When???

A sermon preached at First Church, UCC Middletown, Connecticut, on November 27, 2022

Scripture                                                                                                     Matthew 24:36-44

 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. 

Last Sunday, four people were shot dead and one injured in Hennessey, Oklahoma.  On that same day, four people were injured in a shooting in Dallas, Texas.  On Tuesday of this past week, seven people were murdered, six injured in Chesapeake, Virginia and two were killed in West Palm Beach,, Florida.  There was a shooting in Philadelphia on Wednesday – 4 were injured, no one died; on the same day, in Maryland, another 4 were shot with no one dying.  and then on the 24th, Thanksgiving Day, two people were killed and another two injured in a shooting in Houston, Texas

When will it stop?

When will the violence stop?

When will the bad, the violence, the hatred stop?

The price of food has been steadily rising.  All over the United States, more and more people are depending on food pantries to get through the week.  In Middlesex County, almost 10% of us are food insecure – we don’t have access to enough healthy food for an active life.  We’re planning to feed 400 people at our Christmas Dinner this year. Many will take a second serving to-go, because that will mean they have food, good nutritious food, for another couple of days.

When will it stop?

When will it be that everyone has enough?  Enough food?  Enough work?  Enough safe housing? Enough reliable transportation?  Too often, poor people live in food deserts, areas where there are no Stop & Shops, nothing but quick-mart stores, filled with high-priced food that’s often just not good, and not good for you either.  

When will it stop?

Well, there’s more than one answer to that question.  The first, pragmatic answer, is that we certainly could, very practically, do something about both mass shootings and hunger.  If they are not really solvable issues, if you think of solving as complete elimination, they are certainly issues which could be significantly reduced by things like gun control and building intentional access to food into our infrastructure.

A chart I saw last week, for instance, shows that the stringent gun laws in Connecticut and Massachusetts make those states among the least likely places to encounter gun deaths in the entire country.  It’s clear that the stricter our gun laws, the less likely you are to encounter danger this way.  So, it is possible, at least theoretically, to cut down on the number of people killed with guns.

Experiments in different parts of our country have shown that if you build in access to arable ground for people living in cities, they can and will grow food for themselves.  If you provide people with the tools to grow, prepare and eat good food, that’s what they’ll do.  So, it’s at least theoretically possible to reduce food insecurity.

Right?  Theoretically??  But to be real, what’s theoretically possible, and what works, well, in some places and some times,… and what’s likely to really happen — well, those are two different things.

I don’t say this to be discouraging.  Individual action works.  We’ve changed the climate around gun control.  We’ve seen what happens when we establish community gardens.  But if you’ve worked on those issues – or any of the many others that stalk our society, like access to adequate medical care – you know that truly solving those problems is a multi-year, multi-decade, maybe even multi-century process.

And that can be discouraging.  

Advent is a time for re-calibrating our understandings of life, the world, and what’s possible, what’s likely… what will work in the short-haul, and what will make life-changing happen.

The scripture for today tells that it’s the way of life that we don’t know what’s going to happen next, that tomorrow might be good, and it might be very bad – or it simply won’t happen for some of us, because our lives will end today.

Hold that image up next to the one on our televisions or newspapers, the one which suggests that if we only purchase the right gifts, or wear the right clothes, or eat the right diet that we will be happy, wealthy, everything in our lives will go perfectly, and we will live forever. 

Advent is a time to remind ourselves that one of these pictures is accurate and the other is an advertiser’s dream.

And Advent is a time to remind ourselves that, if we are all going to die, and if our problems are pretty much with us always. 

Do you doubt that we all know that?  In Friday’s Washington Post, George Will posted an essay which, among other things, suggested that part of the source of the unhappiness of today’s world was that too many of us have all we need, and without the struggle for “life’s necessities” we are lost.

He bases that statement on an essay by John Maynard Keynes in 1930, who anticipated that by now, we would all be working 15 hour weeks, and have everything we needed.  Who can blame Keynes for thinking that?  It was 1930, and the world was – well, in the beginnings of a world-wide depression.  My mother’s father was 48 in 1930; he’d just lost his job, and never held a full-time job again – he pieced together this and that to continue to support his wife and the four children still at home until his death in 1945.  

Well, despite the ravages of the Great Depression, despite the poverty rates today, both Keynes and George Will think that one of the besetting challenges of this day is that too many people have more than they need, and so, in their boredom… well, here’s what Will says:

The fundamental economic problem of attaining subsistence having been banished by plenty, many hyper-politicized Americans have filled the void in their lives with the grim fun of venting their animosities. 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/11/25/toxic-politics-in-age-of-plenty/

Now, maybe I’m misunderstanding Keynes and maybe I’m misunderstanding Will, but I think they’re both off… if only because they’re wrong about how many people in this country have enough – enough food, enough medical care, safe enough housing, access to washers and dryers so to have enough clean clothes. . .the majority of Americans have not gotten beyond “attaining subsistence”.  Maybe there are bored wealthy people out there who are fomenting trouble because they’re bored, but kids aren’t going to school hungry because their parents are bored.  They’re hungry because there’s not enough food for them; they’re hungry because more and more people are poor these days.

The Advent readings point us towards a different truth: that human beings have had trouble forever; it’s part of our reality.  We are not on an ever upward inevitable path to enough for everyone.  There’s a kind of basic thread going through all the world that says, given a choice, too often we choose to take care of “me” first; that under the right circumstances almost anyone can be induced to behave very badly indeed.  Too many people think that if we just make the rich people of our world wealthier then by magic the poor people will thrive on their castoffs.

And that’s why we’re looking forward to remembering that, with the advent of Jesus Christ, we see another way we can travel, another standard on which we can build a life.  

With Jesus, we see the world more clearly.  Jesus has helped us see the real condition of things, shown us that our dream that things will just get better is just that – a dream.  Jesus has show us that will change things is not that we ourselves will have more stuff, but that we will live our lives with love, self-giving love.  This is our hope – not that our world will inevitably come to some sort of perfection, where everyone will have everything they need and want – but the love we live, the love we share can change the world where we live.  When we stand up and say “this is not right”, we make a difference.  

