How Will We Know?

First Congregational Church UCC, Wareham MA, June 16, 2019

Proverbs 8:1-11 Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it. Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips. All the words of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them. They are all straight to one who understands and right to those who find knowledge. Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her. 

Mark 4:1-9 Again [Jesus] began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

First, another story, from the Rev. Craig Barnes, President of the Princeton Theological Seminary

Perhaps my greatest joy as a seminary president is placing diplomas into the hands of our graduates at commencement. They’ve worked hard for their degrees, and they have so much promise that it annually renews my faith in the future of the church. But occasionally a student slips through who makes me wonder.

Some years ago, a student was told by the registrar that he couldn’t graduate because he hadn’t completed his course re­quirements. 

He complained that no one had told him he was behind in credits. She explained that at the beginning of the semester she had emailed all students who were expecting to graduate, telling them to check the website that depicts their progress through their degree program. 

But he was not about to take responsibility for his mistake, and so he appealed to the dean, who upheld the registrar’s decision. Then the student came to see me for his final appeal.

 “My parents have already bought their plane tickets to come to commencement,” he tried. “They’re going to be so embarrassed if I can’t graduate with my friends.” I responded, “That has to be rough,” and then I mentioned his responsibility to ensure he had completed all of the courses necessary to graduate. 

The student next tried to blame the website for being confusing. I pointed out that all of the other students seemed to navigate it well. 

After that he took a stab at the administration for not being very responsive to his problem. I indicated that I was at least the third administrator who had seen him in two days. Finally, he slumped his shoulders and said, “This really hurts my feelings.” Christian Century, “Everyone In Ministry Gets Their Feelings Hurt”, June 14, 2019

What do you think?  Should the student get a diploma, be graduated without completing the course? Should the school at least let him march in the ceremony?

Princeton let him march, but made him come back in the fall to complete the program before they would sign off on his completion of the degree program…and all the time they marveled at the story of a student who could not learn. He couldn’t learn, not because he was cognitively limited, but because he refused to open his ears, refused to take responsibility for his part of the process.

But that’s not the point of this story for me… what struck me when I read it was how hard the student worked to avoid learning anything about how the world worked.  Right up to the end, he steadfastly refused to acknowledge that his choices had consequences.  

He may have acquired book knowledge, but he had not opened himself to wisdom.

And wisdom is the subject of the day.

Our lesson from the book of Proverbs sets the scene:  Wisdom is there, right in front of us, waiting for those who know there is always more to learn, waiting for those who have the humility to learn prudence, acquire intelligence, so that they might know and do the right thing.

Words are good to the one who understands; with wisdom, knowledge can turn the world upside down, but it will at the same time, strengthen the foundation of our understanding of good and evil.

Not everyone gets that.  Not everyone wants the responsibility that comes with wisdom.  Jesus makes that plain in his story we heard from the Gospel of Mark.  Some people listen, some don’t.  There’s a direct relationship between listening to God, learning wisdom, and creating a thriving, abundant, community-changing church community.  And there’s a direct relationship between being the stony ground on which the seed falls, and seeing no growth at all.

Last year I planted two high quality rose bushes in my back yard. They came from David Austin, and were nice and healthy when I planted them, in a part of the yard which – it turns out – was overrun with thick, obstructive roots from a nearby tree.  It wasn’t wise, once I saw the root system, to insist on planning the bushes.   But I did. And then I proceeded to neglect the bushes during the driest part of the summer.  I was lazy; I refused to re-read the instructions; I refused to learn. And my bushes died.  the bushes were guaranteed to not die the first year, but you know, I’m too ashamed of my negligence to even think of putting in a claim. But there’s more – this spring, one of the bushes came back!  And today it’s got three lovely rose blossoms on it.  It’s not as strong as it should be, but if I can learn from last year’s mistakes, it’s given me a second chance.  Will I have the wisdom to take care this time?  Ask me again in September!!

It’s never too late to learn wisdom.  We can’t, of course, go back and change our past, but we can allow wisdom to change our future.  

There’s a sheep-farmer in the Lake District of England, who’s been involved for the past few years in changing the way he and his neighbors handle their fields.  The received wisdom is that its best to grow animals in large feedlots, and then to deal with the byproducts as a pollution hazard.  

This guy says, the best way to grow meat animals is in small herds, grazed on grass, where by products become natural fertilizer and actually improve the land.

