Fools Rush In

A Sermon preached at the Congregational Christian Church of Somerset UCC, Somerset, MA, on February 6, 2011

Scripture Readings:  I Corinthians 2: 1-12; Psalm 112: 1-9; Matthew 5: 13-20

. . . .among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish.  But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.. . .

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

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.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is one of those pieces of Scripture which looks to have depths of meaning — all that talk about the wisdom of God and the foolishness of humanity — tells us there’s more to this being a Christian than is easily apparent, or commonly accepted.  And so there is.

God calls us to a life of holy foolishness, to a life of doing things that others consider foolish or odd.  Taking your money and giving it to this church — now that’s something many outside our doors would think foolish.  And then taking that money and giving a goodly part of it to people in need.  Even more people would think us foolish to give away what we could so easily use for ourselves.  But we believe God calls us to such foolishness.

Most of my music friends think I’m foolish to get up on Sunday morning and go to church.  They think it makes much much more sense to sleep late, read the paper, maybe, maybe go to the local coffee shop, eat brunch with their friends, take the day for themselves alone.  If they think of God at all, they figure God will understand how stressful their lives are and how important it is for them to take care of themselves first.

And I think they’re foolish– but they think I am.

The foolishness of God leads us to do things our friends and neighbors think distinctively odd.

Of course, some of us who follow the Christian way do do things that are at least odd.  Young people who could be lawyers and make good money hear a call from God to go into a ministry where they’ll be lucky to be able to send their children to their own alma mater — or older folks, hearing the same call, use their retirement fund to pay for their seminary education and contemplate and old age with very limited options.

That can look foolish to not only our friends, but to us, I guess.  I’d bet that at least some of the first missionaries to go overseas from here had family members who thought they had made some odd decisions.

Those folks who choose to follow God full time, however, are not the run-of-the mill oddities of the Christian way of life.  We do what we do, and it is necessary, but it’s not the core of the faith.  If there were no clergy there would still be a faith, and a church community, and it’s in that community that the most foolish actions of our Christian faith take place.

The most radical practioners of the Christian way are ordinary, every day people doing what seems right and proper in their eyes, putting aside their own needs and wants to help others, or offering a hand when its needed. . . . and of all the radical things we do, individually, and as  church, none is more radical than the one we are about to do this morning.

in communion, we make visible God’s welcome of everyone:  no matter who you are….or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.

It’s not the eating that’s radical.  It’s the part where everyone is welcome.  This is the real hidden mystery of our faith:  everyone one welcome.

Think about it.  We all have friends who like us, and welcome us into their presence.  And I’d bet we all have people know who don’t much like us (and whom we don’t much like) in whose presence we (and they) would be uncomfortable.  Nice enough folks, in their way, but their way isn’t our way.  Maybe it’s just that they’re Yankees fans in a Red Sox world, or the only Democrat in a family of Republicans and  — in either case — seem to think that it’s needed that everyone agree they’re right in their fixed opinion.   No matter, you might invite them to dinner, but you wouldn’t expect to enjoy the experience.

And then there’s the next level — those folks in whose company you’re uncomfortable for a good reason… loud mouths, filthy conversation, convicted thief, mistreats a parent, cheats on a spouse… or those folks around whom we’re uncomfortable, and uncomfortable that we’re uncomfortable — the homeless, those who don’t have clean clothes or opportunities to bathe, maybe someone whose speech is not understandable, or who has what we think of as an communicable disease.  And finally there are those folks who for reasons known only to you are not welcome at your dinner table.

But all of them, all of them, are welcome here.  You might think that God would only welcome those who show the outward signs of effective faith — those special people we all admire for their love, their generosity, their devotion.  But God does not restrict that welcome only to the “deserving” faithful. God welcomes those who know all the answers and those who are sure there are no answers.  God welcomes those who trust and those who doubt.  God welcomes everyone to this table.

In the old movie “Places in the Heart”, it’s Depression-era cotton country Texas, a land filled with bigotry and the Klan.   The first thing that happens in the movie is murder of the white sheriff by a young black man who is then lynched by the citizens of the community. In the last scene, we’re in church on a communion Sunday.  The tray of bread is passed from hand to hand.  The grieving widow offers the tray to the black hired hand who helped save the farm and he passes it along to the blind guy who rents a room.  The betrayed wife offers the bread of heaven to her cheating husband.  And, in the back of the room, the dead sheriff offers bread to the man who killed him.

God welcomes everyone to this table.

And that’s the radical core of our faith…. that everyone is welcome.

Amen.

© 2011 Virginia H. Child

 

 

 

 

Living Our Faith

Scripture Readings:  Micah 6: 1-8, Psalm 15, Matthew 5: 1-12

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.

Living our faith is about our deeds, not our dreams.

Living our faith is about our actions, not our money.

Living our faith is not about yesterday, and it’s not really about tomorrow; it is about today.

One day a long, long time ago, I flunked out of college.  My last grade report from the University of Florida said I had a perfect 1.0 average… and I was toast.  Expelled permanently for violation of academic probation, the only way I could get back in was if I petitioned the University Senate for re-admission — and the very thought intimidated me.  My academic life was over and I was barely 18.

Well, here I stand before you, a college graduate, with two masters degrees and a doctorate.  Clearly something happened.  Well, nothing happened for a good long time.  By the time I came back to education, I’d been in the Marines for a couple of years.  In those days, you could take correspondence courses, and I signed up for one.  Then I took an extension course offered at my base by a local college.  But in those days, what I was doing was more like idle recreation; it was definitely not the pursuit of any organized education.

