invisible,  

the inscrutable and the everlasting. 

Then I will move no more than the leaves of a tree

on a day of no wind,

bathed in light,

like the wanderer who has come home at last

and kneels in peace, done with all unnecessary things;

every motion, even words.”[1]

It is during Lent that we are reminded that regular and sustained disciplines of prayer, quiet times and engagement with God’s word will also sustain the thirsty soul. God invites us, through the prophet Isaiah as to the people of Judah, to come and drink deeply and be refreshed.

May it be so! 

Amen.


[1] Mary Oliver.   Thirst.  Boston:  Beacon Press, 2006, p.23.

***************************************************

Moosup Valley Church, UCC

The Fox and the Hen

Luke 13:31-35

March 13, 2022

We first heard his name at Christmas. Herod, the father, had been appointed King of the Jews by the Romans. He was a brutal ruler who terrorized the nation.  You would remember him, Herod the Great, as the one who ordered all baby boys to be killed following the visit of the Magi, to make sure no boy would grow up to threaten his seat on the throne, the reason why Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, as Matthew tells it.  And 30 years later, it’s his son – Herod Antipas – who beheads John the Baptist over a promise at a party.  Jesus is well aware of this Herod, known by the people as the “fox.”  He’s a petty tyrant, rich, cruel, paranoid.  Herod will stop at nothing to maintain his status, power and control. It’s always politics, isn’t it? 

We are not immune from politics, 2000 years later.  We’re more embroiled in political battles now than ever! Over the right to vote, over the right to carry guns, over who can enter the country and who cannot, over who decides what can be taught in the schools. And now the U.S. and Europe are dancing dangerously around Putin and trying to stop the invasion of the Ukraine without triggering a nuclear war with Russia.  Russia’s official position is that we started it, and says that any other news is fake news. It’s always politics, isn’t it! Whom to believe?

Jesus was as astute as anyone, as politically savvy as the next prophet.  He was not the timid, self-effacing, meek and mild Savior that some, who have not read the Gospels carefully, would have us think. He was prone to saying such things as, “Indeed [when the kingdom of God arrives in its fullness], some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:30).  Jesus was always turning the social order upside down, upsetting the political applecart.

No sooner had Jesus uttered these words, than some Pharisees show up.  Luke, too, you see, is political about how he pieces together the Jesus story to make his point. The Pharisees have come to warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him, no surprise….  Jesus had been traveling through one town and village after another, teaching and healing, working his way toward Jerusalem, toward the seat of power; clearly he has captured the imagination of the people, and Herod is threatened.

But what of these Pharisees?  Weren’t they working hand in glove with Herod, concerned for their own position among the elite?  Now it sounds as it they are Jesus’ friends, coming to warn him….  Or is this just more politics?  Perhaps, they think, if they drive him out of Herod’s jurisdiction, toward Jerusalem, Pilate will have to deal with Jesus.  Herod and the religious establishment will be off the hook.

Jesus is not fooled.  “Go and tell that fox for me ….”  For three years, Jesus has been presenting a counter-cultural reality of the world, one in which demons are cast out, people are cured, the poor are cared for, the vision of Isaiah is fulfilled.  Jesus is on a mission that will take him to the very seats of power, and he will not be diverted from this mission, foxes or no foxes.

Jerusalem and Washington, Baghdad and Tel Aviv, Port-au-Prince and Kabul, Moscow and Kyev,     and all the capitals of this world, where dreams of a more just world go to die – watch out!  Jesus is on his way, and he will not be diverted.  I can imagine Jesus’ lamenting over Washington, our broken government where there is no longer any middle ground. 

We voters are part of the problem when we want balanced budgets but no tax increases or cuts to programs that benefit us; a stop to importing Russian oil and gas without a price increase at the pump, a better health-care system without any threatening change.  Security has become our new idolatry, so we lead timid lives. We allow evil to trump the pursuit of good. What would it take for our leaders sit down together, put aside politics, ambition, and foxy maneuvering, take the hard stands, develop a coherent and courageous policy, and find middle ground that will serve the people?  