It’s a hard sell.  People think it’s easier to handle large herds of animals.  They think it’s cheaper, and maybe it is.  And, besides, it’s the way the bigwigs, the scientists, have told them to do things for the last one hundred years.

But they’re wrong.  Growing animals in small herds, on grass, not only produces healthier animals and better meat; it also improves the soil on which the animals graze, and that means – in the long run – better, tastier crops all around.   

With wisdom, he’s changing minds.  It’s never too late to learn wisdom; never too late to change our world.

Wisdom isn’t acquired accidentally.  It’s something we have to work towards.  Learning wisdom can be painful because we have to admit, at least to ourselves, that we don’t know everything.  Sometimes we’ll push back against the call to move ahead.  We may even have to admit we are wrong, that we have not taken the right path.  And that’s hard.  People may be hurt, even us.

Here’s the good news:  

God knows we are not perfect.  

God knows we are learners, people who struggle to understand right and wrong.

God knows that we much prefer to handle things without any fuss ever anywhere.

God understands.  God stands here before us to encourage our first steps, to keep us trying in the face of failure.  God is here to help us learn wisdom, to keep us headed in the right direction.

The offer is in front of us, every day, for that is the wisdom-blessed gift of God.

Amen.

© 2019, Virginia H. Child

Time to Tell the Truth!

First Congregational Church (UCC) Wareham MA, June 9, 2019

Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2: 1-4, 12-13 — When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

It’s time to tell the truth.

It’s time to say, as clearly as possible, that Pentecost turned the world upside down.

It’s time to know that it continues to change things, even unto today.

It’s time to recognize that today is not the same as yesterday.

Back on that first Pentecost feast, everyone thought today would be exactly like yesterday.  They thought their world could never change.  Their lives were filled with despair as they struggled with Roman occupation, with the constant pull of Roman culture on their young people, on those who wanted to “get ahead.”  They never had much, and what they had seemed to be drifting away.

Suddenly, with the power of a mighty wind, change came to them.  Whenever I hear this story, I think of stories my family told of the summer of 1955, when two hurricanes within a week dropped so much rain in the town of Putnam that the Quinebaug River flooded.  That flood destroyed much of the industrial base in Putnam, floated most of the low-income housing down the river, and took down every bridge across the river for more than twenty miles, isolating the town from the rest of Connecticut.

Change came to Putnam overnight.

Most change, even the most monumental change, however, comes so slowly that we don’t easily recognize what’s happening.  Most of the time it’s like those stories of the frog in the pan of water – by the time we realize what’s happening, it’s happened.

And that’s where we are today.

All over the United States, people no longer attend church in the way they did even forty years ago.  

Forty or fifty years ago, the single easiest way to establish yourself was to become active in a local church.  It was how you showed your respectability.  Church was where you met people; church was where you made business contacts, got to be known.

Back in the day, church was where our kids learned how to conduct meetings, where they learned about right and wrong, where they went to parties, met their friends.

Church was where we went for parties, or steak dinners, or plays – because there were no other options.

Today, you make those business contacts on the golf course, or at Rotary.  Today our kids are too busy to go to church – ask any pastor who’s tried to schedule Confirmation!  Even twenty years ago, I could schedule Confirmation classes for the same time as Roman Catholic CCD classes and get pretty good attendance, but these days, the Roman Catholic church has lost so many members that following along with them just doesn’t help. 

Today, we may meet friends out at a restaurant, but hardly anyone thinks of a church supper as a great way to bring friends together.  Someone else is doing that, just as if there’s still a theatre group in town, they’re using the high school facilities, not the stage in our hall.

The truth is, the world has changed, and we’ve not kept up with those changes.  

Sounds discouraging, doesn’t it?

But, you know, I think that behind those discouraging stories, there’s an encouraging opportunity.  You see, being the place to validate your respectability never was as important to the church as we thought it was.  Being the entertainment center for our youth?  Nope, not that either.  And being the place to meet friends – not central.  And so losing most all of that, has opened a new opportunity to us, a new transformation.

When you strip all the other stuff away, what’s left is our true center.  And it’s much easier to see that than it was back in the day.

We are not here to entertain; we are here to honor God with our worship, to equip ourselves to be the transforming agents of our world, to teach and practice a Gospel of love, justice and peace throughout our world.  

