Who Went First? How Can We Forgive?

James 1:19-25

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 

A sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown, CT on September 19, 2021

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

We were moving, from Pennsylvania to South Florida.  My mother and father were in the front, my brother and I in the back.  Driving to Florida wasn’t quite what we’d experience today – for our trip was well before I 95.  We spent hours on two-lane highways, staring out the windows at an unbelievable world of live oaks, Spanish moss, men plowing their fields with mules… It was enormously stressful for my parents; after almost six months of unpaid unemployment, they were moving to a new world, with a new job.  If this didn’t work out, they didn’t know what would happen next.  And in the back seat, a pre-teen and a pre-schooler.  We loved each other, sure, but peace was never in the cards.

He hit me!  She’s on my side of the car!  Barriers of pillows were easily breached.  He ate my snacks; I ate his.  I was jealous because he got away with murder while I was expected to take it.  And, did I mention how boring it was?  I think by the fourth day of it all, my parents would have been happy to leave us at that most recent gas station.

He did it; no, she did it…. for twenty-four hours of driving…

Who went first?  Because, you know, if I could prove that my brother had started it, then I could claim to be innocent.  

I wasn’t the first to make that claim.  You remember the story of Adam and Eve; it’s a lovely parable describing the nature of sin.  It went something like this:  Adam and Eve live in a beautiful garden where there is no shame.  One day, God visits, and has to hunt for Adam because he’s hiding.  “Why are you hiding from me?” God asks.  “I was hiding because I was naked and ashamed.” “Where did you get the idea that you should be ashamed of being naked?”  “Well, the woman you gave me, she told me; and then the woman says, but I heard it from the snake…  “  It’s never my fault, you notice…. whoever is speaking blames someone else…. the woman, the snake, and best of all, blames God for creating the woman.  

I wasn’t the first, or the last, to blame someone else for what I’d done, to proclaim, loudly, that their bad deeds made it necessary for me to respond, or even to say that since others have done something that’s wrong, it’s ok for me to do something wrong as well.

The thing is, when we go down that path, we’re so focused on justifying our own actions, focused on ourselves, that we’ll never see the harm we’re doing others.  In the letter of James, it’s written:  be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.  Live out what you say.  I can guarantee that, in the back of that car heading for Florida, I never once thought to listen to my brother, never once wondered how hard it was for a four-year old to spend hour after hour stuck in a car, unable to run or jump.

We laugh – it’s not in the nature of most bored teens to listen thoughtfully to a similarly bored, and annoying, little brother.  Think about it, though.  How often do we similarly fail to listen, and thus make it worse?

I’ve been reading William Willimon’s take on being a bishop in the United Methodist Church; he was appointed to a struggling Conference in Alabama, and tasked with making the changes that were needed.  Everyone wanted things to get better, but some got really angry at him for what was happening.  And he got angry with them – until he sat down with some of the unhappiest, and listened.  He wrote that he realized as they spoke that they weren’t really angry at the changes, but rather they were mourning the losses of things they had loved…  in much the same way, we might note that there’s no longer a Bee and Missionary Society, know that the decision was right and needed, and still mourn what it had meant for so many years.

It was Willimon’s listening which led to understanding, and his understanding of where others were opened up the possibility of stronger community.

There’s a reason why the author of James puts listening first – be quick to listen, but sl-o-w to respond.  

That’s hard, and in this contentious age, it’s gotten harder.  We’re quick to be snarky, even quicker to assume someone is putting us down; we’re harder set in our opinions, readier to speak with an edge. 

That’s not who we want to be; it’s not who God has made us to be.  We have looked at what we’ve seen and heard among ourselves and in our world, and so we determined some time ago to create a tool to help us continue to live in the way we are called.  Under the able leadership of Jim Silver, God’s gift to this congregation, a Behavioral Covenant team has put together a document which will work, for us, as a guide. 

Our Behavioral Covenant doesn’t name each and every opportunity we might face; it’s intended to be open, to offer guidelines, not rigid “you musts” or “never do this”.  It’s not a rule book, made to govern us, but a route book, a road map, to help us figure out how to relate in tough times.

It will remind us to be quick to listen, but slow to speak.  It will help us put aside the sharp elbows of our world, help us strengthen our community with a common respect and love, and bring us closer to our God.

May it always be so.  


© 2021, Virginia H. Child

So Much Gone

A sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown, CT on September 12, 2021

Luke 6:27-42 —27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 

3“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. 