I can imagine Jesus’ lamenting over Jerusalem – and over Washington.  I can imagine Jesus seeing our Congress – and leaders in London and Paris, Buenos Aires and Mexico City, and in capitols all over the world – not as the imperial masters they think they are – but as frightened barnyard chicks in a storm.  Jesus might have responded to the fox with hate or rage or vindictiveness.  But he does the unexpected:  He remembers the barnyards in his village of Nazareth, the way the mother hen responds to danger.  And Jesus responds with a lament – and with love.  He offers a strong and tender word of both challenge and promise.  “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Jesus “broods” in the same way that God brooded over the waters of creation in the Genesis story, the way the Spirit of God fluttered – feminine in Hebrew – over the face of the deep on the first day of creation.  In Jesus, there will be a new creation. Jesus sees these barnyard chicks – the Herods and the Pharisees and all the masters of this world – even us – lost in the storms of our own political machinations, our own hunger for power, our own greed and self-interest, for what it is:  fear, insecurity, neediness, weakness, vulnerability.

God loves us, even when we fail, and seeks to draw us close under feathered wings. God loves us and will not stop loving us, ever, no matter who we are and how broken we are.  Jesus’ lament would be good news to the fox and to his cohorts, good news of peace and justice and love, if they understood that they, too, are called by God whose passion is to draw them close under her protective wings.

Can we trust the hen who is on her way to Jerusalem – to challenge the fox and his den of thieves?  Can we trust Jesus who will lose his life because of politics?  Can we use this Lent to consider how to restore the world to God’s original creation?   Can we tame the bit of fox in each of us?

May it be so!  Amen.

************************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Wilderness Companions

Luke 4:1-13

March 6, 2022

The first Sunday in Lent begins our 40 days of discernment, as we find Jesus at the beginning of his 40 days of discernment – a time for sorting out the meaning of his visionary experience and uncovering God’s call upon his life.  We remember the story of his baptism in the Jordan River by his cousin John.  After Jesus comes up out of the water and is praying, the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove and a voice comes from heaven “You are my son, my Beloved.” 

We can imagine that he has come out here into the wilderness to discern what these things mean for him and his ministry, to face his own demons and doubts, to examine his commitment to God and God’s call on his life. 

Like so much of scripture, the passage is filled with symbolism.  What does it mean for us?  First we might look at Jesus in the wilderness and ask, in what ways do we experience the wilderness in our own lives?  I look out at this congregation and the people in the Valley and across Rhode Island and the country, and I see the wilderness of economic uncertainty, of war in Europe and, hopefully not here, the wilderness of family estrangement and conflict and pain, the wilderness of untimely death, the wilderness of alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness.

And it’s not just us. We can’t miss the wilderness that is the rise of autocracies in the world and the move away from truth in our own country, refugees fleeing for their lives, natural disasters exacerbated by climate change and crumbling infrastructure in our cities.  And we can’t miss the wilderness that is civil unrest and polarization that divides families and neighbors. We, too, experience the wilderness of our common life.

Then, too, we might look at the meaning of the temptations.  Much is made of them, even by people who have no idea where the quote came from!  How often have we echoed Jesus’ retort to the devil, “One does not live by bread alone!”  What do you think of these three challenges posed to Jesus?  Some scholars say they are a review of Israel’s history and fall from grace. Others, that they confront our own human situation and our tendency to act for our own selfish gain.

But look at the temptations:  On the surface, the devil challenges Jesus to do good things,      to take actions that will serve his own people – which Jesus chooses not to do.  Why, do you suppose?  In the first temptation, for Jesus to turn stones into bread would have been a blessing to hungry people, and people under Roman occupation were certainly hungry and in need of bread. 

In the second, for Jesus to have power and authority over all the nations of the world would have made it possible for him to overthrow the Romans and rule with justice, a blessing for conquered people. And wasn’t that what the prophets were calling for all along?  Remember, Jesus had just read from the Prophet Isaiah in his hometown synagogue a few days before:               “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives ….”  Why not seize the day?

And in the third temptation, for Jesus to go to the temple in Jerusalem where supposedly the most righteous – the priests – were in charge and to test it would certainly have been called for. 

The religious hierarchy was working hand in glove with the Roman governor and elite to collude in the repression of the poor. Jesus could have brought needed reform to the religious institution.

But Jesus rejects these options, at least during his wilderness adventure. Later, though, he does them all:  He feeds the 5,000.  He preaches righteous thinking and acting. He whips the money changers right out of the temple and confronts the religious leaders.