At home with our families, at work with our colleagues, out in the community, on the local, state, national or international stage, we are working for God to make this world better.

Yes, the truth is, we’ve lost a lot that was important to us, but we still have what is at the center.  We still have an important message to our world.  

Just as on that first Pentecost, we still preach a gospel that says, “whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”  That’s a truth that never changes.  

We still spend our time, our talents, our treasures on fixing what’s broken, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the sorrowing, healing the ill, making peace among the warring.  That’s a truth that never changes.

We still comfort and support one another, building community step by step, proclaiming and living – to the best of our ability – what we have learned from Jesus.  And that too is a truth that never changes.

Pentecost reminds us that change happens, worlds turn, and yesterday is gone.  But Pentecost also tells us that our future is yet to be known, and in the words of the great Baptist missionary, Adoniram Judson, “the future is as bright as the new morning sun.”

Over the summer, our search committee is going to be leading us in making plans for our future, as they seek to describe just exactly what we’re seeking in a settled pastor.  We don’t know, today, what that will be.  But our plan is that by the end of the summer, we’ll have made some decisions, come to an understanding of just how the winds of Pentecost have begun to stir a clear vision among us all.

The Holy Spirit leads us forward, out of yesterday, and into tomorrow.  And that is the truth that will never fail.

Amen.

© 2019, Virginia H. Child

What Is This Bread? What Is This Cup?

First Congregational Church UCC, Wareham MA, June 2, 2019                                                                       

Luke 24:13-35  – When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

On Easter Sunday afternoon, two of Jesus’ disciples were headed home.  After all their hopes, all the excitement of Palm Sunday, they’d though the week would be one triumph after another.  And, we know, it wasn’t.  Instead, it was one disaster after another, each one worse, until at the end of the week, their beloved leader, Jesus, was executed.

They were headed for home and safety, headed away from any of the anger in Jerusalem, headed home after hearing the story about the Resurrection from some of the women, who’d gotten the crazy idea that the reason Jesus’ body wasn’t in the tomb was that he had risen from the dead.  Just too hard to believe, and if it’d been real, wouldn’t it have been Peter or James or John who’d have been told?  Not one of the women???

They were walking and as they glumly ambled down the road, each of them looking as though they’d lost their best friend, they were joined by a stranger, someone they didn’t recognize.  The stranger asked them why they were so sad.  In astonishment that anyone wouldn’t have heard what happened, they spilled out the whole story.  They even told how they couldn’t possibly believe the women and their astounding story.

You might well think they were pretty clueless, to not recognize Jesus when he was walking right beside them, but think about it.  Don’t you remember times when you had trouble recognizing someone – maybe they cut their hair so it was now short when it’d been really long, or shaved off a beard, or wore radically different clothing?  Sometimes we might think to ourselves, wow, that looks like Susie…muse be a cousin, when it’s actually Susie.  In this case, since they knew, absolutely, that Jesus was dead, it didn’t matter how much the man looked like him – he couldn’t possibly be him, and so they didn’t recognize him.

They told him their story and he gave it right back to them, re-telling them all Jesus had said – the words spoke to them, they liked what he was saying, enough that they begged him to stay with them in Emmaus and have dinner, but still they didn’t recognize him.

It wasn’t until they shared bread and cup that they began to realize that Jesus was back, was with him. The bread and cup – the scent, the taste, the experience of being together – all combined to bring them back, to have them knowthat Jesus still lived, still was changing the world.

The bread and cup we’ll share this morning are the same meal that the disciples shared with Jesus so long ago.  And the story we shared tells us some important things about the meal.

Because, you know, eating this bread, drinking this cup, is about more than simple eating and drinking. This isn’t snack time in the church. This is an expression of our willingness to follow Christ.  It is the way we tell the world to step away from our hope, our faith, our commitment to love.

For us, Communion is something like an AA meeting, where we can hear and tell life stories, know pain, comfort and be comforted, and, when we eat and drink, say to God and ourselves, yes, still, again, one day, one month at a time, I will follow Jesus.

Our ancestors in faith believed that taking communion faithfully and regularly would absolutely strengthen us in faith – they called it food for the sin-sick soul, medicine for the weary, comfort in suffering.