Jesus Christ came to teach us that we are not trapped in inevitability but that we are created to be innovative, to make change, to make a difference, to create good trouble, to show the world love.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Giving Thanks

A sermon preached at First Church, UCC Middletown, Connecticut, on November 20,  2022

Scripture                                       Deuteronomy 26:1-11  (The Message translation)

Once you enter the land that God, your God, is giving you as an inheritance and take it over and settle down, you are to take some of all the first fruits of what you grow in the land that God, your God, is giving you, put them in a basket and go to the place God, your God, sets apart for you to worship. . . At that time, go to the priest who is there and say, “I announce to God, your God, today that I have entered the land that God promised our ancestors that [God would] give to us.” The priest will take the basket from you and place it on the Altar of God, your God. And there in the Presence of God, your God, you will recite:

A wandering Aramean was my father, he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, he and just a handful of his brothers at first, but soon  they became a great nation, mighty and many. The Egyptians abused and battered us, in a cruel and savage slavery. We cried out to God, the God-of-Our-Fathers: [God] listened to our voice, [God] saw our destitution, our trouble, our cruel plight. And God took us out of Egypt with his strong hand and long arm, terrible and great, with signs and miracle-wonders. And [God] brought us to this place, gave us this land flowing with milk and honey. So here I am. I’ve brought the firstfruits  of what I’ve grown on this ground you gave me, O God.

Then place it in the Presence of God, your God. Prostrate yourselves in the Presence of God, your God. And rejoice! Celebrate all the good things that God, your God, has given you and your family; you and the Levite and the foreigner who lives with 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.

We are coming on Thanksgiving, and right after that, Advent and Christmas and there is just so much on our hearts that, at some level, it’s hard to even begin to see the heart of this season.  

It’s not enough that we’ve just been through yet another heart-stopping election, or that we suddenly jumped from early fall to early winter.  It’s not enough that this fall we’ve lost two well-loved members of our congregation.  But coming up on Thanksgiving, we’re faced with the conflict between the elementary-school explanation of Thanksgiving and the realities of early European settler behaviors.  And since COVID insists on sticking around, there are too many times when it all seems just too much.

Here we are, facing Thanksgiving, and in the backs of our minds, there’s a worry that this is no time to stop and give thanks.  There’s just too much that’s still unsettled, too many fears about our future.  It feels, too often, as though we’re trapped in a living version of that old arcade game, Whack-A-Mole.  No sooner do we put on threat behind us, that another one pops up.

Some challenge our feeling of safety; others challenge our hopes for our country’s future.  Some make us re-think the assumptions we’ve carried with us since second grade.  

And for some of us, this fall has been especially difficult, what with family crises or work troubles, or our own individual health issues.

So what do we have to be thankful for this year?  

We’re still here.

We have each other.

Our lives have meaning and purpose.

God loves us.

We’re still here.   

COVID closures were supposed to be for two or three weeks, remember?  We were all still making plans for the big “re-opening” celebration at Easter, and then it was going to be Pentecost… and then there came the slow realization that this was not what we thought it was going to be.  Under the stress of the pandemic, some churches closed, not just for the short-term, but forever.  And they have not come back.  We are still here.   That’s our first thanksgiving.

We have each other.

We are still a strong fellowship of people who love and care for one another and for the world where we’ve been placed.  We see each other in any number of different ways – here in this room for worship, on Zoom meetings, and in casual meetings out and about – and wherever we are, we know we are in the presence of companions on the way.  We are not alone.  That is our second thanksgiving.

Our lives have meaning and purpose.

One of the great gifts of our faith is our call to be people of peace, to be builders of community in our world.  We are not without purpose in our lives.  There is always something we can do – not always the great deeds that are celebrated in history books, but always the small kindnesses which are available to us every day, like holding doors open, smiling at our server.  And there also opportunities to be active, informed participants in our community, attending meetings, helping people understand what’s happening, and the like.  In our work, being ethical, honest, trust-worthy people; in our private lives being faithful, loving, reliable.  Our lives have meaning and purpose.  That’s our third thanksgiving.

Finally, we know that God loves us.

This isn’t the arrogant “God love me”, but the compassionate “God loves us”.  God loves each of us == as we are, where we are.  When we do our best, God loves us.  When we do our worst, God still loves us, and hopes for us to grow into a better way of living.  

If you grew up in a home filled with hostility, know that God loves you.  

If you have lived in a world of addiction, know that God loves you.  

If folks have scorned you, hated you, just because…. you didn’t look like, sound like live like they thought you should, know that God loves you.  

God loves you, today, tomorrow, and forever.   And that’s the fourth and greatest thanksgiving this year.

We’re still here.

We have each other.

Our lives have meaning and purpose.

God loves us.

Amen.

©2022, Virginia H. Child

I’m Your Greatest Fan

A sermon preached at First Church Middletown CT on November 13, 2022

Psalm 16
Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. 
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”
As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. 
Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;
their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. 
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. 
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. 
I keep the Lord always before me;
because [God] is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. 
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. 
For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. 
You show me the path of life. 
In your presence there is fullness of joy; 
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Luke 14:1-6
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had edema. And Jesus asked the experts in the law and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.

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 November 11, Applebees offered a free meal to anyone serving in the military – active or veteran.  There were a few conditions – you had to eat the food in the restaurant, and had to have some proof of your service.

I’ve got to say that being offered a free meal at Applebees beats the socks off those times people called me a filthy name while wearing the uniform of my country…. or those times when my fellow Marines met with scorn while coming home from Vietnam.

But you know, it’s also kinda weird to be part of a PR campaign.  

Veteran’s Day is, for me, a wild mixture of sincere appreciation for my service, virtue signaling, and being used by those who want to monetize my service.  That mixture led me, today, to think about fanboys and cheap grace.

Fanboys – who don’t need to be boys – those folks who want the glory but not the cost.  Cheap grace, easy words for a hard way of life.  And oddly joy-less to boot.

Jesus set out one day to have lunch with some folks on the Sabbath.  Under the rules and customs of his life and times, the Sabbath was a day on which no work was done…. I went to high school with what we called hard shell Baptists who lived like this – no work, no movies, no card-playing, no tv-watching – it isn’t my way, isn’t our way, but it is a real way of living religiously.   

At any rate, on this day, Jesus happened to meet a man who, the Bible says had edema.  We might cast about for what illness would cause this, but that’s not the point of the story.  The point is that this person is ill and needs healing.  And Jesus turns to his lunch hosts,  people who stick to the strict letter of the law, and he asks them if it’s permitted to heal this man, even though it’s the Sabbath.

As it happens, Jesus knows it is – you can break the Sabbath rules to save a life.  But he wants the folks standing there in front of him to declare themselves, to show a little humanity.  They keep silent, however.  Their silence – in the custom of their time and place – means that they recognize the truth of what Jesus says, but their support of that truth is pretty weak.

Jesus doesn’t let it sit there, though.  He then asks his hosts, “listen, if your son, or your ox fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you rescue him, or it?”  And with this question, they still do not respond.  But this time, it’s more that there is no good response to what Jesus has said; of course you would rescue your child, your animal.  So Jesus not only has them back to the wall, agreeing silently that he’s right, but then drives the argument home to them.  

