Why Are We Here?

The Congregational Church of Grafton UCC, February 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is the Good News for today.

Amen.

© 2018, Virginia H. Child

 

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

[2] Ibid., p. 76.

Burying the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to Knowing

Congregational Church of Grafton MA UCC, February 11, 2018

2 Kings 2:1-12 – When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.”   Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 

Mark 9:2-9 – Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

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.

Life is full of the incomprehensible.  Anyone who thinks they totally understand what’s going on is deluding themselves.

Now, sure, some people understand how to build engines, or how to teach this or that; some blessed people know how to bake or make wonderful meals.  Some really smart people understand computers, write code, or clean up computers after they’re infected with a malicious code.

And most of us can find our way from Grafton to wherever we need to go; we can ask Siri, or use a GPS, or read a map.

I’m not talking about that kind of knowledge.

I’m talking about the miracle of growth – just how is it that I can feed a puppy dog chow – an unappealing, hard, crunchy food – and the dog turns it into sleek & glossy fur, grows from a pound of blind puppy into a 40 pound expert sheepherding dog?

I’m talking about the miracle of meaning and purpose – just how is it that we come to understand that life has its best meaning when we serve our community?  I’ve been reading General Alexander Archer Vandegrift’s story of the battle of Guadalcanal.  What is it that made it possible for all those men to fight so hard in such a strange place, to fight knowing they were likely to die? Fifteen thousand American men  – and close to 30,000 Japanese were killed or wounded there.  Why do we love our country so much that we’ll give up our lives, our freedoms, to keep it safe?

Last week I read a newspaper story about a newbie UCC pastor, who’d given up a $200,000 a year job at Harvard to be a $50,000 a year pastor in rural Ohio.  What makes that happen?

And of course, there are the other class of unanswerable question, which ask “why did this happen and not that?” or “why me, why my mother, my spouse, my child”.

Life is mysterious and filled with unanswerable questions.

Today is a time in the church year when we try to grapple with some of those unanswerable questions.  We begin with the story of the death of Elijah and the emergence of his student, Elisha, and then move onto a story of the emergence of Jesus as a person of spiritual power.  Each story is an attempt to both answer and ask questions about what is important, and how we recognize it.

In the midst of the worst time in his life, the death of his teacher, Elisha finds new life, new meaning, new purpose by picking up Elijah’s mantle, by carrying on his work.  It’s a reminder that the work we do, whether we’re religious leaders, or parents, or whatever, is part of an ever-flowing stream of living.  We live on our own timelines, but life in general goes along on God’s timeline.

Jesus didn’t do what he did to make himself a big thing; he brought his entire self into God’s way of being, and by doing that to give us a way to see and understand what God was calling the world to do and be.  In much the same way, when we live out the Jesus Way in our lives, we help others to see and understand God’s call.

The gospel story tries to tell us what happened when you really listened to Jesus, really paid attention to what he was saying – it was such a glorious experience that it seemed to Peter and James and John as though he was transfigured into a glorious being, as if Elijah and Moses had shown up and they were all talking together.  And then Peter suggested they build dwellings, which would allow them all to stay there in the midst of transforming glory.

But everyone has to come down off the mountain top. We can’t stay in church 24/7, but have to take our experiences of that glory, our memories of what it was like to be in God’s presence, out into the world, so that those who are lost, or lonely, or living in fear, might, through us, be brought to a place of justice and peace, built on our love for God and for one another.

God in Christ came to us that we might see and learn and know a new way of being, that we might not just exist, but prosper, enjoying a life filled with meaning.

There are times together,  times of transfiguration, so filled with meaning and joy that we just want to stay there, to enjoy the feeling of being in God’s presence.  It’s like being at the most wonderful concert, or most beautifully-played game, an experience we just don’t want to stop.

Underneath the special-ness of that experience, however, is another kind of transfiguration, the transfiguration of the everyday, the illumination of daily living and its transformation from one task after the other into a way of being which brings transformation and transfiguration into our daily world.

And that’s our call; that’s our task.  We are called and commissioned to make love our watchword, make justice our goal, and by doing so, to bring transformation to all the world.

And in the name of Jesus Christ, we will do so.

Amen.

© 2018, Virginia H. Child