Communion is a meal which transcends time; when we eat and drink, doing what our ancestors have done, there’s a way in which we are united in this common commitment, so that we are not alone, but joined by all who have gone before us, an unending stream of saints of God – parents, maybe; surely friends and fellow church members who have gone on before us.

And there’s more… because Communion isn’t only about me and my life, but about declaring to our world that there is another way to life.  Communion is an act of defiance – in the face of those who would separate us into “us” and “them”, we eat together as one.  

In the face of those who would say that some people are better, smarter, whiter, more important, we say that every person matters.  Just as we hear, on tv or radio or internet, that it’s ok for people to be homeless, hungry, or dying because they can’t afford a doctor, we eat and drink together to say that God loves everyone, and no one should be without home or food, work or heath.

Here we all are, in this place where we regularly meet God, care about one another, and plot to change our world, and now there is only one more thing to do. . . 

And that is to simply share this feast; it is small but it is mighty.  So when the meal is passed, take your share, and when you eat and drink, know that Jesus sits with you, and trust in the strength it will give you to continue faithful for all your days.

Amen.

© 2019, Virginia H. Child

What A Responsibility!

First Congregational Church UCC, Wareham MA May 26, 2019

Acts 16:9-10 — During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.


So much of the story of the Bible, the story of our relationship with God, is a story of failure.

You’d think that the story of God would be a story of success.  Who, after all, wouldn’t want God to succeed?  Who wouldn’t expect that, when we follow God, we will all succeed?

And yet, at least one of the truths of the Bible is that success is hard to come by, easy to lose, and not always clear in the moment.  The path of following God is not even as clear as an old trail on the Appalachian Trail, where the bushes have grown up and the arrow painted on the tree faded to only vague visibility.

And, of course, we know that what exactly constitutes success is never clear.

We might think we know what success is – isn’t it having more money than we need?  Isn’t it being young, vigorous, a leader in our work? Isn’t it having well-behaved children? Or, being young, isn’t success getting into the right college, getting a good job, marrying well, and so on?  Isn’t it about cheering for a successful, winning team – go Patriots?  Isn’t it about having the right house, with colors that “pop”, with “sleek” appliances — can’t you tell I watch a lot of HGTV?  Isn’t all of that success?

But, sadly, it isn’t. You can paint every room in the house in the right color, but next year there’ll be a different color and you’ll be behind the times yet again.  Chasing that kind of success is like a dog chasing its tail… always running, never catching,

The story of the people who follow God is a story of a different kind of success, not a chase after the shiniest object or the latest gizmo, but a quiet search for worth and meaning, a yearning for the pure essence of love to infuse our world.  As people of God, we yearn for that which draws our world into good relationship with one another.

And that brings us to today’s lesson – because it’s a story of success and failure and more success, or more something….

Paul and Luke and Timothy were travelling together, on a missionary journey to share the good news of Jesus Christ.  Paul had had a dream that the Macedonians wanted him to come over and be with them, and so they had travelled to Philippi, a city on the eastern (Turkey-facing) coast of the Greek peninsula.  There they met Lydia, who was a prosperous merchant.  Don’t miss that – this is an amazing success story, that a woman was a public success, and especially at something which required her to engage as an equal with men.  Lydia was a success.

But Lydia knew that success in the world of business only took her so far, and she had been looking for something more eternally satisfying.  She’d been attending the services at her local synagogue, even though she wasn’t Jewish.  It was good, but it still didn’t seem right.  She didn’t feel called to become a Jew, and so she couldn’t formally join the community.  But then she heard Paul speak, heard his message, that in love, God welcomes everyone, God offers us all a way to live lives of value, and – on the spot – she asked him to baptize her and all her family.

And here’s the message for today.  When Lydia heard Paul, really heard what he was saying, she responded.  Right then.  Immediately.

Her choice changed her life. No longer simply focused on making money, she was now focused on following God’s call to build a better world.  No longer simply trying to please herself, now she has said that God is in charge.

This is important for us, because sticking to our choice is a constant challenge for those who follow God. The choice to follow God is not a once-for-all kind of thing.  We have to renew it every day, renew it with every opportunity which comes to us.

We are going to be faced, every day, with opportunities to show forth our love of God, and opportunities to take the easy way, to continue to do what we’ve always done.  And it’s all too easy to make excuses as to why we’re not going to take the time to figure out what God wants, not today, since we already know what we remember that God wanted in the past.

