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

Sharing our Gifts

First Congregational Church of Wareham MA (UCC), January 20, 2019

 

I Corinthians 12: 1-11 —   Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

John 2: 1-11 —  On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 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.

 

Seth Godin asks:  do we have a chocolate problem, or do we have an oxygen problem?

Run out of chocolate, and that’s a shame. Run out of oxygen and you’re doomed.

Sometimes, we overdo our reliance on chocolate. It’s better in small doses–too much and it loses its magic. And sometimes we confuse the thing we want with the thing we need…

If your day or your project or your organization focuses too much on finding the next piece of chocolate, you might forget to focus on the oxygen you actually need.

Do you see what he means?  Do you ever see yourself having trouble telling the difference between the oxygens and the chocolates in your life?  How about in the life of our church?

One of the hardest decisions I make, all the time, is “is this book necessary?” – is it a “chocolate”? Or is it “oxygen”?  Is it essential to my life?

Because the work I do is almost entirely with churches like ours, churches that are facing a changing world, trying to tell the difference between the chocolates we love so much and the oxygen we need.

A few churches ago, I worked with a congregation that, like this one, had a beautiful worship space.  However, at some point, they’d taken out the original pews and replaced them with new, more comfortable ones.  Nothing wrong with that – and probably when they did it, it was more of an absolute necessity – oxygen – than any kind of chocolate.

But, they’d made a mistake when they did it, and the pews were too close together.  It was impossible to get into a pew if you used a walker, and not real easy if you used a cane.  The pews were close enough, back to front, that if you were bigger, taller, heavier than average, it was difficult to get into them.  When I realized the problem, we talked about it.  People thought about it, agreed that it was a problem, and then they said, “well, no one who comes here uses a walker, so it’s not a big problem, is it? Let’s think about it.”

Removing a few pews would have solved the problem, but it turned out that keeping everything the way they’d always experienced it was an oxygen need for the people who were there.  They couldn’t see how opening the pews up was an oxygen problem for the people who literally couldn’t get into the pews.  And of course, people who couldn’t comfortably fit in the pew only ever came once.

So – part of the challenge is not just telling if something is oxygen or chocolate, but discerning, figuring out, just whose perception is the most important.

 

In today’s lesson from First Corinthians, the apostle Paul tells us there’s more than one right way to be.  Some people, he says, have this gift, while others have that one.  Each gift is important; all the gifts together make up the whole.  It’s a big challenge to balance all that, and sometimes we get caught up into thinking that someone’s spectacular gift makes them more important, gives them more power – but Paul says that’s not so.  Paul tells us that every gift, every person, matters.  He says, over and over, that we are not whole when we live in ways that exclude people.

The other day there was one of those “oh so common” kerfluffles on the news – the Vice-President’s wife is teaching at what she calls a Christian school in Virginia.  The problem is not that the school claims to be Christian but that it bars anyone – adult or child, who is gay, lesbian, transgendered.  In other words, in the name of Jesus Christ, the school says that some kids are not worthy to be educated.  That’s not Christianity, it’s bigotry – and that’s why the Vice-President’s wife is being criticized.  And the justification is found in today’s lesson – where Paul says that diversity makes us stronger.  Our differing gifts bring us together, make us stronger.

We need every person’s gifts, and every person has a gift. Maybe your gift is the ability to welcome people with a genuine smile.  In my first church after seminary, we had a man who had that gift. He’d stand at the door and welcome people – if they were new, he’d make conversation with them and then take them to sit with someone who shared some connection – if the newbie was from Ohio, she’d end up sitting next to someone from Cleveland.  If they had just bought a place near Ernie, they’d end up sitting next to Ernie.   If they liked to quilt, they would meet one of our quilters.  Now that’s a gift!

In the same church there were other people with different gifts – one had the gift of leading meetings; another had a gift for working with children, and so on.  Together, they made a whole church.  Not only did they have the gifts they needed, but they were committed to recognizing and supporting those gifts.