In fact, I was out of the Marines before that happened.  First, I signed up for a local business college, because I wanted to get a job.  It went awfully well, and I began to re-think the picture I had of myself as someone who couldn’t do “education”.  I began to think about going back to college.

There still were a lot of roadblocks…. I didn’t really think anyone would want me; I actually  thought the only school I could go to was the University of Florida, and only if I petitioned that University Senate, whatever that meant.  But there was a professor in our church, a man I sang with in the choir, and he helped me understand that just because I’d been expelled from one school, didn’t mean I couldn’t apply to another.

Well, then I thought, how will I ever complete a degree — if I transfer in my courses from Florida, I have to transfer that 1.0 gpa — and it is almost impossible to bring that low a gpa up to a graduation-eligible level.  But my professor friend persisted; the school where he taught — Castleton State, in Vermont — would transfer courses, but would not transfer the grades.  So, if I went there, I’d start off with no gpa at all, and could re-build my record.

And there was one final roadblock.  I kept thinking, gee whiz, it’s going to take forever, if I do this while I’m working.  Why, I’ll be 40 before I finish.  Then, one day, it occurred to me — hey, I’m going to be 40 anyway, some day, and would I rather be 40 with a college degree, or 40 sitting around waiting for something good to happen?

So I went back to college, and graduated when I was 33, on the President’s List, with a BS in business administration, and went on to Andover Newton and all the other degrees.

All because I was able to change my picture of myself from a person who could not learn, into a person who wanted to learn.

Living our faith is about our deeds, not our dreams.

Don’t get me wrong; dreams are very helpful.  But if we live only in our dreams, we’re like the person who bought a whole closet full of new clothes to wear to parties, except she never went to parties.

Micah wrote to a people who’d gotten themselves mixed up in a similar way.  They thought that the only deed they needed to accomplish to realize their dream of good living, was to fulfill the outward requirements of religion.  They wanted to build a Potemkin village of faith — you remember the story about the Russian bureaucrat who’d put up false front villages to fool the Empress?  Well a faith that’s all about outward signs is nothing but a Potemkin village.  Real faith is about deeds of love and mercy.  Real faith is about doing justice, and loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.

Jesus might well have been reading off Micah’s page when he offered the disciples the Beatitudes.  You’ll note he doesn’t say, “blessed are those who believe this, or pray that way” but “Blessed are those who…. are poor, who mourn, who are meek, who are merciful, who are pure, who make for peace, who are persecuted…”   All… all are ways we live, all are about the qualities of our lives, all are firmly anchored in the hear and now, not the dreamt of tomorrow, or even the beloved yesterday.

Living our faith is about today, not yesterday, and not to be put off until tomorrow.

This is a Christian church.  You knew that, right?  <smile>  But I mean by that is, we are Christian in background, not Congregational…. we were formed by people who had had it with lengthy tests of faith, who weren’t comfortable with creeds, or catechisms, who really disliked the idea that some one could claim to be a believer on Sunday, and then not allow that faith to govern their daily living.  That’s why our Christian ancestors, when they organized, said that one of the sure principles of the denomination was that “Christian character is a sufficient test of fellowship and church membership.”  How you live is more important than the theological details.  Or to put it another way, theology follows faith; it doesn’t drive it.

I don’t mean by this that theology has no importance; I only mean that the particulars of our beliefs are secondary to the living of our lives.

That’s a long introduction to the heart of this sermons:  so, if living out our faith is about our deeds, not our dreams, how are we doing?

Are we actually doing?

Are we extending mercy to those who don’t know it?  Are we building peace — here in our fellowship, in our community, in our world?  Are we kind and gracious to our neighbors?  Or are we offering lip service, letting the members of the SAM Committee and our pastor do the real work of ministry?

Is it possible that when we think of “doing something” for others, that our imaginations are restricted by our grasp of our limitations?  That like me, when I thought of going back to school, all we see are the obstacles and not the pathways?

Of course, I’m posing a question I can’t answer.  I can’t answer it because it’s your question to answer.  And, I’d bet you aren’t ready yet to answer it, if only because we’ve been going along, doing what we’ve always done, and trying to do that as well as we did it before.

The challenge before us is simple.  The world for which our current picture of what ministry is, what service might be, that world doesn’t really exist any more.  Think about it:  When we put those models together, Fall River was prosperous, the mills were still running, and every high school grad who wanted one, could get a job there.  When we put those models together, veterans of World War II were raising their 10 year old children. When we put those models together, everyone belonged to a church; you really had to go to church to be seen as a respectable person.

And none of that’s true any more.

In the Boston Globe this week, Fall River was the 7th poorest city in the state, only because New Bedford beat it out for sixth place.   Our World War II vets and their spouses are increasingly leaving us. Being a part of a church is an option these days, not a requirement, and in some groups, a distinctly odd thing to do.

But in that new world, there are still needs, still opportunities for us to serve God and serve our community.

There are still opportunities to make the truths of the Beatitudes real in someone’s life.

What are the needs you see in our community?  Where are our ministry edges?  How can we best serve God and our world?  Let’s talk about what you see and hear and know, and let’s pray, that out of all that, we will see our way into the future.

Amen.

© 2011, Virginia H. Child