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” 

3He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 42 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 

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.

Twenty years ago, yesterday, was two days after the church I was then serving had closed.  On Sunday, September 9, we shut the doors of our building for the last time.  We put the organ into storage, sold the building, and dispersed what members were left to other churches in the greater Grand Rapids area.  The next morning, I woke up to the attacks on 9-11.   (nb: I thought 9/11 was a Monday, but was mistaken.  It’s been corrected here.)

It was surreal.  And at the same time, whatever effect it had in Grand Rapids Michigan was nothing to the effect it had here in Connecticut.  I’ve listened to my colleagues share the stories of parishioners who died at work in the World Trade Center or on one of the airplanes.  9-11 was much more personal.  It was not just our country that was attacked, but it was our neighbors, our friends, it was us.

People gathered in the following days, gathered in prayer, gathered in worship, gathered trying to understand how and why such an attack happened.  We shared news of the heroes who ran into the buildings at the Pentagon and at the World Trade Center.  We were community, family to one another.

It didn’t take long for our government to retaliate, and eventually kill Osama bin Laden, who’d planned the whole thing.  But it’s been twenty years and we’re only now extricating ourselves from the idiocy of our whole attempt to re-make the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan which followed our retaliations.  

The movie “The Princess Bride” popularized the saying “never get stuck in a land war in Asia”, but I always think of Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, who limped because he’d fought in the Afghani Wars.  Those were the wars about which Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem “The Young British Soldier”:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains 
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

For me, the single most important thing, the thing that held us together after the attack was our sense of community.  It’s community I want to carry forward, community that I believe God is calling us to create.

It was community which held things together after the attacks.  Church communities, communities of teachers, first responders, leaders, communities of all kinds.  It was communities of people – not otherwise connected – who stood against those who would have (and did) attack Muslims and Sikhs in the aftermath of the attacks.  It was communities which stood up for and advocated for better care for those who still suffer physically from their work at the crash site in New York City.

And it is communities today which hold the greatest hope for our future.

It is communities like this church community, places which have dedicated themselves to living out the world of Jesus as they were reported in Luke.  

Jesus said, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you… give to everyone in need…do to others as you would have them do to you.

It would be so easy to look at these words and poke all kinds of holes in them because it’s easy to read them as hard and fast laws, rather than the guidelines to behavior that they really are.

Jesus is not saying that you may never protect yourself.  He is not saying that when you’re dealing with a lying, cheating bully that you just have to give in and give up.  What he is saying is that we are called to a kind of living which brings out the best in us and in others.

We know that life always requires a balancing act and that’s what this lesson is really all about.  Always, always, always look to create community of live.  Never, never, never allow someone to bully, cheat, steal without naming it.  Let yourself grow, name your growing edges, at least to yourself, step into tomorrow, allow change to happen.  Don’t be the blind person in your community, the one who cannot see and refuses to allow anyone else to see either.  

Here’s the thing.  It’s not just about us.  It’s about our world and how we all work together.  This past week, I was listening to Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in NYC, preaching at the first Rosh Hashanah service.  She said that the community of faith was – in the wider community – a marker, a waystone.[1]  I’m from New England, so I tend to think in terms of lighthouses.  Our existence, even when we do not always succeed, but our existence as a community which is trying as hard as it can to be a place of welcome, love, mercy and justice, is a lighthouse to those around us, because they know that here, there is at least one place, where that is happening.  We are a safe harbor in a difficult and dangerous world.

May we always be a blessing to our world.


[1] Rabbi Angel Buchdahl, Central Synagogue, NYC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPDbWYvz2VY

The Healing Waters

A sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown, CT on September 5, 2021

Acts 8:26-38

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: 

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

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.

From Friday’s NYT:  Our long-gestating Italy trip, originally scheduled for last spring, has returned to its yearlong holding pattern. We’ll be packing our vaccination cards in November when we travel to a Miami wedding that’s enforcing strict inoculation requirements. I think I speak for everyone when I say that I am so tired of not knowing if I’m doing the right thing.

. . . I think we’re all becoming accustomed to the truth that escaping from a pandemic was never going to be so simple. The restoration is going to happen in fits and starts, with a permeating sense of unease. When will I stop waiting for the other shoe to drop? Ideally someday in the far-off future when our lives have fully returned to normal, without anyone realizing it.

Until then, I’ll always be grateful for the summer of 2021 and its wondrous preview of what lies ahead.

