How Will We Know?

First Congregational Church UCC, Wareham MA, June 16, 2019

Proverbs 8:1-11 Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it. Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips. All the words of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them. They are all straight to one who understands and right to those who find knowledge. Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her. 

Mark 4:1-9 Again [Jesus] began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

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.

First, another story, from the Rev. Craig Barnes, President of the Princeton Theological Seminary

Perhaps my greatest joy as a seminary president is placing diplomas into the hands of our graduates at commencement. They’ve worked hard for their degrees, and they have so much promise that it annually renews my faith in the future of the church. But occasionally a student slips through who makes me wonder.

Some years ago, a student was told by the registrar that he couldn’t graduate because he hadn’t completed his course re­quirements. 

He complained that no one had told him he was behind in credits. She explained that at the beginning of the semester she had emailed all students who were expecting to graduate, telling them to check the website that depicts their progress through their degree program. 

But he was not about to take responsibility for his mistake, and so he appealed to the dean, who upheld the registrar’s decision. Then the student came to see me for his final appeal.

 “My parents have already bought their plane tickets to come to commencement,” he tried. “They’re going to be so embarrassed if I can’t graduate with my friends.” I responded, “That has to be rough,” and then I mentioned his responsibility to ensure he had completed all of the courses necessary to graduate. 

The student next tried to blame the website for being confusing. I pointed out that all of the other students seemed to navigate it well. 

After that he took a stab at the administration for not being very responsive to his problem. I indicated that I was at least the third administrator who had seen him in two days. Finally, he slumped his shoulders and said, “This really hurts my feelings.” Christian Century, “Everyone In Ministry Gets Their Feelings Hurt”, June 14, 2019

What do you think?  Should the student get a diploma, be graduated without completing the course? Should the school at least let him march in the ceremony?

Princeton let him march, but made him come back in the fall to complete the program before they would sign off on his completion of the degree program…and all the time they marveled at the story of a student who could not learn. He couldn’t learn, not because he was cognitively limited, but because he refused to open his ears, refused to take responsibility for his part of the process.

But that’s not the point of this story for me… what struck me when I read it was how hard the student worked to avoid learning anything about how the world worked.  Right up to the end, he steadfastly refused to acknowledge that his choices had consequences.  

He may have acquired book knowledge, but he had not opened himself to wisdom.

And wisdom is the subject of the day.

Our lesson from the book of Proverbs sets the scene:  Wisdom is there, right in front of us, waiting for those who know there is always more to learn, waiting for those who have the humility to learn prudence, acquire intelligence, so that they might know and do the right thing.

Words are good to the one who understands; with wisdom, knowledge can turn the world upside down, but it will at the same time, strengthen the foundation of our understanding of good and evil.

Not everyone gets that.  Not everyone wants the responsibility that comes with wisdom.  Jesus makes that plain in his story we heard from the Gospel of Mark.  Some people listen, some don’t.  There’s a direct relationship between listening to God, learning wisdom, and creating a thriving, abundant, community-changing church community.  And there’s a direct relationship between being the stony ground on which the seed falls, and seeing no growth at all.

Last year I planted two high quality rose bushes in my back yard. They came from David Austin, and were nice and healthy when I planted them, in a part of the yard which – it turns out – was overrun with thick, obstructive roots from a nearby tree.  It wasn’t wise, once I saw the root system, to insist on planning the bushes.   But I did. And then I proceeded to neglect the bushes during the driest part of the summer.  I was lazy; I refused to re-read the instructions; I refused to learn. And my bushes died.  the bushes were guaranteed to not die the first year, but you know, I’m too ashamed of my negligence to even think of putting in a claim. But there’s more – this spring, one of the bushes came back!  And today it’s got three lovely rose blossoms on it.  It’s not as strong as it should be, but if I can learn from last year’s mistakes, it’s given me a second chance.  Will I have the wisdom to take care this time?  Ask me again in September!!

It’s never too late to learn wisdom.  We can’t, of course, go back and change our past, but we can allow wisdom to change our future.  

There’s a sheep-farmer in the Lake District of England, who’s been involved for the past few years in changing the way he and his neighbors handle their fields.  The received wisdom is that its best to grow animals in large feedlots, and then to deal with the byproducts as a pollution hazard.  

This guy says, the best way to grow meat animals is in small herds, grazed on grass, where by products become natural fertilizer and actually improve the land.

It’s a hard sell.  People think it’s easier to handle large herds of animals.  They think it’s cheaper, and maybe it is.  And, besides, it’s the way the bigwigs, the scientists, have told them to do things for the last one hundred years.