But the world changes and the needs of the world change as well.  What helps us bring good news to our community one year may not be effective another year.  Worship which is wholly satisfying to one may no longer speak to all.

When change is needed, how do we respond?  Reluctantly, dragging our feet, complaining that we really don’t like that new (whatever it is)? Or with a sense of exploration, with our eyes open to what’s out there?

Or do we respond with fear, because we know we can’t do it alone?

Here’s the good news – we’re not alone.  God is our guide, God is our strength, and when we follow God, we will be sustained.

And there’s more good news. it’s not about success… it’s not about failure…. God doesn’t measure us by the number of times we hesitate; God doesn’t measure us at all.  God simply loves us, and calls us, every day, into a loving relationship.  That loving relationship will move us forward, step by step.  And when we falter, it is love that will call us back again.

So, step out in love, and follow God.

Amen.

Who Follows? Who Leads?

First Congregational Church UCC, Wareham MA  May 19, 2019

Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’

But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.

11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.

16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

 

Who’s in charge here?

Over in the Connecticut Conference, a group of pastors are talking on-line about what makes a church, a church.  It’s been an interesting conversation.  Some of us quote the Constitution and Bylaws of the United Church.  Some of us cite the attitude of the members of a church, to determine whether it’s a church or a club.  Some of us want to identify the activities a church sponsors, or leads, or participates them in – and maybe even discern whether or not they are really church-like.

And it makes me wonder, just who’s in charge of deciding whether a church is, indeed, a church.  Our bylaws tell us what makes us a United Church congregation, but they cannot define what makes a church a church.  Sociologists can discern that some churches are really clubs, picking and choosing who will be accepted, but they cannot define what is a church.  And being a church has nothing, nothing to do with who or how many different groups use our building.

But I don’t want to get lured off into a delightfully diverting discussion of the nature of churches.  I know you’re disappointed to hear that <smile> but, for today, the question is not “what is a church””, but rather, who is in charge, in this case – who decides what is a church?  It’s not about “what”, but it’s about “who”.

And “who” is a question we all need to answer.

You see, the temptation in our world today is to say that, of course, no one is in charge of me.  And in churches, however you define them, one of our temptations is to say that the pastor is in charge.  Can you see the challenge if, on the one hand, we believe that no one can tell me what to do, and on the other hand we believe that it’s the pastor’s job to tell us what to do?

So, who’s in charge?  If we leave this unexamined, we end up in a place where it’s pretty difficult to move in any coherent way.  We can just allow the pastor to do whatever she (or he) wants, so long as it doesn’t mean that we ourselves have to do much.  Or it might mean that she can call us to follow and we can, fighting all the way, or maybe even just quietly resisting, because “we’re congregationalist and no one can tell us what to do.”

I think Peter knew this situation exactly.  He was a leader, going forward with what he thought God wanted, living in the tradition of Jesus Christ, but then found himself in a tough space, when the folks “who’d always been here” began to criticize his actions.

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

The long-term folks thought they were in charge; they thought Peter thought he was in charge.  And they were divided.  Divided, because they didn’t know who was in charge.

Peter then told them why he was doing what he was doing.  And in the telling, he tells us the answer to the question.  Peter thought he was in charge, you know, thought he was in charge right up until he had a dream.  He didn’t like his dream; he fought against the vision, but it came back again and again.

Peter’s dream was anathema to him, for he dreamt of a great feast spread out before him, filled with foods his faith told him were never to be eaten. I’m sure that at first, he thought he was being led astray.  But there was that persistent voice, the voice of God, telling him that there was further light breaking forth from God’s Holy Word, that God was still speaking, that what he had always thought was unacceptable, had been made by God and was good.  “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

So, who was in charge?  Our reading for today concludes:  “When they heard this, they [the leaders in Jerusalem] they were silenced.  And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Who was, who is in charge?  Not the people, not the pastor, but God.

Who’s in charge here?  Not me, not you, but God.

It is God who guides our work together.  It is our task to listen to God, and when God’s voice is as upsetting as it was for Peter and the Jerusalem Council, to listen to God together, to talk together about how to respond, what to do.

God proposes, God calls, we work together to make God’s will manifest to our world.

We believe that the single best way to know what God is asking us to do, is to listen and talk together.  That’s why every voice matters in our church, that’s why it’s so important for each and for all to participate.