So, what is going on?  What are we to learn from Jesus in our own wilderness journeys? 

On the surface, it might be about saying “No” to worldly things in order to say “Yes” to God –              which is confusing because the temptations that Jesus rejects are things that, at another time and in another place, he would embrace as a way of saying “Yes” to God.  Or, perhaps, evil is masquerading as good:  We see that, for example, when hatred and fear of gays are disguised in the language of so called “family values,” and pressure to save marriage denies it to those who don’t fit the stereotype.

But these are easy answers – and they may not be the right ones.  Let’s take another look:  Jesus is facing the temptation to be a hero, to be great in his own eyes as well as in the eyes of the world, to save people through his own personal power.  Wouldn’t we all like to be a hero? 

If you are a teacher, wouldn’t you like to turn around the children in your classroom through your own loving perseverance and attention?  If you are a health care worker, wouldn’t you like to save the next victim of a stabbing or an auto accident – or someone suffering from cancer –through your own quick action or medical judgment?  Wouldn’t I like to preach a sermon      that would solve all the theological problems of this congregation and make your lives better?  Of course!

But then, it’s all about us –and not about God!  It’s all about our success and not about God’s presence in the world, acting through us.  It’s about our egos and not about divine mystery.                                   To use a beloved hymn, the chorus becomes not, “How Great Thou Art,” but                                                 “How Great We are.”  Perhaps this is our greatest temptation.

But Jesus resisted making his ministry about himself.  In that wilderness, he emptied himself of personal ambition to make room for God’s spirit to fully inhabit him so that he could be for his followers – and for us – God’s presence in our midst. 

Jesus was not alone in the wilderness.  He went there filled with the Spirit, led by the Spirit. The Spirit did not just “drop him off” to fend for himself.  The Spirit strengthened him in fasting, led him in prayer, prepared him for the sorrow of rejection and misunderstanding and the                                     physical pain and terror to come on the cross.

Being baptized and chosen and beloved of God was not sufficient preparation to begin his ministry – just as it is not for us.  We need a wilderness.  That’s why we have Lent, a period of 40 days in each of our own wildernesses to be open to the leading of God in our lives.  Some people might give up candy or dessert, or excess TV or screen time.  But doing so might help our waistlines or our eye strain but not our lifeline to God.

Lent is … not giving up something,” one liturgical scholar wrote, “but rather taking upon ourselves the intention and the receptivity to God’s grace so that we may worthily participate in                                   the mystery of God-with-us.”[1]  This is what Jesus was doing during his 40 days in the wilderness, and this is what we are called to do during our 40 days of Lent – to discern God’s call upon our lives. 

If we can do this, we will discover God is faithful.  And not only will God meet us in the wildernesses of our own time, but God will lead us through them.

May it be so!

Amen.


[1] Hoyt L. Hickman, The New Handbook of the Christian Year, as quoted in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, page 46.

*****************************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Breathing with God

Luke 9:28-36

February 27, 2022

The Transfiguration is a strange little story that we find about a third of the way through the Gospel of Luke.  It’s a story that is also found in Matthew and Mark, so we know it’s an early story and important in the developing church.  Today, we might call it a paranormal happening, like something out of Hollywood – dazzling lights washing everything white.  Ghosts from the past.  Cloud cover and a disembodied voice. 

One can’t make this stuff up!  If we were Peter and James and John, we would have seen the face of Jesus becoming radiant as he prays, so intimate, is he, with God.   And we would have seen two men, conspiring with Jesus.  They are Moses and Elijah, Luke tells us, as he builds his story. What did it mean then?  And what does it mean to us, now?

It all means something, of course:  Light signifies the presence of God.  Moses is there to represent the law.  (He had had his own transfiguration experience when he came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments.)   And Elijah, who represents the prophets, had had some pretty supernatural experiences himself.  

And here they are together.  They appear on the mountain to confer – to collaborate with, to conspire with, to breathe with – Jesus about what awaits him in Jerusalem.  And then a cloud moves in and covers the mountain top and a Voice declares, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  Elements of this story, like so much of the biblical material, mean more than the words on the page. There’s more to this story than meets the eye. It’s not meant to be a scientific account, to be believed word for word, even to Luke, but rather as a part of the search for meaning, as a way to lose ourselves in mystery.

