Tell Me the Story

First Congregational Church of Wareham, January 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for it, he was killed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

© 2019 Virginia H. Child

Sharing our Gifts

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Each one of us bring something important to the table.

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

Each one of us makes the world better.

Amen.

© 2019 Virginia H. Child