Their agreement with Jesus is no longer a kind of cheap, easy, agreement, like when I nod my head “yes” and agreed that the food is great, when I know it isn’t but I don’t want to argue.  Jesus wants them and us to understand the need to move from a passive ‘sure, ok, whatever’, to an active, “yes, that’s really important.”

Yes, this is the weekend we recognize and give thanks for those who have served our country.  At its best, it’s a time for heartfelt appreciation, even as we recognize that for Christians, there’s always an inherent conflict between the need for military service, and our commitment to recognizing God’s spirit in every human being.

Christians believe that war is always wrong, even as it is sometimes fought for an important reason.  I was raised a Hicksite Quaker, taught from my earliest days that all wars are wrong, that there is never a justifiable reason for fighting.  I learned those lessons while sitting in a meetinghouse on the land where the Battle of the Brandywine was fought in our Revolutionary War.  I sat on benches stained dark with what we kids all thought was blood from when our meetinghouse had been used as a hospital during that battle.  We  all knew about the grave in the cemetery with both American and British soldiers buried together.  When I was ten I didn’t get the irony of teaching pacifism on a battlefield, in what had been a military hospital, but I certainly understood the symbolism of enemies together for all eternity in that grave.

Ours was a fully featured pacifism; youth group was a time to learn how to survive going to prison for refusing to cooperate with the draft.  The bottom line expectation that all of our young men would refuse the draft.

At the same time, I knew that my devoutly Quaker uncle, and my equally committed Quaker cousin had joined the Navy in World War II.  And when my family moved to south Florida, the realities of what had happened in Europe began to turn from pages in textbooks into the reality of the stories of my classmates.  

My high school, in a community now called Pembroke Pines, was, for a segregated school in the south, remarkably diverse.  Mostly Yankees, we had a small group of Seminole Indians from the Dania Reservation (my best friend’s dad was the Indian agent for the reservation).  We were pretty much equally divided into Protestants, Catholics and Jews… a diversity of background I had not experienced up north.  And as I got to know my Jewish classmates, I slowly realized that most of them did not have grandparents., that most of them had lost close family members in the Holocaust.  

I listened, I read, I thought.  I don’t supposed it’s the least surprising that by the time I graduated from high school, I had acquired a deep belief that the world was flawed, that it was foolish to expect it to get better just because some of us refused to participate in war.  More than that, I began to think that it was not possible to live in the United States without participating in our commitment to engaging in war.  Whether pacifists want it or not, we are all protected by those who are willing to take up arms.  

When I joined the Marines, I truly believed that it was a sin to kill people, but that it was necessary from time to time to do so, to protect my country.  Even though I would not be called upon to fight, I understood that by joining the service, I was taking part in something I had been taught all my life — was wrong.

I probably don’t need to tell you that it was disillusioning to serve in the Marines in the 1960s, during the Vietnam years.  Not disillusioning to be a Marine… disillusioning to see how our military were being used by mindless, soulless technocrats in Washington DC.  That’s when I began to see that there were much worse things than serving in the military.  

One of the realities of life is that we all die.  Those of us who are veterans of military service are those among us who offered up their lives that we all might live free.  There is no shame there, no sin; there is nothing but honor in swearing to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  Some of us ended up giving our lives, some of us did not, but we all made that commitment.

We each face times in our lives when we have to make hard choices, when maybe what we have to do is something that, at some level, will seem wrong – but in that doing, something really good will happen.  It isn’t good to kill, but if it means that a whole population lives, then it can be necessary.

We have a responsibility to understand all the implications of our choices, to know that if we are not alert, we can be used.  That’s true whether we’re talking about military service or helping out that cousin from wherever who just wants to camp in the back yard for a week.  It’s true when we’re talking about the choices we make in running our businesses, teaching our students, or raising a family.  Our Christian faith calls us to a thoughtful way of living.  It may be easier to see when it comes to something like military service, but it is always there, always part of that commitment that Jesus wanted the Pharisees to make.

Psalm 16 says:
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. 
I keep the Lord always before me;
because [God] is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. 

When we are faced with those tough decisions, God’s presence is always with us and God will help us discern the best way forward.  In that presence, in that help, we will find the joy of deep faith.

Amen.

©2022, Virginia H. Child

Looking for God in all the Wrong Places

A sermon preached at First Church, UCC Middletown, Connecticut, on November 6, 2022

Haggai 2:1-9  In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying:

Speak now to Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 

Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lordof hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.

Luke 20:27—38 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 

Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

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.

Last week, the national offices of the United Church of Christ announced that our every-other-year all church meeting, called General Synod, would now be held every three years.

For most of us, that’s not very important news.  

For those of us who’ve been a few times, that’s interesting news… 

And for some of us, those folks called “Synod junkies”, people who went faithfully, every other year, it’s a major disappointment.

But still, that’s not – in the wider scheme of things, all that important, right?

Except that – this.  It is important… and here’s why:  It’s the reason for the cut-back.  For it seems that the denomination says it can no longer take so much time away from the important day-to-day work of national staff, to put the Synod on.  They no longer can afford to spend so much of their budget on Synod costs.  

For the national offices, General Synod is an interruption, something that distracts them from what’s really important.

Maybe they’re right.  Maybe the central work of the national staff is all about what they do.

But what if they’re wrong?  What if the central work of the national staff is encouraging, strengthening and building close connections between UCC people all over the world?  If that’s their work, then moving Synods from every 2 years to every 3 years is a major error.  What if the most important work is making it possible for Howard Thody to sit down with a delegate from Washington State and discover what they have in common?  What if it is all about making me sit down with someone from a Committee on Ministry in South Dakota and hear, first-hand, how they struggle to prepare people for ministry?

The most challenging thing about the impending change is that it doesn’t look to me as though anyone drilled down far enough to ask just exactly what it is that our national offices are there for.  I don’t think anyone spent much time thinking about what the purpose of our denominational offices really is.

Now, you may have wondered if you inadvertently wandered into the wrong discussion this morning, since you had never heard of the General Synod until maybe five minutes ago, and weren’t planning to trek off to Indianapolis next Summer to see what it is…. but I’m not telling you this story because I want to start a “change Synod” movement.

I’m telling you this story because it tells us all something important.  And that’s this:  it’s darned hard to make a good decision when you’re not clear on why you exist.

Think of those Sadducees in the story from Luke, wasting everyone’s time asking Jesus a ridiculous hypothetical question about marriage in the hereafter.  They’d rather argue about the fine points of theology than worry about the social problems of their community.  Anything to avoid asking real questions about meaning and purpose and fulfillment, right?