Sleepy disciples witness this amazing event, and it becomes for them the moment when Jesus’ inner circle understands, really understands for the first time, who Jesus is: he is one of them, yes, but more than they are.  He transcends the ordinary. 

The crowd had been asking about this teacher. They know he has been healing the sick, feeding the hungry, raising the dead, calming the storm, teaching about how life should be lived and cared for. …  They’ve heard how this rabbi has compassion for the poor, people like them, the outcast, the immigrant.  So, who is he, they want to know? 

Earlier in this chapter in Luke, Jesus had asked his disciples who the crowds thought he was – one of the prophets, e.g., Moses, Elijah, and then, Jesus asks, who they, the disciples, thought he was, and Peter responds, “the Messiah of God.”  Jesus orders them not to tell anyone and then predicts his coming suffering, death, and resurrection. And he invites them to follow him.

By the end of this chapter in Luke, Jesus will have set his face toward Jerusalem.  The Transfiguration is the pivotal event, the one that seals Jesus’ resolve to go at any cost, no matter what will happen to him.

So what’s the backstory? Luke is writing in about the year 85 CE – 50 to 60 years after the crucifixion – and the fledging church is having to come to terms with the reality that Jesus is not coming back any time soon.  And so Luke is laying down the theological foundation, building his case, making the point for posterity, for the long haul, through this Transfiguration story:  He’s telling us that Jesus is the Messiah, and we are to listen to him!

The appearance of Moses and Elijah is significant in that it places Jesus in continuity with the history of Israel, in the long line of Hebrew prophets who preached righteousness and restoration, and assures him that he is not going this alone. And, for the people, he is the One

they have been waiting for for centuries. This is what the Transfiguration means in Luke’s time and, by extension, to us.  But beyond the symbolism, what else do we observe? What are our take-aways?

One commentator suggests that their appearance comes as a kind of conspiracy, a divine conspiracy, that has brought the power of God to bear in human events, that has turned a mountaintop prayer meeting into the Jerusalem mission.  I use the word “conspiracy” not in the way we have corrupted the word to imply a secret plot to change the course of history, like 9/11 or the assassination of JFK, or even Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code where powerful organizations secretly manipulate historical events for their own ends.

It’s appropriate to use the word “conspiracy” in its literal meaning today.  We talk about inspiration and expiration – breathe in, breathe out – and in the same way we con-spire, we breathe with each other.  The Hebrew word “ruah” – breath, spirit, wind – fills us with life, inspiration and power, and it gives us the ability – breathing together – to breathe God’s love out into the world. 

So one of the ways we might understand the local church is to think of us as people “breathing together.”  We do this when we sing a hymn, don’t we? I can feel us breathing together! The power of the Holy Spirit….  God’s breath in and through us….  Think of church members huddled together, leaning in toward each other, breathing together, planning a welcome for new members, cooking up a meal for a shut-in, planning for our Concert in September or a fundraiser for Haiti.

Here’s a story about some Chinese Christians who “conspired” to change their community:


A certain man, a Christian, lived in the southern part of China.  He was a rice farmer, and his farm was located in the middle of a hill.  In time of drought he used a water wheel, worked manually by a treadmill, to lift water from an irrigation stream into his field.  Imagine the work to pump the water uphill to his field.

His neighbor had two fields below his.  One night his neighbor made a breach in the retaining bank and drained off all the water from the Christian’s field into his two fields.  When the Christian noticed the breach, he repaired it and filled his field again.

This happened three more times.

Finally, he consulted some of his Christian friends and told them what he suspected his neighbor of doing.  He said to them, “I’ve tried to be patient, but is it right to continue to be quiet about this?”

After they had prayed together about it, one of them said, “If we only try to do the right thing, then surely we are poor Christians.  We have to do something more than that which is right.”

The troubled Christian took these words to heart.  The next morning, instead of repairing the breach once again, he first filled his neighbor’s two fields, and then in the afternoon he filled his own field.

After that the water stayed in his field. His neighbor was so amazed at his actions that he began to inquire the reason and in due time he, too, became a Christian.