And that brings us back to ourselves, here, today.  Paul says each of us has a gift, and the church needs all of us to be whole.  It’s important for us to name and claim our gifts, and important for us to work together, to support one another.  So, it’s not just about my naming my gift, but my naming your gift, my respecting your ability to do something that we need, something I cannot do.

Each one of us bring something important to the table.

Each one of us has a call from God to use their gifts to create and sustain a community of love.

Each one of us makes the world better.

Amen.

© 2019 Virginia H. Child

 

 

 

 

What Is Eternal Life?

Congregational Church of Grafton MA, May 13, 2018

1 John 5:9-13 — Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

 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.

Yesterday I went to a three hour funeral of a beloved friend.  We gathered, almost 400 of us and shared photos, told stories, sang songs and listened for God’s word.

We came, knowing that dead is dead, that there is no life after death.  We’ve buried pets and plants, family members, friends, beloved and enemies.  And when they’re gone, they’re gone.

But this time, as the time together went along, we began to see something else.  We began to see the form and substance of new life arising out of the old.  We began to see death turning into new life.

Now, I’d planned all week to talk today about the eternal life that’s spoken of by the author of John’s letter.  I looked up quotes, found stories… all in the hopes of explaining the unexplainable.

Just how is it that what has been dead and buried can possibly rise and live again?  And what could something so inexplicable, so un-scientific mean to us?

But after yesterday’s experience, I find I just want to tell you what I saw and heard for myself.  Because yesterday, in its own way, I saw the dead rise and what I saw expanded my understanding of eternal life in a way I simply did not expect.

Let’s be clear.  I did not see an actual dead human being sit up and walk away.  The three hour funeral was for my seminary’s campus.  Andover Newton Theological School is a lovely set of buildings places on the top of the tallest hill west of Boston – from the top floor of the tallest dorm you can see all the way from Newton to Worcester.  It is a quiet leafy green paradise.  And on its best days, it was filled with people who all loved and served God, who sought to build community and share the good news of Jesus Christ.

But times change.  There are fewer churches, increased running costs, fewer students, more outgo, less income, and for the school, the beautiful campus, the sign of all we’d “always done” has been transformed from an important tool into a millstone around our neck.  There was never enough money to do all the necessary upkeep…

Does this sound familiar?  Fewer and fewer people attending, less and less interest, higher and higher costs, more and more expensive upkeep….?  I could just as easily be talking about this place, about our church.

So, if I went to Andover Newton yesterday to “say good-by to the campus” to attend a metaphorical three hour funeral, how is it that today I’m saying that I saw eternal life in action while I was there?

It’s because the time we spent together kept pointing out to us, kept helping us to see that the time for doing things the same way we’ve always done, the time for sitting in the same seats, in the same place, for running things in the same way, is over and done.

The time we spent together kept pointing out to us that every day we need to be willing and open to recognizing how our old habits can keep us from meeting the needs of the future.

Andover Newton nearly closed, but today it is a renewed, re-born, maybe even resurrected school on a new, to us, campus at Yale Divinity School in New Haven CT.  We were independent, owners of our own campus.  In New Haven we’re doing things differently.  But we’ve discovered that on this new campus, in company with the Yale Divinity School, we’ve shed the practices and expectations of the past that were holding us back.  We already have new students for a program that won’t officially start until next fall.

Think about what this means for us.  The writer of our lesson for today says that eternal life is found in Christ.  It’s not found in reverence for yesterday – that’s not bad, but it’s a poor foundation for tomorrow.  New life, eternal life, is found in putting Jesus Christ and the principles of Christian living first.  It’s not found by offering answers to yesterday’s questions.  Andover Newton found its new life by putting everything they’d been doing on the table, by gradually and painfully coming to see that their current situation had freed them from the cold dead hand of “we’ve always done it this way.”  That pushed the school back to its beginnings.