I follow the writings of an English sheepfarmer, James Rebanks, although to call him “just a sheepfarmer” is a gross disservice to a very thoughtful man.  Rebanks farms in the Lakes District of England – think Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter – on land that has been farmed for more than a thousand years.  For the last hundred years or so, the goal has been to make a living by maximizing the produce of the land, even to the detriment of the land.  Moving streams to create more arable fields led to fields which could no longer handle flooding.  Close cropping everything destroyed habitat for small mammals, birds and insects.  Gradually, the ground was no longer able to support his flocks without supplemental feeding; he was no longer able to produce enough hay for the winter on his own land.  Maybe five years ago, he gradually began to change his farm.  First they re-wilded some of the streams.  Then they created set aside spots for brush to grow, to create better habitat for all the flora and fauna on the land.  Then he purchased a small herd of cattle – and while some become food for the family, and some are sold as a cash crop to other farmers – mostly their purpose is to fertilize the soil.  Today his land is producing better quality grass for the sheep, and more of it; there’s more diversity of plants, insects, birds and animals on the land, and he can handle occasional flooding better.  

That’s because he sat down and re-thought why he was farming.  

Two thousand five hundred years ago, give or take a decade, the prophet Haggai spoke to the people.  They were discouraged, they’d worked so hard and seen so little.  In 539 BCE the Jewish people had been allowed to return from exile to their homes in Jerusalem, and  nothing was right there.  Their temple was destroyed, the former glory was passed away.   They were discouraged.

Haggai told them that better days were coming.  Now, in his picture, those better days would lead to an even more beautiful temple, decorated with gold and silver and jewels.  

When we read this story today, however, we read it from our own context.  We’ve not lost the external beauty of our church.  We have moved beyond the world for which this building was planned.  In fact, we probably moved beyond that world more than fifty years ago, when you consider that this room, and the Memorial Room and the Upper Room were the original space  — think about where they had Sunday school — they lived in a world where  you could cram 100 fourth-graders into a class and expect them to behave.  I’ve seen other buildings put up in the late nineteenth-century and they rarely have anything we’d recognize as a Sunday school space.

It’s not about the literal meaning of the words of Haggai.  As so often, we cheat ourselves if we stop at the surface.  Haggai’s meaning for us is not about gold leaf paint or jewels in the stained glass.  It’s about our future.  Our glory has never been the beauty of our building; it has been, is, and will be how we live out our faith in the world.

This room is beautiful, but its real beauty is its inner life, the amazing generosity of its people, our willingness to stand up for the poor, the dismissed, the hurt, those who hunger and thirst.

And the question for us is where will we go in the future?    Do we want to be a place known for our hospitality?  How will we do that?  Do we want to be a community known for its support for racial justice?  What does our community need?  How are we called to respond?

The Gospel lesson is a warning to watch out for irrelevant arguments.  The Sadducees were playing “gotcha” with Jesus, and it didn’t go well for them.  And, you know, that’s the sort of thing we do when we’re really disturbed by the options before us.  

We don’t like how the (baseball/basketball/whatever) game is going, so we criticize the way the players are wearing their uniforms, right?  You show up for Thanksgiving Dinner and your parents announce they’re getting a divorce, and this will be the last time you ever gather as a family… and the next thing you know, there’s an argument starting down at the far end of the table:  Which is the better comic book character – Daffy Duck or Donald Duck? Because missing the point is one of the ways we avoid or delay dealing with really difficult stuff.  So in our conversations, let’s take care that we don’t miss the point.

This is not about the things we think a church ought to do, but the things we’re ready and willing to do.  

What is our purpose today?  

It wasn’t until James Rebanks saw that farming was more than breeding better sheep, that it was also about caring for the land, investing in the future, that he was able to see clearly how he could, should care for his land.  With a new, clearer understanding of his purpose, he was able to marshal his resources to make a difference.  

Getting a clear sense of our purpose is the first step to understanding what we are now being called to do.  Like Rebanks, we are being called to look at what we’ve always done and decide together whether that’s the right way to continue, or whether we are being called to make some changes.  

We’re in a new world.  And we’re not the same church we were fifty years ago.  How will those changes change us?

Let’s talk.  Let’s talk together.  Next week, after church, with or without coffee, let’s begin a conversation.  We won’t come to conclusions next week; don’t worry if you’re not going to be here that day.  But let’s begin the conversation.  Just who are we these days?  And what are the gifts we have to share with Middletown, in God’s name?

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Weave Us Together

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on October 30, 2022

1 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12:  

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,  To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.. We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. 

Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring . . . .   To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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.

A couple of years ago, the First Congregational Church in Fairhaven, MA, set up a loom in their sanctuary, and invited members to use it – if I remember correctly – during the service, to weave mats out of plastic throwaway grocery bags to give to homeless people on the streets of Fairhaven and New Bedford.  The mats provide a moisture-resistant foundation if you’re sleeping out under the hedge at City Hall.

But that’s not why I mention the mats.  I’m telling you about them because they were a visible symbol of the way the folks in Fairhaven wanted to weave a bond between themselves and those who were in such different circumstances.  

We are the weavers of our world.  It is our job, our call from God to weave people together into one beautiful tapestry. 

In the late 1930s, some clergy leaders got together, and began to talk about a dream that their two denominations might become one.  Out of those conversations came the United Church of Christ.  That was the kind of weaving together churches thought of in those days… we weren’t the only denomination which did a lot of uniting.  The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren became the United Methodist Church.  Swedish Lutherans and Norwegian Lutherans and German Lutherans eventually formed the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  And in a time when we barely recognized one another as “real” Christians, that was important.  It was a visible sign of the call we all experience, to bring the world closer together.

By the 1980s, in many places, all the Christians in a given community were able to come together, often to worship, always to serve our communities in some way or another.  Sometimes we’ve even been able to work in partnerships with Roman Catholics or very conservative evangelicals.  Always as important as the goal of the day is the opportunity to be woven together into one mutually supportive community.

And let us be clear – unless the work we do is built on a goal of creating, supporting, improving or extending community – it is not the foundational work to which we are called.