We, too, are called to “conspire” with God and each other, to breathe with God.  The message of the Transfiguration is that, once we start breathing with God, our appearance is going to change, we will look and sound and act like different persons.  We will become more compassionate.  We will speak the truth to our neighbors.  We will live in love, as Christ loves us.  We will act in ways that are kind and tenderhearted, forgiving others as Christ has forgiven us.  

Billy Dexter called me yesterday, and we talked for an hour! He is enormously grateful for your cards and calls, and he gives you the credit for being there through this dark time of his, for what pulled him through. I told him we have been “breathing with God.” That’s what it means to hold each other in prayer.

This Sunday, we stand on the threshold of Ash Wednesday, about to enter the season of Lent, the “lengthen season,” moving from darkness into light, from winter into spring, from death to life.  Let us pray that we, too, may breathe with God, that we, too, will begin to live a transfigured life, a life transformed by true intimacy with the divine. 

May it be so! 

Amen.

****************************************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

The Quality of Mercy

Luke 6:17-38

February 20, 2022

This text is known as the Sermon on the Plain, Luke’s version of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, better known to us as the Beatitudes. They differ in that Matthew’s story has a long list of beatitudes, whereas Luke’s has only four, but Luke matches his four blessings with four woes. This is a hard text about discipleship. You’d rather hear me preach about “Three Easy Steps to Love” or “Five Paths to a Better Life,” than about woes and loving our enemies. 

But we know that life doesn’t work like that, and preachers do a disservice to their congregations and the gospel if they don’t tackle the tough texts. To my surprise, in studying these two texts about what it means to follow Jesus, I came to a new understanding and a helpful conclusion.

In his Sermon on the Plain, which this passage is called, Luke speaks not only on level ground, but he also speaks plainly about the harsh conditions of life.  Yes, you may be poor, or hungry, or sorrowful, or hated now, but that will change:  you will inherit God’s kingdom, you will be filled, you will laugh, you will receive your reward in heaven. So your condition is temporary; there will be a reversal of fortunes.  A quick reading of the text implies that we will receive our reward in the next life, not in this one.  But is that what Jesus is saying?  Or is that a later interpretation by the powers-that-be to keep us quiet and complacent about our suffering? 

And then Jesus turns to those whom society would say are “blessed” – the rich and the full, and the happy and the well-liked –and cautions them with “woes,” that their success is short-lived and about to be undone.  He reminds them that their materialism and consumerism, and their preoccupation with how they look in the eyes of others, will be short-lived.  They, too, will lose everything and be as the poor and the hungry. 

So what came to me in the middle of the night about this “Sermon on the Plain” is the reversal of fortunes, a change in circumstances, not in some life to come, but reversals in this life, in the here and now.  This is our life, is it not?  The one who is poor finally lands a job in her field and is able to provide for her family.  The one who is hungry is assigned a plot in the community garden and is able to grow his own vegetables.  The one who battling cancer is saved by the newest medical treatment. 

And those who are seemingly healthy, wealthy and wise – those for whom Jesus promises “woes,” what about their reversals? The one who is rich loses everything in the stock market – or in the hurricane, the tornado, the flood, the forest fire. The one who has everything that money could buy, hungers for meaning in life.  The one who is happy, surrounded by family and friends, loses beloved parents and spouses and children.  The one who is looked up to by our children is brought low by accusations of sexual misconduct.

So perhaps this story of blessings and woes is not about delayed gratification and salvation, or dire threats to those who have means, but a recognition that this is the way of the world.  Suffering comes to rest on all of our shoulders, sooner or later, one way or another, some more than others.  We all need mercy.

In her book, Revelation, southern writer Flannery O’Conner creates the character Ruby who believed that God loved some better than others and that she could tell the difference by their dress, stature, and place in life.  As the plot develops, however, Rudy discovers that, whether we like it or not, God loves us all, not because of what we have done, achieved, or claimed, but solely because of who God is.  God loves us all, because God is merciful – no matter who we are and where we are on life’s journey.

This second half of the reading we might call the “Golden Rule” text, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  The Golden Rule is not unique to Jesus or even to Luke.  Long before, Greek philosopher Philo and author Homer had articulated the idea, and Matthew has his version in his gospel.  But Luke spells it out further: Our response is not predicated on the other’s behavior toward us.  Jesus says we are to do good to those who do bad to us. This is not an eye-for-an-eye or a tooth-for-a-tooth teaching.  We are to step outside of that box and check our human inclination to hit back with fists and words and offer the other cheek, to forgive and love.