I’ve been telling my friends I feel as though we’re trapped in endless reruns of the movie Groundhog Day.  It’s the same thing over and over – one day it’s safe to go outside without a mask, to have lunch with my friends, and I’m making plans for tomorrow – and then the next day, it turns out to be completely different.  And the cycle starts again.

Sure, I think, I know, at least intellectually, that tomorrow is not guaranteed, but I’d always kinda assumed that there were some foundational things I could count on.  I don’t know about you, but it’s been unsettling to discover that I’m wrong, that the constancy I’d taken for granted was more of an illusion than I’d thought.

We want coffee hours, and potluck meals, and times to sit around and talk with one another.  We thought we’d be able to do that this fall, but because of the Delta variant, the answer is “not so much”.  We thought we’d be able to sing, and the answer is “not really”,  though, starting next week we will put hymns in the bulletin. 

We’ve been careful; we’ve worked hard to create a safe environment, and we thought we would be rewarded by an increasingly safe world.  And it hasn’t quite happened in the straight line improvement we thought we deserved, expected to have happen.   

And it’s not just COVID.  It’s the horrors of what’s happening in Texas where the law of their state now turns neighbor against neighbor, where you can be brought up on charges for even thinking about abortion – or the other change in Texas law, which allows anyone anywhere to carry a weapon, no license needed.  This is a state which simply no longer cares about the health and safety of their own citizens.  And that’s disorienting.  We expected government to do it’s best to keep us healthy and safe. 

It’s for days like this that we have faith. It’s for those times when the centers, the strongest parts of our lives, don’t work, fall apart.  William Butler Yeats, in his poem The Second Coming, wrote: 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…..
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drawned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand. 
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out  
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man, 
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. 
The darkness drops again; but now I know 
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, 
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

We do not live in the first time when things seem to be falling apart.  Yeats wrote the poem in 1919…. right after the horrors of WW 1, right at the beginning of the Irish Independence wars with Britain, and while his wife was recovering from flu caught in the 1918-19 pandemic.  In other words, a time much like ours.  He looked to a future he did not yet know, some rough beast, that would bring hope.

The poem’s final words point us to the one thing which we can hold onto as our world wavers between better, bad and not-so-good, and that is our faith in a God who creates, a God who does not abandon. God always gives us a way out of no way, even though that way may be hard to see and challenging to follow, because it can lead to something so different that it challenges all our pre-conceptions.

In today’s Scripture, the Ethiopian official doesn’t at first know what he’s reading, and doesn’t understand it.  Philip jumps into his vehicle and rides along, explaining as they ride, and the official responds by asking for baptism.  

We read the story and think, well that’s kinda abrupt…. but there’s more to it than the speed of his decision.  The Ethiopian is on his way home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, even though, because he is a eunuch, he is not thought to be a moral human being – he is, despite his temporal power, part of a dismissed minority.  Some folks even taught that eunuchs were unacceptable to God.  But here he reads about a way to fully belong to God, reads the words of Isaiah welcoming everyone, and responds to the promise of acceptance with his request for baptism.

Baptism promised to him, and promises to us today that no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, we are loved by God, and welcome here.  

Don’t ever make the mistake of discounting how important it is to know that there is a place and community where every person is welcome…. 

I did a baptism a couple of years ago – the child was part of a blended family – his children, her children, and now their child.  The family lived in New Hampshire, but visited our town monthly so that the dad could spend time with his oldest son who lived with the ex-wife.  They were not rich, not well-educated – just a stay-at-home mom and a truck-driver dad, struggling financially, and they brought their tiny daughter to us for baptism because, the dad said, “we want her to know that, if she turns out to be a lesbian, there is a place that will always welcome her.”

And so I baptized this little girl, just as Philip baptized the Ethiopian official… because God teaches us to welcome everyone.

Now, what does this welcoming baptism have to say to a people who are tired, frustrated, and just a little angry with our world?  Well, the same baptism that offers welcome to the Ethiopian eunuch offers a welcoming shelter to us as well.  Our baptism reminds us of the everlasting promise of God that, no matter how discouraging our world is right now, nothing can destroy God’s love, or God’s dream of a world marked by justice, peace and mercy.  

Even in the midst of all that has gone wrong in our world today, that work still continues.  We live within the comfort and strength of our baptisms and so . . . 

We feed the hungry.  
We comfort the mourning.  
We call out for justice. 
We offer welcome and community to all who would come.  


© 2021, Virginia H. Child