But they’re wrong.  Growing animals in small herds, on grass, not only produces healthier animals and better meat; it also improves the soil on which the animals graze, and that means – in the long run – better, tastier crops all around.   

With wisdom, he’s changing minds.  It’s never too late to learn wisdom; never too late to change our world.

Wisdom isn’t acquired accidentally.  It’s something we have to work towards.  Learning wisdom can be painful because we have to admit, at least to ourselves, that we don’t know everything.  Sometimes we’ll push back against the call to move ahead.  We may even have to admit we are wrong, that we have not taken the right path.  And that’s hard.  People may be hurt, even us.

Here’s the good news:  

God knows we are not perfect.  

God knows we are learners, people who struggle to understand right and wrong.

God knows that we much prefer to handle things without any fuss ever anywhere.

God understands.  God stands here before us to encourage our first steps, to keep us trying in the face of failure.  God is here to help us learn wisdom, to keep us headed in the right direction.

The offer is in front of us, every day, for that is the wisdom-blessed gift of God.


© 2019, Virginia H. Child

Time to Tell the Truth!

First Congregational Church (UCC) Wareham MA, June 9, 2019

Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2: 1-4, 12-13 — When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 

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.

It’s time to tell the truth.

It’s time to say, as clearly as possible, that Pentecost turned the world upside down.

It’s time to know that it continues to change things, even unto today.

It’s time to recognize that today is not the same as yesterday.

Back on that first Pentecost feast, everyone thought today would be exactly like yesterday.  They thought their world could never change.  Their lives were filled with despair as they struggled with Roman occupation, with the constant pull of Roman culture on their young people, on those who wanted to “get ahead.”  They never had much, and what they had seemed to be drifting away.

Suddenly, with the power of a mighty wind, change came to them.  Whenever I hear this story, I think of stories my family told of the summer of 1955, when two hurricanes within a week dropped so much rain in the town of Putnam that the Quinebaug River flooded.  That flood destroyed much of the industrial base in Putnam, floated most of the low-income housing down the river, and took down every bridge across the river for more than twenty miles, isolating the town from the rest of Connecticut.

Change came to Putnam overnight.

Most change, even the most monumental change, however, comes so slowly that we don’t easily recognize what’s happening.  Most of the time it’s like those stories of the frog in the pan of water – by the time we realize what’s happening, it’s happened.

And that’s where we are today.

All over the United States, people no longer attend church in the way they did even forty years ago.  

Forty or fifty years ago, the single easiest way to establish yourself was to become active in a local church.  It was how you showed your respectability.  Church was where you met people; church was where you made business contacts, got to be known.

Back in the day, church was where our kids learned how to conduct meetings, where they learned about right and wrong, where they went to parties, met their friends.

Church was where we went for parties, or steak dinners, or plays – because there were no other options.

Today, you make those business contacts on the golf course, or at Rotary.  Today our kids are too busy to go to church – ask any pastor who’s tried to schedule Confirmation!  Even twenty years ago, I could schedule Confirmation classes for the same time as Roman Catholic CCD classes and get pretty good attendance, but these days, the Roman Catholic church has lost so many members that following along with them just doesn’t help. 

Today, we may meet friends out at a restaurant, but hardly anyone thinks of a church supper as a great way to bring friends together.  Someone else is doing that, just as if there’s still a theatre group in town, they’re using the high school facilities, not the stage in our hall.

The truth is, the world has changed, and we’ve not kept up with those changes.  

Sounds discouraging, doesn’t it?

But, you know, I think that behind those discouraging stories, there’s an encouraging opportunity.  You see, being the place to validate your respectability never was as important to the church as we thought it was.  Being the entertainment center for our youth?  Nope, not that either.  And being the place to meet friends – not central.  And so losing most all of that, has opened a new opportunity to us, a new transformation.

When you strip all the other stuff away, what’s left is our true center.  And it’s much easier to see that than it was back in the day.

We are not here to entertain; we are here to honor God with our worship, to equip ourselves to be the transforming agents of our world, to teach and practice a Gospel of love, justice and peace throughout our world.  

At home with our families, at work with our colleagues, out in the community, on the local, state, national or international stage, we are working for God to make this world better.

Yes, the truth is, we’ve lost a lot that was important to us, but we still have what is at the center.  We still have an important message to our world.  

Just as on that first Pentecost, we still preach a gospel that says, “whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”  That’s a truth that never changes.  

We still spend our time, our talents, our treasures on fixing what’s broken, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the sorrowing, healing the ill, making peace among the warring.  That’s a truth that never changes.

We still comfort and support one another, building community step by step, proclaiming and living – to the best of our ability – what we have learned from Jesus.  And that too is a truth that never changes.