You probably don’t know it, but Andover Newton is the oldest graduate school in the United States.  Andover Seminary invented graduate theological education.  At a time when you learned to be a doctor or a lawyer by apprenticing, our ancestors decided that apprenticeships were no longer an adequate way to learn to help people deal with the crucial questions of life.

They started as a daring group of experimenters, trying something new, rebelling against “we’ve always done it that way.” That’s what the school – leadership, faculty and trustees – went back to a few years ago.. a beginning built on a willingness to put the past away and try something new.

We here in this church are in something of the same place as Andover Newton.  We are at a crossroads in our life.  Like that school, we can keep on doing things in the same old way or we can move out into a bold experiment.

I’ve been here now for just over a year and a half, and I know you to be good people, like my classmates at Andover Newton. Like them, we all like doing things the way we’ve always done.  We like the familiar.  We’re ok with a little change, done slowly, but radical change, putting aside the old for something that feels uncomfortable, well that’s not something we jump right into.  Trusting people we don’t really know to do the right thing, well that was hard for us in Newton too.

But if Andover Newton hadn’t stepped out on a new and different path, if it hadn’t girded itself up to go over all its programs and honestly discern if this or that program was part of our future, if it hadn’t been willing to give up its beloved Doctor of Ministry degree and any number of other things, well, it would have closed last year, never to graduate another student, unable to teach out the final 100 students, all of whom will finish their degrees.  The money was gone.  They chose God’s everlasting life, they chose to let go of all that was killing them, all that was dragging them down, drowning them, they chose to follow Christ.

And yes, I’m suggesting that we are facing similar choices.  The old ways of attracting people to church don’t work anymore.  I was raised in a world where one of the ways you proclaimed your status as a respectable person was by attending church.  Today, the Pew research folks tell us that fully one third of Massachusetts folks don’t believe in much of anything and no more than one third attend church regularly. Even well-read college-educated adults miss Biblical quotations because they’ve never read the Bible, don’t know the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and have no idea what we do in here each week. They have never been in a church, not once.

It is time, the right time, the ripe time for us to sit down in community to talk together about what we are called by God to do share the good news of Jesus Christ to one another, to our community, to the world.  Before us stretches the “slow time” of summer.  When we get to September, I want us to have constructed our plan for what we will do during our 2018-19 season to help our church thrive and prosper.

I’m not going to tell you what your goals should be.

I’m not even going to tell you what you should do.

We will discern these together.

I will only say this, that if our plans do not include doing things which push us beyond our comfort zone, if they do not require us to give up something we have loved or cherished, if they do not require us to change habits, we will almost certainly be trying to re-create yesterday, only in a different shade of color.  And even if we do the exact same thing superbly well, it won’t bring back yesterday. We need plans for today’s and tomorrow’s realities, not cherished memories of the past.

We’ll talk about this at Cabinet this week. Pass your ideas, your fears along to any of us who come to that.  The Cabinet will  plan times for us – as a congregation – to get together to discern where God is calling us to go.

And now, may God bless this church and guide it to new life.

Amen.

© 2018, Virginia H. Child

Why Are We Here?

The Congregational Church of Grafton UCC, February 18, 2018

Genesis 9: 8-17  -When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. . .

Mark 1:14-15 – “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 

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.

In February 1943, Langdon Gilkey was an English teacher at the Yenching University in Beijing China.  World War 2 had begun fifteen months ago, making it impossible for him, or for many other foreigners, to return to their native countries.  Everyone had scruffed along right where they were, but in February, things changed.  The land was under the control of the Japanese army, and they wanted all the foreigners gathered together in one place, under tight control.  And so began a sobering journey for Gilkey.