Here’s the thing.  Following God’s call often means that we have to re-examine well-loved old habits, maybe leave behind things we’ve loved, certainly move into ways we aren’t sure about. The future is ambiguous. Yesterday’s certainties no longer work, and tomorrow’s certainties are yet to be discovered.  We are in an in-between time, what the professionals call “liminal time”, literally time on a threshold.  It’s not easy.

There are days when I’m sure we’d love to be in a time when all the answers are clear and no one is asking tough new questions.  Well, all I can say is that I’d love to be thin, but it’s not going to happen.  We can’t spend our time yearning for a time that’s not here.   For God has called us to step forward into this unsettling time…

….and it is God who is in charge.

Amen.

© 2019, Virginia H. Child

 

Pro-choice?

A (female) legislator here in Rhode Island, noting the fear many women feel at the idea of abortion becoming illegal again, offered a bill putting the same  kinds of restrictions around laparascopic vasectomies as often exist around abortion.  A (male) legislator responded that he feels threatened and wants to prefer charges.

And in the Commonwealth of Virginia, a (female) legislator and the (male) governor have gotten into a brouhaha with anti-choice people because they seek to reduce the unnecessary bureaucracy around rare, third-term abortions.  Those folks who wish to impose their religious convictions on all the world, whether or not we are members of their faith, are up in arms.

The governor’s spokesperson wrote: “No woman seeks a third trimester abortion except in the case of tragic or difficult circumstances, such as a nonviable pregnancy or in the event of severe fetal abnormalities, and the governor’s comments were limited to actions physicians would take in the event that a woman in those circumstances went into labor.”

The article I read in the National Review then went on to imply that the “severe fetal abnormalities included children born with Down Syndrome. Phooey.

My mother was an obstetrical nurse in a Christian hospital and she would tell stories of the kinds of babies who were allowed to die peacefully when they were born with massive problems. They weren’t Down Syndrome people. They were kids with no brains, or with all their abdominal organs outside the abdomen, or other kinds of abnormalities which, in the 30s (and sometimes even today) are not repairable.  They were babies that would die, quietly, peacefully, and quickly; they did not linger.

We struggle as a country to understand that sometimes death is a gift. For children born with such problems, a short, pain-free life is more respectful of their God-created humanity than a life filled with one medical intervention after another, all the while knowing that there will never be any more to that child’s life than there was on the day of birth.

It is ethically indefensible to keep people from divorcing just because your church prohibits divorce; it is equally indefensible to impose your church’s prohibition of birth control or abortion on those who do not share your religion, particularly if your church can’t be bothered to obey laws intended to protect children after their birth.

Tell Me the Story

First Congregational Church of Wareham, January 27, 2019

Nehemiah 8:1, 3, 5-6, 8-10 — all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel.  . . .  He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.  . . .  And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lordwith their faces to the ground.   . . . So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lordyour God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lordis your strength.”

Luke 4:14-21 — 14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:  18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed meto bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,  19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

So, what’s the story?  What’s the story that so excited folks?  What’s the story that turned the world upside down?

It’s this:  A man came with the light of God so bright in his heart that people turned their lives around to follow him.

He came to tell them that getting bigger stuff wasn’t going to satisfy, but he knew a better way.

He came to tell them that there were more important things than power, and that the powerful were really weak.

He turned lives around and challenged what everyone had always known. He shared God’s love with all the world.

And for it, he was killed.

But that didn’t douse the light.  It was dark for a night, but the light came back.  It continues to shine even today.

On the day after Easter, there weren’t ten people in the world who  followed that light, took Jesus as their model, their Savior.

But people kept telling the story.  And the more people heard it, the more they wanted to hear.  Because the story changed their lives.

It’s still the same today.  We yearn to hear about a way to live where people love one another, where we care for each other, look out for the poor.  We yearn for decency and honesty in our daily dealings.  We want to understand why, despite all we do, things still go bad, children die too soon, greed, and anger and hatred still happen.

Jesus’ way shows us what’s real, helps us tell the difference between the cheap and worthless and the substantial and valued.  Jesus gave us a way to understand our world.

Living in the light makes life worth living.  We’re not just mindlessly doing what our parents did, with pointless work, bearing children, experiencing grief, and painfully dying.

No matter our life’s circumstances, we can make a difference.  Maybe only for just one person at a time but we believe that every person is valuable, every person matters, so — so what if it’s only one person.