Pentecost reminds us that change happens, worlds turn, and yesterday is gone.  But Pentecost also tells us that our future is yet to be known, and in the words of the great Baptist missionary, Adoniram Judson, “the future is as bright as the new morning sun.”

Over the summer, our search committee is going to be leading us in making plans for our future, as they seek to describe just exactly what we’re seeking in a settled pastor.  We don’t know, today, what that will be.  But our plan is that by the end of the summer, we’ll have made some decisions, come to an understanding of just how the winds of Pentecost have begun to stir a clear vision among us all.

The Holy Spirit leads us forward, out of yesterday, and into tomorrow.  And that is the truth that will never fail.


© 2019, Virginia H. Child

What Is This Bread? What Is This Cup?

First Congregational Church UCC, Wareham MA, June 2, 2019                                                                       

Luke 24:13-35  – When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

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 Easter Sunday afternoon, two of Jesus’ disciples were headed home.  After all their hopes, all the excitement of Palm Sunday, they’d though the week would be one triumph after another.  And, we know, it wasn’t.  Instead, it was one disaster after another, each one worse, until at the end of the week, their beloved leader, Jesus, was executed.

They were headed for home and safety, headed away from any of the anger in Jerusalem, headed home after hearing the story about the Resurrection from some of the women, who’d gotten the crazy idea that the reason Jesus’ body wasn’t in the tomb was that he had risen from the dead.  Just too hard to believe, and if it’d been real, wouldn’t it have been Peter or James or John who’d have been told?  Not one of the women???

They were walking and as they glumly ambled down the road, each of them looking as though they’d lost their best friend, they were joined by a stranger, someone they didn’t recognize.  The stranger asked them why they were so sad.  In astonishment that anyone wouldn’t have heard what happened, they spilled out the whole story.  They even told how they couldn’t possibly believe the women and their astounding story.

You might well think they were pretty clueless, to not recognize Jesus when he was walking right beside them, but think about it.  Don’t you remember times when you had trouble recognizing someone – maybe they cut their hair so it was now short when it’d been really long, or shaved off a beard, or wore radically different clothing?  Sometimes we might think to ourselves, wow, that looks like Susie…muse be a cousin, when it’s actually Susie.  In this case, since they knew, absolutely, that Jesus was dead, it didn’t matter how much the man looked like him – he couldn’t possibly be him, and so they didn’t recognize him.

They told him their story and he gave it right back to them, re-telling them all Jesus had said – the words spoke to them, they liked what he was saying, enough that they begged him to stay with them in Emmaus and have dinner, but still they didn’t recognize him.

It wasn’t until they shared bread and cup that they began to realize that Jesus was back, was with him. The bread and cup – the scent, the taste, the experience of being together – all combined to bring them back, to have them knowthat Jesus still lived, still was changing the world.

The bread and cup we’ll share this morning are the same meal that the disciples shared with Jesus so long ago.  And the story we shared tells us some important things about the meal.

Because, you know, eating this bread, drinking this cup, is about more than simple eating and drinking. This isn’t snack time in the church. This is an expression of our willingness to follow Christ.  It is the way we tell the world to step away from our hope, our faith, our commitment to love.

For us, Communion is something like an AA meeting, where we can hear and tell life stories, know pain, comfort and be comforted, and, when we eat and drink, say to God and ourselves, yes, still, again, one day, one month at a time, I will follow Jesus.

Our ancestors in faith believed that taking communion faithfully and regularly would absolutely strengthen us in faith – they called it food for the sin-sick soul, medicine for the weary, comfort in suffering.

Communion is a meal which transcends time; when we eat and drink, doing what our ancestors have done, there’s a way in which we are united in this common commitment, so that we are not alone, but joined by all who have gone before us, an unending stream of saints of God – parents, maybe; surely friends and fellow church members who have gone on before us.

And there’s more… because Communion isn’t only about me and my life, but about declaring to our world that there is another way to life.  Communion is an act of defiance – in the face of those who would separate us into “us” and “them”, we eat together as one.  

In the face of those who would say that some people are better, smarter, whiter, more important, we say that every person matters.  Just as we hear, on tv or radio or internet, that it’s ok for people to be homeless, hungry, or dying because they can’t afford a doctor, we eat and drink together to say that God loves everyone, and no one should be without home or food, work or heath.

Here we all are, in this place where we regularly meet God, care about one another, and plot to change our world, and now there is only one more thing to do. . . 

And that is to simply share this feast; it is small but it is mighty.  So when the meal is passed, take your share, and when you eat and drink, know that Jesus sits with you, and trust in the strength it will give you to continue faithful for all your days.


© 2019, Virginia H. Child