Along with around 1500 other missionaries, teachers and business people, husbands, wives, children from teens to infants, they traveled by slow train to a city in Shandong Province where they were confined in a former mission compound.  There was not enough room for everyone, there were barely any facilities – few beds, no extra blankets, not enough water for flush toilets or daily showers, inadequate kitchens to cook, no refrigeration to keep the food safe, and for that matter, not enough food.  If you’re like me and don’t quite know where Shandong Province is – well, it’s just west of Korea, at about the same parallel as PyeongChang, where the Olympics are taking place, and just about as warm and comfortable in the winter.

Langdon Gilkey came to the camp an ordinary cultural Christian, not particularly interested in the details of the faith, pretty much convinced it was largely irrelevant in a world where people now knew to work together for the best for everyone.  He believed we’d grown beyond the foolishness of greed and self-interest, that sin was an old fashioned concept.  And then he was asked to serve on the Housing Committee for the Internment Camp.

Because of the way people had entered the camp, some had much more space than they absolutely needed, while others did not have enough.  In particular, families with teenagers had two rooms, while families with toddlers had only one.  This was enormously challenging for the parents of the littlest ones – one 8×12 room in which to do everything…  The building committee came up with a plan to redistribute space – in fact, they came up with two plans to do so – and each time, to Gilkey’s astonishment, the plans were rejected out of hand by those who would lost space.

He brought the problem of space to four families, of whom he wrote:  “None of them is a troublemaker or uneducated.  …they’re all respectable.. and as moral as they come, just the kind that would support any good cause in their communities at home.”[1]

Not one of them agreed to share their space or make any changes.  One husband and father threatened to sue him, after the war, if he persisted in insisting on this change.  Even the missionary family refused to cooperate.  The Housing Committee had to finally go to their Japanese captors and ask them to force people to agree to the changes.  Only under compulsion were people willing to help each other out.

He wrote:  . . . I began to see that without moral health, a community is as helpless and lost as it is without material supplies and services.[2]

Why are we here?  Because, like Langdon Gilkey, we’ve come to realize that the world doesn’t work on the basis of good will to all people.

We’re here because we’ve come to realize that without the power and leadership of God, without the example of Jesus Christ, without the urging of the Holy Spirit, we’d find it enormously difficult to live in a way which nurtures community, builds up our world, brings justice and mercy to the downtrodden.

We’re here because without God, our lives would be only about me, myself, and my immediate family, and that’s not how we want to live.

God gives us church as a place to try out living by faith.  As Gilkey discovered, living a moral life isn’t so easy when our choices are limited.  In Shantung Compound every time someone got more, someone else got less.  There was no “more” for everyone, and so it seemed as though life was really about “less” for everyone.

Knowing the right answer to the question of how to live isn’t simple, or obvious, or easy.

Yesterday morning I conducted a graveside service for Lois Morris Mann, whom I was told had been active here more than 50 years ago (she was 95 when she died).. and, as I often do, I read First Corinthians 13.  I was struck by this phrase:  “if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing”  and it occurred to me that the God whom we follow says that love is more important than faith.

So the first thing I know about God is that for God, love is the most important thing.  It is love which can bind our world together, even when we cannot agree on the details of faith, and from that truth, all else proceeds.

Then I turn to the story from Genesis, the end of the story of the flooding of the land.  Now this story isn’t about the nature of floods, or the likelihood of them, or even whether or not one actually happened exactly as told.  Rather it’s  a story which takes the idea of a flood and uses it to illustrate truths.  It tells us that bad things happen; that some of them are catastrophic, and that God stands with those who have lost the most.

Scientists have spent years trying to prove that there really was a flood, or searching out the remains of Noah’s Ark, but the truth of this story is not in its facticity but in its truthful understanding of God’s care for us.

Our Gospel lesson tells us a third truth about God.  What God is calling us to, this life based on love, focused on justice, is not something that will happen at some unknown time in the future, not something that we should just sit patiently and wait for.  It is something that is right here, right now.  Jesus said, “the time is fulfilled , and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the Good News.”

This is good news.  We are not stuck here, in the midst of a world filled with tears, wracked by terrible news from one day to the next, horrified by yet another large-scale killing at a school.