Here’s what I’m talking about.  Imagine just for a minute you work in a food pantry (and, be clear, I’m not describing any pantry here in Connecticut).  Picture it…. people come in the door on the left of the room and check in at the first table.  On they go to the second table, fill out an order, and then go sit down, while their order is assembled.  Finally their order is done, they pick up their food and leave.  But in all the time they were there, they never had the opportunity for a good conversation with anyone.  The folks at the tables were friendly, but rushed.  And while people are fed, no community is created.  Then look again, because the pantry has changed… sure, people still check in, still make their orders, but now there are tables and chairs around and coffee and snacks.  Now there are volunteers who sit with clients and help them with the forms.  Now there’s a resource person who can help people with various kinds of government paperwork.  Now when people come, they’re greeted by name.  Now, some of the clients have volunteered to help run the pantry.  Now there is community, ownership, belonging. 

That’s what we’re here to create.  We’re here to find those bleak spots and add in the joy, to create the hospitality.  When we do that, we change the world right around us.

Sometimes that work is easy and fun.  Sometimes it’s really really difficult.  Sometimes it’ll reinforce what we’ve always know is right, sometimes it’ll turn everything we’ve ever known right upside down. Sometimes it means we need to step out and take charge; sometimes it will mean we need to step back and let new people with different ideas begin to lead.  

One thing it will always need, and oh how we hate to mention this, is money.  While we can certainly build community without money, our effectiveness as a group is limited by the extent of our resources.  Many of you know that, and  you have already pledged to support our ministry of community-building in 2023.  Your pledges are important, and not just for the plain amount of money they represent.  You see, every pledge we receive, no matter the size, is a vote for the work we’re doing in Jesus’ name.  From that point of view, the pledge of a dollar a week is as important to our work as the largest pledge we receive, because it is the vote to continue that matters.  And, of course, a pledge which fairly represents your commitment, resources, and other obligations is wonderful.  Our gifts to keep our church running are also part of the tapestry we weave together.

Some of us have lots of money.  That’s great.  Some of us have lots of volunteer ability.  That’s great too.  Some of us are prayers.  We need that as well.  Every way of supporting us is important.  

Christian life is a life dedicated to building community, and marked by generosity, generosity of time, of talent, and of treasure.  But all our money is as nothing if we do not put love, put community, first in our lives.  With our ages-long commitment to building the ties that bind among our religious siblings, we know that community makes a difference.  Whether we’re holding a Halloween Party in our parish hall, hosting a meeting of clergy of Middletown, putting on a Christmas Dinner for all who would come, or presenting a concert in this room, it is all God’s work.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Rising Up Out of Nowhere

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on October 23, 2022

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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

A million years ago, I bought a new car… I was excited – most new car owners are, of course – but I’d been wanting to own a VW for some time and this was the time.  So I took delivery of a brand new VW Beetle and happily drove it around town.  I loved that car.  

Sometimes my new car stalled at traffic lights.  Both my husband and I thought this was because the VW was my first standard transmission car.  Because, after all, the car was brand new, right?  And assuming it was driver-error was the easiest explanation.

Then came the day I was cruising down the interstate through Jacksonville, Florida, and the engine stopped running.  I was fortunate; I was able to get the car off to the side of the road, without being hit (or hitting anyone).  and doubly fortunate; after a few minutes, not even long enough for the engine to cool off, it started right up again, and I continued my trip to my mother’s home without another incident.  My husband and I thought, this time, that I’d gotten some bad gas.  And most of the time, the car drove perfectly.

Now my husband was a mechanic by trade and upbringing.  His dad had been an auto mechanic, and my husband prided himself on his ability to keep our vehicles running.  So when I returned home to Vermont and the car kept stalling out at intersections, even when he was driving, he realized there was a mechanical problem.  He worked on the car, and fixed it.  For a week, or maybe two…. and then one day, it stalled on him as he was driving me to work.  When I came home that evening, we no longer owned the VW.  He’d gone to a dealer and traded it for a Ford.

That VW was a lemon… an unfixable car, unreliable, and really unsafe.  Nothing changed the reality that it might stop at any moment.  But for all the time we owned it, right up to that last morning, we couldn’t see what was right before our eyes.  That car was bad, right from the first day I owned it, and our pre-conceptions kept us from seeing it.

I’m boring you with this long story about my lemon yellow VW (yes, it was what VW calls Texas Gold) because it’s a inside-out version of the same story Jesus tells in the Gospel lesson I read.  Two men went to the Temple to pray.  One of them lived in a land of delusion where he thought that all the things he did made him good and important.  The other saw himself realistically, and knew that no matter how good he tried to be, there were always going to be gaps.

For us, today, this is a story about seeing ourselves truly, about recognizing where we are as we recover from COVID.

Last week, I said that we still matter.  Even in a world where church has lost much of its influence, we still have an essential part to play in our world.  But here’s the thing:  we are called to understand where we are right now. 

We’re coming back from a dread disease which has warped every program we offer.  We’re living in a world where the way we’ve done church for the last 200 years no longer works.  But, in the midst of all that is different, we’re still trying to evaluate ourselves by the standards we’ve always used.

That rich man in Jesus’ story is simply describing himself in the ways he learned really matter.  his terms are useless; he just hasn’t realized it yet.  He doesn’t realize that God isn’t interested in his worldly successes, that to God this sounds like boasting.  

Now, we’re not boasting about the many things we’re doing well, right now.  Instead we’re taking things in the other direction.  We look around and say, oh look, we only have 45 people in church.  We’re failing.  

Oh, look, the search for our new pastor has been going on for a while; why don’t we have that new person right here right now?  

We think that if COVID is over, well, we should be right back to normal.  I’ve had a couple of people come to me in the last year with detailed plans for how we can re-make our church so that it matches the height of our successes maybe forty or fifty years ago.   Yes, I can imagine what this church looked like in 1948, when Ralph Christie was the pastor.  The records say we had 376 men who were members, and a total of 967 members.  I can’t help realizing, you know, that the Congregationalists of 1948 didn’t even want to name that women were members.  There’s no number for attendance, but the yearbook says we had 277 children in church school.  Those were glory days indeed, stalwarts in preserving the traditional stories of their world.

But those days are gone and they’re not coming back.  And that’s good.  In those days, they didn’t count women.  In those days, Black people were not really welcome.  In those days, gay people were really not welcome.  In those days, all the men wore white shirts and ties and worked in the power structures of the community…. and the women of this church wore white gloves and worked in charity, because there were few jobs for them out in the world.  We had numbers and power, and we lived then as we understood the gospel. 

Today we’ve moved from then.  Today we’re really working to live out our belief that everyone counts, even in a world where so many are thought of as disposable people.

Our anxiety makes it challenging to face the future with hope.  Things don’t look the way they did before.  We’re having to change how we present ourselves, and sometimes it just doesn’t feel right or fair.  It’s no wonder the rich guy in the story stuck to what he knew.  It’s just plain hard to admit to ourselves and to God that we’re not the big cheeses in town these days.