Now I don’t think that Jesus, or even Luke, is advocating that we allow ourselves to be abused, to be taken advantage of.  The idea of the Golden Rule is to raise the standard of behavior to one of equal regard.  We are to treat others as we, ourselves, would like to be treated. I believe what Jesus is teaching in this difficult text is to look beyond the behavior of our enemies to understanding them, to see them through the eyes of God, to be mercifulas God is merciful. The man who bullies may have been beaten severely by his father. The woman whose anger explodes at work may have been sexually abused as a child. The child who lies may be desperate for love.  Not to condone these behaviors but to understand them – and to be merciful, as God is merciful.

Luke’s call to love our enemies is to change the dynamic, to live in a way that is contrary to our human inclination, to offer a helpful hand, a listening ear, a word of encouragement and compassion.  I think of Methodist founder John Wesley’s insight, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

So my new learning is this:  Discipleship is not about blessings and woes, and the striving to be faithful to difficult texts and rules of conduct that “go against the grain.”  Discipleship, I have come to believe, is simply to be merciful, as God is merciful, to go through life with a merciful attitude – toward ourselves and each other.  To think the best and to strive for the best for everyone.

When I came to that realization, the words in William Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice” kept running through my mind:

“The quality of mercy is not strained,” he wrote for the character Portia.

“It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath.

It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

The quality of mercy is not “strained,” that is, constrained, forced, Portia pleads with Shylock.  Mercy is like rain that God gives to all of us – no matter who we are – and God’s mercy blesses everyone.  Shakespeare has caught the essence of Jesus’ teaching and Luke’s gospel. We are not forced to love our enemies, but to seek to understand them, as St. Francis prays, to understand first rather than to be understood.  To do so, is divine-like behavior.

We are called to be merciful, then, as God is merciful, to choose mercy; there is no other way to bring peace and justice to a brokenhearted world.  Perhaps the practice of mercy is all we are called to do and be.  Perhaps discipleship is as simple as mercy itself.

May it be so!

Amen.

**************************************************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Going Deeper

Luke 5:1-11

February 13, 2022

Jesus has been creating quite a stir in the countryside.  People have heard about his healings and his teachings, and whenever they see him, they rush to come closer to see and hear for themselves.  This time there are so many crowding around him that Jesus gets in a boat and asks a fisherman to pull out a ways to put a little distance between him and the crowd so that he can speak to them.  The fisherman, Simon, soon to be called Peter, obliges. 

For Simon, it’s an ordinary day.  He’s been out fishing all night with no luck. He comes home hungry, tired, and disappointed.  But he doesn’t complain that this teacher wants to sit in his boat, after all he’s busy with his nets.  And listening all the while, undoubtedly.  Then Jesus asks him to go beyond.  “Put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Why this?  Why now?  Besides, his nets are clean; if he goes out again, he’ll have to clean them all over again – for nothing! 

Simon protests – but gives in.  Why?  What is it in Jesus that makes him push off from the shore and row out to deeper water? For this act of obedience, he is rewarded beyond expectation!  When Simon and his crew cast the nets, they are so filled to overflowing, that they need to call another boat to help them.  So many fish that the boats are about to sink.  How can this be? 

Not by any ordinary means, Simon thinks!  He realizes he is in the presence of a power that he doesn’t understand, and his first thought is to warn Jesus that he is a sinner, unworthy of the bounty of this miracle.  Jesus must have seen the fear in Simon, for he said to him, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

With that, Simon and his crew, James and John, on an ordinary day, in the middle of their regular routine, walked away from their boat, from the largest catch ever, at the height of their fishing careers, with no knowledge of where they were going, or what would be asked of them, without saying goodbye – and followed Jesus.  On that ordinary morning, in the midst of typical every-day tasks, they had had a religious experience, felt the pull of a higher calling, and without looking back, not knowing what would lie ahead, changed their lives.