We serve a God who calls us, now, to action.

We serve a God who calls us to stand up for those who are alone, to stand with those who seek to change our world for the better.

We serve a God who promises that we will never be left alone in disaster, promises that it is love which is the foundational principle of our world.

And that is the Good News for today.

Amen.

© 2018, Virginia H. Child

 

[1]Langdon Gilkey: Shantung Compound, Harper & Row, New York City, 1966, p. 82.

[2] Ibid., p. 76.

Burying the Dead

This morning I officiated at a graveside funeral service – essentially all the funeral plus the committal to the burial space.  It was a beautiful day, warm for this time of the year, and for a blessing, not the least bit windy at the top of the hill in the cemetery.  Burials in New England, in the winter months, can be really unpleasant.  This was lovely.

The deceased, a 95 year old widow, had walked away from church participation (and, so far as her children knew, all relationship to God), upon the sudden death of her first husband.  Her happy re-marriage did not bring her back to faith.

That said, they reported that she was a loving, kind and generous woman, beloved by her children, her second family, grandchildren and all.  So, there I was, officiating at a service for a woman I will never meet, in the midst of family members who have all moved away from our little town: today was the only time I will ever see these people.

It was all made more interesting because the funeral home gave me the wrong address for the cemetery.  Who knew that our town runs both town cemetaries out of one office, while the two are a good five miles apart?  Who’d have expected that half the family was at the right spot, while the other half were with me, at the “right” address, but wrong location?  Fortunately, someone had a phone, and we were soon on the way to the right spot, our very own mini-funeral procession, and no one was inconveniences by waiting an extra five minutes for our arrival.  Moral of the story?  First, check those addresses.  Second?  Always plan to arrive early.

There’s always a question as to just how much “proclamation of the Gospel” is appropriate at such a service.  I’ve known pastors who’d preach a full-on, come-to-Jesus sermon over the casket of the dearly departed — but mostly I hear of them from the folks who were so turned off by the experience that the first thing they ask me is, “do you preach sermons at funerals?”    And “yes” is definitely the wrong answer because these folks already know that sermons are a bad thing.

So, how exactly can I share God with these people?  I try to do it in a number of ways.  First, I am hospitable.  When the family comes to me, I welcome them as they are.  Sometimes they’re enormously embarrassed that they’ve had so little to do with church; I do my best to get them beyond that.

Secondly,  I encourage the family to be truthful, at least among ourselves.  If Dad had two families, let’s talk about that; then when I speak, I will not be saying things that everyone knows are false.  In one of my earliest funerals, I buried a man who was a poacher and a wife-beater — drunk every Saturday night.  Had I not been told those things, I might well have made a fool of the church in my comments; knowing the truth, I was able to offer comfort to a family that was just as glad he was gone.

And thirdly, I concentrate on the Gospel of Love – not uncritical, sloppy-agape love, but that love which welcomes us home. I am absolutely convinced that Love is the foundation of Christian life.  You can believe all the creeds in the world, but as Paul says, if you have not love. . .   And conversely, if you have love, then you are part of God’s family.  I do not believe it serves God’s interests or anyone else’s to use the funeral as an occasion to suggest that the deceased fell short of God’s plan, or ought to have been a stronger church member.

Most of the time, I do funerals. memorial services and committals for people I will never see again.  Living as I do in a place where my denomination was for many many years the “official” church without which it wasn’t possible to have a legal town, it seems as though it’s part of my call to pastor in need those who have no church affiliation.  It is my intention, hope and prayer that when the family leaves the service they know that they have met a way of living which is welcoming and affirming and which intentionally preaches a gospel of love.  Maybe they’ll check out church when they go home; maybe they’ll tell their friends about the good experience.  Maybe they’ll grow in their appreciation of the place God can have in their lives.  For sure, in every case, they will have heard and seen a Gospel of Love.