We live today in a world where everything, or almost everything, we’ve counted on has turned out to be less solid rock and more like walking on a trampoline.  That’s another reason why it’s so tempting to evaluate our progress today on decades-old standards.  We know what they were and it’s really hard to get it in our hearts that those standards no longer work, that, indeed they may not have worked as well as we thought even back in the salad days of our church.  

When he tells the story, Jesus makes it clear that it’s ok to not be perfect, it’s ok to not know the future.  This is a time for us to look forward with anticipation to ways of being church that best meet the needs of today’s world, not a time to look back to the ways that worked “back then”.

Recently, I read an article which asked: – “which is the best hymn style?” .  And the author ended this way:

So which do I personally prefer, today’s [new music] or the traditional psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? Answer: That’s the wrong question. The question I need to ask myself is more: “What music will best help this church encounter God in a fresh, powerful way, one that moves them to deeper devotion and greater obedience, so that we’re not just hearers of the music but doers of what God tells us through it?”  [https://baptistnews.com/article/yes-i-like-the-old-hymns-too-but-not-the-ones-you-may-think/#.Y1QkEy-B3Ax]

This is our opportunity today.  To step beyond our anxiety about a changing church into our hopes and dreams for the church for today and tomorrow.  God has a plan for this church; it’s our calling, our opportunity to figure out what that will mean for our life together.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

The Hunt’s Mill Bridge is Closed

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on October 16, 2022

Scripture:  Jeremiah 31:27-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: 
“The parents have eaten sour grapes, 
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” 

But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.  The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. 

Luke 18:1-8  Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

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 Friday, July 22, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) [closed] the Hunts Mill Bridge, which carries Pleasant Street (Route 114A) over the Ten Mile River in East Providence. RIDOT will completely replace the bridge and reopen it to traffic by the end of the year.  The bridge carries approximately 11,420 vehicles per day

The bridge is about a mile from my house.  And closing it is a major pain.  Close to 12000 cars go over it every day.  It is a major highway.  And the bridge was in terrible shape; repair/replace. . it just couldn’t be put off any longer. The road is to be closed until the end of the year.

The first couple of weeks were awful.   People didn’t notice the “closed” signs, so when they got up to it and couldn’t cross, they got angry and frustrated, had to back up the street into driveways, turn around and go about a mile out of their way.

We’re all kind, loving, safe drivers in Rhode Island (of course we are), but even the kindest driver isn’t happy about that, or about the detour, and the homeowners in the area were not amused at the number of people turning in their drives.

Now, add to that that the two bridges from East Providence, over the Seekonk River, into Providence are each being worked on – that sometimes traffic on the bridges backs up from one city into the other – and that there is no other way to get into Providence from the east unless you drive five miles north into Pawtucket….

And now you’re right where we all are at this time in our little COVID adventure.  It’s just all too much.  We can, and did, handle one thing – but then there was another, and another, and while we were a teensy bit off balance, more bad stuff, more disorienting stuff, happened.  Like I said, it’s all too much.

This past week I announced that Kortney had COVID – for the second time.  And on Monday, Shari discovered she had it also.  Mind you, the one thing we are sure of is that they didn’t give it to each other.  Shari was on vacation when Kortney got sick.  But because I’d seen Kortney, in the office, on the day she tested positive, I spent the next five days or so worrying that I was going to develop COVID.  It’s all too much.

Doesn’t this feel like the way things have been going?  Terrible things, irrational things, annoying things, dangerous things.  One thing, two things, and another…. and then one day. . , it’s all too much.

It’s not just COVID, tho that’s a major part of things, but also the changes that isolation forced on us.  The isolation of the last two years has been enormously disorienting.  

Now, as we seem to be coming out of things, now that we’re able to begin to claim some good learnings we’ve seen, we are anxiously waiting for our beloved past to re-create itself today.  Thanksgiving… right back the way it was.  School, right back the way it was… and church, right back the way it was. . .

I can’t speak for other areas, but here in church, the two year break has exposed something we had not been able to see so clearly before.  Here, right here, the church we knew before COVID was struggling, and the two years has not solved the problems.

Right here, right amid us, our church world has been changing.

It’s been changing for years, and we ignored it.  It’s been changing for years, and we hoped next year would be different.  Our church school has been slipping away and we’ve expected that the next great curriculum would make a difference.  In 1997, right about 25 years ago, we had over 100 kids in our programs.  We’ve never again had that many children.  Today, I’d we have five kids in the youth program and there is no Sunday school.

The same is true of attendance. Over the last 20 years or so, that’s dropped from 160 to 95, to, right now, about 45-50 here, plus about  20 on line.  

It was easy to say that tomorrow would be better, until COVID gave everyone permission to try not coming at all, and an alarming number of people have decided that getting the kids up and dressed and over here on Sunday mornings is just not worth the hassle.  

It’s all too much, way too much.

Lately I’ve been hearing more and more lines like this:  “when the new pastor comes, we’ll be able to get everything back the way it’s always been”, or someone saying, “we can’t stop that, we’ve always done it”.  

Let me be as clear as can be.  Your new pastor won’t be able to bring back the golden days of yesteryear.  They don’t exist.  What you and your new pastor will be doing is creating the exciting days of the future.  What will church look like?  How will you use this magnificent building?  How will you serve God here in Middletown?

It’s daunting, for sure, but it’s also exciting.  And it’s so deeply worthwhile.  

This isn’t the first time we’ve had to start new.  Our scripture lessons, first the Jeremiah and then the story from Luke, tell us about times when change had come, or when old things didn’t work anymore.  Jeremiah promises his hearers that God is making a new way, giving us a new covenant, promising that there will be a tomorrow and that God will be with us all the way.  

Luke tells a story about an unjust judge, who finally gives in and gives justice only because he’s tired of hearing from that nagging widow.  Now, Luke isn’t saying that God is like the unjust judge, that if we nag God we’ll get what we need.  Luke is saying that if even the unjust can be forced to be just, how much more can we depend on God who loves us.

Sure, in the midst of the exhaustion and disappointment of today, there’s a temptation to say “enough”, I’m outta here, to step away, to drop the work.  But I’m here today to say that we, here in this covenant community, are engaged right now in the most important work in the world.  What we’re doing is so important that it makes all our work worthwhile.  It’s so important that, if we have to leave every old habit behind to make it work again, it will be worth it.  Nothing is more important than our work. 

You see, God has called us to be beacons of light to people, including ourselves, who are discouraged.  You know anyone like that?  