People do that today.  Bankers decide there’s more to life than money, clean out their desks, take early retirement, and hike the Appalachian Trail.  I met one of them through my grandchildren.  Stock brokers decide to study for the priesthood, get their portfolios in order, leave their firms, and end their careers selling salvation instead of stocks. I know one of them, an Episcopal priest.  Doctors and nurses, construction workers and teachers, take vacations and put lives on hold to go to places like Haiti to make a difference.  We know people who have done just that.

There’s been a lot of this during Covid, this you-can-take-this-job-and-shove-it, the so called “Big Quit” or “Great Resignation,” in search of better pay, flexibility, and improved lifestyle. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than four million people left a job in November and again in December. I read one story about a couple who worked in the health field in California, putting off their dreams. During the pandemic, they left those stable jobs and purchased land in Washington state to run a reindeer farm. “We work harder here than we ever have, but it’s a joyful kind of work,” they say.

Most of the time, most of us, live on the surface – too busy with work demands and family obligations, too busy earning a living and making ends meet, too busy to take stock of our lives, to ask the difficult questions:  Questions like, what is this life all about? or, Is this all there is? or Why, then, am I depressed? Most of the time, most of us, live on the surface.  Jesus knew that we need to push out into deeper water to find what we’re looking for, to find sustenance for living.  We probably know that, too.  So, why don’t we?  Why don’t we go deeper into our own hearts and souls to find what we need to give us the life we are longing for?

When she brought in my mail last week, Sonja left a Boston University Alumni magazine on my kitchen table in which she flagged several interesting articles.  The one that caught my eye was a story about five recent BU graduates, a secular school with Methodist roots, who have become Roman Catholic priests. These men had majored in the fields of communication, journalism, and science, and in the end, decided on a commitment to the Catholic priesthood. Why?  To follow Jesus, to be a force for good, to find joy in service.

What are we longing for?  If we were to push out into deeper water, what would we find there? Self-reflection takes time and intention.  We need to stop what we are doing, to think about our lives, to examine our souls.  Who said, “Stop the world; I want to get off!”  Or in the words of the old hymn, “Take time to be holy….”  But we don’t, often enough. Perhaps you think self-reflection is something that only religious people do, and only do in convents, on their knees.  But I know people who go fishing or hiking to spend quiet time, to be in touch with the water and the sky and the mountains, who do a lot of thinking while watching their line in the water or a spectacular sunset.  So, why don’t we?  Perhaps because we might have to change our routine, disturb the people around us, give up something, make the time – and that’s not easy in our 24/7 world! 

And, then, of course, looking too deeply into ourselves, may mean uncovering something we’d rather leave buried, discovering something we’d rather keep hidden, feeling something that causes pain and loss, guilt and shame.  Simon Peter is not the only one, when faced with his own inadequacy in the midst of pulling nets overflowing with fish – in the midst of an experience beyond his understanding – who sees himself in relation to the holy and understands his sinfulness for the first time, and he’s terrified.  Going deeper is difficult to say the least – but it is the only way we discover who we really are, and whose we are, and what God is calling us to be and do with our lives.  

One more word before we leave this text.  We are used to hearing Jesus’ words, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  Or, as it is translated in Luke, “catching people.”  The metaphor suggests that Simon will be hauling in food, fish in the net, gasping for air. But this translation misses the emphasis of the original Greek where Jesus is saying to Simon Peter, “saving men and women alive,” people – you and me – living life alive

The Gospel story calls us – you and me – to live life in all its fullness, using our gifts of time, talent and treasure to serve one another and a broken-hearted world.  We are called to this discipleship – which could be a reindeer farm, or a book you’re burning to write, or a career you dream about.

Look at Tracey, now almost half-way through Seminary, who is balancing her business and her life and opening up to new ideas, new learnings, new possibilities for chaplaincy, something she’s yearned to do for years. It’s hard to change, to reach out to something new. I know, I resisted the call for 50 years!

And one final thought:  Simon has been out fishing all night and he pulls his boat up on the beach, hungry, with a back broken from pulling nets, tired and discouraged.  The last thing he needs, is to be called by God now.  Why couldn’t the call come when he’s rested and had a good breakfast, and his bills are paid and the kids are settled – and he has nothing better to do than to come and follow?  That’s because the call to discipleship comes when we least expect it, and when we think we have given everything to life that we have to give. 