When I first began to attend church, back in Rutland, Vermont, I was impressed to recognize some of the nicest people I’d met in the couple of years I’d been living in the city.  That ophthalmologist who’d help me pass the eye test for my Vermont driver’s license sang in the choir. People who’d helped me in stores were there.  And my favorite grocery store checker was serving communion.

Dot was not important in the eyes of the world, but she was one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met.  I didn’t know that at first, of course; it was months before I heard her tell her story – it turned out that Dot understood her work as a grocery checker in the First National as a ministry. She thought it was her job to have a pleasant conversation with every person who came through her line.  The conversations might not be long, but they were real.  She told us one day, that she was particularly intentional about talking with the older folks who bought so much cat food, because she’d figured out that many of them didn’t have cats – but knew that cat food tuna was cheaper than human tuna.  “Too many people grow old and have no one who notices them,” she said.  “I try to notice each person who comes through my line.”

I’d say no one noticed what Dot was doing, except that her line at the store was always the longest… but I suspect people thought it was just a coincidence, that we didn’t understand that it was our yearning for human contact that brought us to Dot’s line.  I’m sure she never won an award from anyone for what she did…

Does it matter  if no one noticed what Dot did?  Does it matter if we share the light, live the ministry of Jesus so quietly that no one notices what we’ve done?  Jesus tells us that when we help a neighbor, we’re giving honor to God.  What more can a person want to do with their life than to honor and praise God by doing good?

In God’s family everyone has a job.  God’s family is more like an old-fashioned farm than a crowd at Gillette Stadium. At the stadium, everyone’s there to cheer the team on — and it’s a great team, led by the greatest quarterback of all time.  But at the end of the day, no more than 53 people can play on the field.  Even Bill Belichick can’t play; he can only coach.

Contrast that to an old-fashioned family farm — the little kids learn to weed gardens when they can walk, they know how to shell peas.  By the time you’re 8 or 9, you’ll be gathering eggs or feeding pigs or collecting the cows to be milked.  And that’s about the time you’ll start driving the truck for haying season. Everyone has a job, a real job. Even the oldsters who can’t go out in the fields any more can help with child-sitting, making tools, or building community with other farmers.  When my grandfather retired from the farm, he served in the state legislature.

Living for others isn’t reserved only for the ordained, robe-wearing, book-loving geeks who pastor churches.  Our baptism, is our commissioning, our ordination to God’s service.  Every single person is able to follow God by showing compassion and grace to others.

So when the UCC says, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here, we are just repeating the story that Jesus told. Everyone is welcome in God’s family.

The psych people say that people have to take care of first things first – and to psychology, first things are food, water, warmth and rest – and then security…. but they’re wrong.  Because there are other first things, the things our Christian story provides, that are just as necessary as food and water.

Every person needs to know that their life has value. It doesn’t matter if you have nothing, you still need to know that you matter to someone.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a dying patient at Mass General, or a desperate parent trying to get to the hoped-for safety of a refugee camp. It doesn’t matter if you are dirt poor or rich as Rockefeller, we all of us need to know that what we’re doing, how we’re living matters.

Our story, the story of a man who taught us how to live with a spirit of generosity, is no luxury.  It is instead essential to life, abundant life, flourishing life.

Imagine, for a moment, what our world would be like if we choose another path.  What would it be like if we believed that the strong get to push the weak around?  What if being blonde and white meant you were better than people who weren’t?  What would our world be like if rich got everything and the poor got nothing but scraps? What would our world be like if people didn’t take turns? What would it be like if greed and hatred were our watchwords, rather than generosity and love?

We all have a choice to make, and I’m not telling any secrets when I say that some people will choose that other path, choose to live in a world where might makes right.  But we have made a better choice.  We have opted to follow the Jesus way, to make love our center line, to build community.

Following the Jesus way isn’t just an option for a day. When we follow the Jesus way, we are setting the direction for our whole life.  We’re opening ourselves to God’s leadership, committing ourselves to continuing to learn about this way, promising to care about our neighbors, all over the world.  We’re saying that there are more important things than having the largest or the latest whatever.  We’re saying that every human being matters.

This is the way to live to give our lives value.  It is the way to live to give the world value.

Come, set your compass straight, and set out on the Jesus way.

Amen.

© 2019 Virginia H. Child