God has called us to offer hope to the hopeless. God has called us to be creators of new ways for us to live, to be church.  Because we’re living in a world that really needs the power of reconciliation.  We’re living in a time when trust is thin on the ground.  What’s been happening to us, has been happening to a lot of other groups – people find it harder and hard to build community.  And yet, when they experience it, experience true community, they love it.  We know how to do this; we know how to build community.  We know how to talk about values, about what’s really important.  And the world needs our conversation, our action

God is with us in this work… has given a promise that we will have strength and vision to see what needs to be done, and the courage to follow that vision.  

This is a blessing… to be freed from the burden of re-creating church for the 1950s, to be empowered to meet the needs of today.  Yes the world has changed.  Yes, COVID has been awful.  But no, we are not lost.  We do not need to stay where we are.  

Let us move forward into the unknown future, trusting in the everlasting love of God.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Are We Asking the Right Questions?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on October 2, 2022

Scripture:     Luke 17:5-6 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

A facebook friend posted the other day, celebrating the day, fifteen years ago, when her attempt at suicide failed. there was  a picture, standing in front of her dorm at Rutgers – and when I saw it, my all I was able to focus on, for a moment, was the name of the dorm.  Hey, I thought, I have a cousin with that name.

Talk about missing the point.

And how often doesn’t that happen?

Honestly, it seems to happen most often when we really don’t want to face the more important question.  I, in that moment, didn’t really want to acknowledge the pain my friend had experienced; heaven knows it would be easier to talk about who that person was that the dorm was named after, right?  Thank God I didn’t say it.  Thank God, there was enough time to offer an affirming hand and a blessing that she was with us.

The disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith.  He basically told them they were asking the wrong question…. if they had any faith, even as little as a mustard seed – which just isn’t very much – they could change the world.  They had already all the power they needed, but they were asking the wrong questions – they wanted Jesus to do the magic trick and give them power without their having worked for it.  

We’re in one of those in-between times, liminal times, when the questions we used to ask no longer work, because the assumptions.  You could say that in this story Jesus is telling us that those old stories, those old questions, no longer work, that we need to put in the time to ask if the basic are still basic.

Look at it this way – three years ago, every meeting was in person – then came COVID, and we were forced to do everything on line… and now, we can not go back.  We can’t pretend that it’s not possible to meet online.  We have to factor in that new capacity when we think about the future.  Now, that’s pretty easy for something like online meetings because what they offer  is so clear.

But the ability to have online meetings is not the only change in our world, and it’s really not even the most important change.  Church itself has changed.  the world has changed.  

Back along, church had a honored place in our world.  Everyone belonged to a church, even if they didn’t believe in God.  Being a church member was a sign of respectability.  Church was a place to make friends in the community, a place to bring your children for moral training.  

In 1974, my home church in Vermont, averaged about 400 in church every Sunday; it was about the physical size of this building.  We had between 1000 and 1100 members – one in every 20 people in the city of Rutland attended our church.  When our pastor spoke out on issues, it was front page news in the Rutland Herald.  In our membership, we had a United States Senator, a member of the state supreme court (who later was a US representative), all the Protestant judges in town, and most of the Protestant lawyers.  We also had a faithful population of homeless people who were there every Sunday.  Our choir had forty members.  We were by every standard, a faithful, faith-filled, successful church.  Even as recently as 1997, that church had over 1000 members.  

Today, not so much.  Despite having completely leadership and a fully established presence in the community, today that church has 386 members.  Instead of the over 400 in church on Sunday, last year they averaged 96.  

Does it sound familiar?  It should.  It’s not just the story of Grace Church in Rutland, Vermont.  It’s the story of this church, of South Church, of almost every church I know.  If a church wasn’t healthy, or if they had a nasty problem of some sort, the numbers might go down.

There are, of course, some churches which are maintaining their membership.  Asylum Hill and Immanuel Churches, in Hartford, are doing well. So has the Old South Church in Boston, and here’s what they each are doing in their very different ways.  They are not asking yesterday’s questions any more.  They do not expect Jesus to do a magic trick and bring back 1990.  They are not saying “let’s just wait a little longer and see if the old days come back.”

Here’s the challenge they lay before us – because, never doubt, there is a challenge here.  It is possible to thrive in today’s world.   

But in order for that to happen, let’s think creatively about what our tomorrow will look like.  What are the hard things for people today?  Can we help people deal with life as they find it today?  What do we have to offer now?

We are enormously gifted.  We have money to back up our yearly giving. We have a building which offers us many options.  And we have a community of people who know how to solve problems, know how to ask good questions, know – and this is most important – know how to build community.  

The disciples asked Jesus to do the work for them, to give them pre-packaged, one-size fits all answers to their questions.  That won’t work today.  

At the beginning, I talked about the way we can miss the point, by choosing the easy, the painless, way.  The way I’m suggesting for us is harder, but infinitely more rewarding

Today, let’s ask Jesus for vision for curiosity, for courage and perseverance.  

Because God has a future for this church.  

It’s out there waiting for us to look forward into the future.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Sometimes, It Really Is Too Late

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on September 25, 2022

1 Timothy 6:6-10   . . .  there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. 

Luke 16:19-31  “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” 

“To those watching the livestream at home or listening to our podcast, please be sure to like our page and subscribe so that you can be reminded to join us again in the future.” 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.

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.

How late is too late?

The story tells us that the rich guy, the man who had had everything, died.  He was really dead, dead as old Marley, dead as a doornail.

And he’d gone to Hades.  This is, by the way, one of the places we learn that for the ancient Jews, heat is really bad – and so they describe Hell as hot.  

This was a well-deserved destination.  The rich guy, whose name is traditionally Dives, was one of those folks who never did a good deed today that he could put off until “next time”.  He was one of those guy who’d say, “God won’t mind if I skip this year, because I can always confess and God has to forgive me”.  Dives was a procrastinator when it came to doing good.

In this story one of the most obvious things Dives did was to ignore the poor people who were right outside his front door.

You’ll remember that in first century Israel there  were no retirement benefits, so Social Security.  The way poor people survived, to the extent that the system worked, depended on the generosity of those who were wealthy.  Generosity was a religious obligation.  If you had more that enough, if you had only “enough”, you were expected to share.

Dives didn’t share, didn’t help.  

And then they died, both of them.  Lazarus, the poor guy, went to heaven, but Dives, well, he went to the hot place.  Once there, he got thirsty, and asked Abraham. to ask Lazarus to come down to Hell and bring him a glass of water.  Abraham points out that there’s no cross-traffic with the good place, and Dives then begs him to send Lazarus out to warn his brothers so that they will learn better.  And Abraham says they’ve had plenty of time and plenty of opportunities to learn.  And Lazarus isn’t going to save anyone.  They’ve had their chance, and they’ve blown it.