Going deeper is the business of Lent.  The season will be upon us in just two weeks – the time of the year when we push away from the ordinary and cast our nets and go deeper.

May it be so! 

Amen.

******************************

Moosup Valley Church UCC

Prophets on the Edge

Luke 4:21-30

February 6, 2022

The last time we met, we heard the story of Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah in his hometown synagogue.  You will remember the words that he looks for in the scroll, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me …   to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed.”  When he finishes reading from the prophet, Jesus hands the scroll back to the attendant, sits down, and says to these village folks who have watched him grow up, “Today

this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The people are amazed.  They all know him, of course, the son of Mary and Joseph.  They are his family and friends and neighbors.  Their feelings must be mixed between pride at this hometown boy who has been working wonders, and envy, “Who does he think he is!”

Jesus could have left it at that, made his way home to have dinner with the family.  But no, he had to challenge their assumptions about how this scripture is being fulfilled, and so he waits for them to the question they have been wanting to ask: “Do here for us … what we have heard you did in Capernaum.” His reputation has preceded him. And the villagers are not too happy. Capernaum is gentile country, populated by non-Jews; They want some of the action. Do it for your own people, Jesus. They are jealous! Wouldn’t we?

In response, Jesus harkens back to two earlier prophets, Elijah and Elisha, positioning himself in a long line of Hebrew prophets who healed faithful outsiders: a foreign widow, aided during a famine; an enemy commander healed during a time of occupation. Outsiders who were, nevertheless, models of faithfulness, people to look up to.

This does not go down well. When they realize that their Jesus, one of them, an insider, has not come just for them, that they can’t keep him just for themselves when they had expected the Messiah to be theirs and theirs alone, he becomes for them like an outsider who serves a world wider than his family and his fellow Jews, and they are angry, enraged enough to toss him off a cliff. 

They had been waiting for the Messiah, the one who would end oppression, injustice, and exploitation, and usher in a new age. Now they have him, and it’s Jesus, of all people! What’s so special about him? they wonder. Besides, he cares more for foreigners than for does for us!

Jesus realizes that his effectiveness as a prophet is compromised by his relationship to the village people, and he says, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” You and I use his words to explain why our kids ignore us, our spouse doesn’t think we know anything, our colleagues at work don’t take us seriously even when the so-called expert from out-of-town told them the same thing.

But this text is not about what we take seriously, but as a way to understand what God takes seriously – concern for the least and the lost, concern for the outsider. Just as the Covid-19 virus knows no national boundaries, neither does God. God doesn’t care about the country they come from, their immigration status, their religion, their race, their political party, their bank account. Everyone is precious, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey!

So what does this text say to us today? What can we learn from it? What would a prophet say to us to end oppression, injustice, and exploitation, and usher in a new age in our times? Some of us ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” when confronted with a situation. So let’s analyze a news story that happened the end of January in NYC; let’s look at it as a model for how we might think about the world we live in:

A young woman, 21-year old Christina Darling, a student at St. Joseph College in Brooklyn, was charged with a hate crime. She was a psychology student at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. Her alleged crime? She stormed up to three children in front of a synagogue and spit on them; “Hitler should have killed you all. I know where you live and will kill you.” How would Jesus respond to [solicited feedback]:

  • The children (parents): [with comfort; I, too, am Jewish]  
  • The young woman: [talk with her about how she came to hate; teach her, etc.]
  • Polarized Society [media/internet stirring us up; dividing us]  

Things to consider:

  • The core of the gospel is to love God and neighbor as yourself.
  • Where does that hate come from?  It’s fear. Manufactured hate: deliberate stories, false news, meant to frighten us, to get control over us, to shape our opinions. To pit us against each other! Different is not dangerous!
  • All this misinformation and hatred and fear is killing us! Stressing us out as individuals and as a nation. What does Jesus do when people are being exploited? [Driving out money changers with a whip.] What Jesus needs us to do:  Get fear out of the media.

In Jesus, and in us, God seeks to weave a new story of hope and justice and love that knows no boundaries of race or class or country or religion. Let us pray that the Spirit of the Lord be upon us as a people – just as the prophets Isaiah and Jesus require – that we may preach good news to all God’s children, that we may be a place of fairness and opportunity for everyone. 

May it be so!