There’s no time in this story when Dives “gets it”  

Sometimes, it really is too late.  

Here’s the thing.  As we follow the Christian path, we see popping up before us, all along our way, good solid reminders of our path.  Just like Dives and his brothers, we have the testimony of the Bible, the stories of Jesus, the memories of those who’ve gone before us, to help us see the choices we need to make.

And yes, we can always put things off until tomorrow.  We don’t need to do anything today.  BUT, today’s opportunities will never return.  And someday, on a day we most likely didn’t expect, there will be no more opportunities to do good.  I dare say the rich guy, Dives, thought he had all the time in the world to do good, if it ever seemed prudent and appropriate.  And, the story tells us, even after he’d died, he kept on demanding that others serve him.  Talk about not getting the message.

So, let’s be clear.  If we stiff our waitress today, we will never have another chance.  We might be able to be kind to her on another visit, but this visit is a one-time, non-repeatable opportunity.

It’s been said that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once said:

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

So, it turns out it’s not an important thought because Wesley said it, because he probably didn’t, but it’s important because it so clearly says what living the Christian way is about.  

It’s about now, 

it’s about serving now, 

it’s about loving everyone, where they are, as they are.

If we snarl at someone, if we turn our backs on another – those are times we cannot make up, not easily, and often, not at all.  If we step back from standing up for someone who’s being oppressed, if we say something that came out wrong and we don’t move to correct it, or at least look mortally shamed, we’ve lost an opportunity.  

That happens, of course.  It’s part of life.  We’re rushed, we’re upset ourselves, we’re afraid of the repercussions, whatever, there are days when doing good is just stinking hard.  But God gives us the vision, the strength we have so that we don’t have to live in our worst places.  God gives us what we need to live in our braver spaces, the place where we can look beyond our own troubles to help others, the times when we can say “no” to nastiness.  The real problem is not that, from time to time, we mess up.  The real problem is that we forget to use the strength we have to do good, or we forget that God’s forgiveness gives us new opportunities.

Do good, now.  Stand up for the oppressed, now.  Love our neighbors, today.  Serve God, right this minute and all the days to come.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H Child

It’s the Little Things that Matter

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on September 18, 2022

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCu25FHASeNcL0G5SGdRzM7Q

Luke 16:1:13  …..“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. . .  .

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.

Every three years pastors all over the world shudder to realize that we’re back to this very very strange story about the cheating manager.  It’s not that there is a cheating manager… people cheat, we know that.   What’s strange is how it seems that Jesus approves of his actions…. and that is strange, because it’s really hard to see any part of the way of Jesus here.

Let me pause and give you a little scholarly background… because I think we can all agree, something’s not quite all there about this reading.  The scholars tell us that this section (the technical word is pericope)  is kind of a mishmash.  Even the greatest scholars of the Bible don’t really understand all about this pericope.  Personally, I think that Luke was getting tired; it was the end of the week, and so he didn’t really think through everything, and assumes things that we just don’t know.  But it does seem clear that he’s trying to tell us that Jesu thinks that wealth burdens the wealthy.  The cheating steward works to use his master’s money, for instance, to put others under obligation to him…. in other words, getting this new money puts people into debt, moral debt, ethical debt… but it’s not a free gift.  In fact, it’s a bribe, intended to purchase their support in the future.

This story is trying to help us understand that wealth weighs us down, that the attempts to protect our wealth cause us to do things, to behave in ways that are more self- protective than community-protective.  God offers us a kind of wealth that can’t be bought, can’t be sold, and isn’t any part of the corruption of possessions.

It’s a big concept, but it’s worked out in so many little ways. 

I’ve come to understand that these strange stories are here in the Bible to push us to think about our faith in ways we might not if all the stories were as clear as the one about the Good Samaritan.  Everyone gets the point of that story right away.  But this one… oh, this story begins with frustration and makes us really think.

Jesus said, there once was a man who had a manager who was doing a terrible job, losing money hand over fist.  The boss decided to fire the manager, who, learning he was about to lose his job, ramped up the teaching and, started settling his employer’s accounts receivable at a discount, taking a hefty bribe each time.  His boss praised him… and it looks like Jesus admires him too.

But then comes the stinger.  Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. . .   Look again at that dishonest manager… he was at least consistent, unfaithful in every act… it seems to me that the first thing Jesus suggests here is that we not be surprised if someone who’s mean to the unimportant is also mean to the more important, even if they take caution to do it behind their back.  There’s more here, but that’s enough for today.  Little things matter.

Maya Angelou, the author and poet, wrote: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time. Remember this because it will happen many times in your life. When people show you who they are the first time believe them. Not the 29th. time. When a man doesn’t call you back the first time, when you are mistreated the first time, when someone shows you lack of integrity or dishonesty the first time, know that this will be followed many many other times, that will some point in life come back to haunt or hurt you. Live your life in truth. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. You will survive anything if you live your life from the point of view of truth.”

Little things matter. 

Little things matter all out of proportion to their size or visibility.  I don’t know how many times in the last week, in reading a news story or watching tv coverage of the ceremonies around the death of Queen Elizabeth, people have mentioned some little thing that this very important woman did, some little thing that gave value to the other person’s life.  “She handed around the sandwiches, like she thought I was important,” one woman noted.  It was a little thing, and it gave great value.

Little things matter.

Every once in a while, someone does something spectacular.  Just a few days ago, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, along with his family, gave his company away to a trust.  Future profits will be dedicated to combat climate change.  Now that’s a spectacular act.   The lesson for us in today’s reading is that we don’t need to be Yvon Chouinard, we don’t need to be able to give away billions.  Yes, those big “gives” are spectacular, and we’d love to see more of them, but really they’re not representative of real life.  

In real life, it’s the little things that matter. 

Every year at Christmas, Julie Hurlburt has masterminded a sit-down Christmas Dinner for 300 or so people.  That looks like a big endeavor, and we’re understandably intimidated by the idea of doing it this year without Julie – you’ll remember she said she wanted to retire last January – but we’re going to do it.  One of the ways we’ll make it work is that we’re not going to ask any one person to do all that Julie did. While some of the jobs are big ones (we need someone to be the overall manager, for instance), we’re also going to need dishwashers and food servers, shoppers and cookie makers.  Everyone’s small contributions will add up to a joyous meal for 300-400 people on Christmas Day.  It’s going to be a project where every contribution will make a difference.  And it will be one of those times when little things will matter, a lot.

Little things matter.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child