Some Years, Hope is Thin on the Ground

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on November 28, 2021

Scripture:  Jeremiah 33:14-16

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” 

we wait for a time when the living is easy

I put my Christmas tree up this week.  Thanksgiving is over and gone and my heart and my hope has turned to the message of Christmas.

Of course, I know, and you know, that it’s not Christmas, not yet.  and what I’m looking forward to really isn’t the part about getting together with family.  Sure, that’s important, and there’s just nothing like getting together with family – if that’s possible.

But that’s not the center of Christmas, not for those of us who follow the Christian path.  That part of the Christmas experience is something that’s only available to some of us.  It is less than nothing for those of us who have no family, or no family that welcomes us.  It is too much struggle for those of us who don’t have the dollars to spend on the gifts our families want. That Christmas, with its dream of a perfect gathering, lots of happy people, everyone enjoying themselves…. for too many of us, it is a dream.  And for all of us, it is a diversion, pulling us away from the deepest joy of Christmas.

Advent is a time to remember just exactly why we started looking forward to Christmas.  

Some years, this season is even harder than usual.  Some years, hope is thin on the ground.  and yet, yet, we remember, that the first thing to know about the path to Christmas is that it begins with hope.

Anne Lamott writes:  “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: You don’t give up.”  and her words are particularly apt for a season in which things continue to go in the wrong direction.  Her words speak to us, because she’s speaking truth:  hope begins in the dark.

We don’t need hope if we already have everything.  But the idea that we could have everything, and everything right and perfect – that’s one of the big lies of our world.  The truth of our lives is that we’re not perfect, that sometimes we’re really really far from even bare acceptance.  Sometimes the turkey isn’t any good.  Sometimes we spend the day shrinking from yet another political rant.  Sometimes mom dies just before the holidays.  Sometimes.  sometimes.  

And we are left, not with perfection, but with a struggle to even be good, and what keeps us going is hope.

Hope isn’t about what we have, or don’t have, or what happens or doesn’t happen. Last week we were cast down by the news of the Rittenhouse verdict; this week, we have the Arbery verdict to celebrate.  Life is something of a roller-coaster when we build our happiness on the facts of what’s happening.  Hope is a sturdier frame on which to build our lives because it focuses on the long term, keeps us from totally losing it when things take a dive, keeps us from thinking we’ve got it made when everything is going superbly.

Hope is a foundation on which we can build a good life.  That’s because hope doesn’t require success in order to be good, effective, life-changing.  It only requires our readiness to try again, to hope to make it better, to be ready to recognize that most of the time, what makes our lives good is sometimes little.

Our ancestors in faith heard God’s constant promises of hope throughout the stories of their faith.  In Jeremiah, God promises that there will be a better leader, a righteous branch, who will come to save them. Back in those days, it’s most likely that they saw the coming of a new king, a leader, who would drive out all those who sought to conquer their land.  In these days, we read that a little differently, and see a promise that there will be someone whom we can follow, who will give our lives a meaning that will endure through all the bad times.

We are waiting, then, for the coming promise of a better world.  

We are hoping, in our waiting, for a world where God’s promised justice rules actions, where God’s promised mercy lightens hearts, where God’s promised love brings strength in the midst of stress.

We are hoping, in our waiting, for Jesus to show us, once again, how to live.

Amen.

© 2021, Virginia H. Child

Thank God for Mercy

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on November 21, 2021

Deuteronomy 5:6-11 I am the Lord your God. . .

Luke 10: 25-37 …what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Well, I was all set to share with you some thoughts about tradition and Thanksgiving, giving thanks and recognizing mercy…. right up to Friday afternoon, when the verdict came out on the Kyle Rittenhouse case, and my Facebook feed exploded with outrage.

If I’d had any doubt about the political leanings of my friends, they were cleared up rapidly.  The pain, the anger, the frustration were pretty much overwhelming.

There’s a lot that could be said about the Rittenhouse case – and over the next few days, a lot will be said and written.  We might meditate on the firearms laws in Illinois which allowed a teen-ager to purchase such a weapon.  We might critique the laws of Wisconsin which have such an expansive view of self-defense.  We could complain that the laws which protected Kyle Rittenhouse did not protect the people he killed.  We could meditate on the differences which mean that abused women rarely find self-defense a defense or which mean that a Black person carrying a rifle into a demonstration would likely not survive to the trial.  

We might wonder where God is in all this.  We might wonder what mercy means.

We might wonder what mercy means to us, to God, to those who’ve been hurt and want recompense.  

What is mercy?  What does it mean to be merciful?  And, today, is mercy a free pass to do it again?

The words we read together from our Pilgrim Hymnal, the words we know as the Ten Commandments, outline for us an ethic for living, are a set of guidelines for our lives.  They look really simple, don’t they?

Don’t have any other gods before me.  Sure, ok.

Don’t swear on God’s name.  Yeah.

Observe a sabbath.  Hmm…. but when will I do this, or that?

Honor our parents. Don’t commit adultery.  Don’t steal.  Don’t lie.  Don’t covet.. Don’t try to take what belongs to others.

They look easy.  But they’re not.  We put our work before our God.  We put keeping things simple before our God.  We act like we’re in charge, not God.  We work too hard, we lie, we steal, we cheat on our spouses…  That’s the reality of life.

And being holier than everyone else isn’t going to keep us from stepping out on the wrong path, or refusing to take the right one.  That’s what Jesus’ story about the good Samaritan is really about.  Being a good person, having a job of high responsibility doesn’t mean that all  your decisions will be good ones.

Our world is filled with justice, with the administration of laws, but justice without mercy is nothing but a little bookkeeping, and these days, perhaps the kind of imaginative bookkeeping which can cause you to be a guest of the state for a number of years. 

We can’t fix what we think is wrong with the laws in Wisconsin, and we can’t change the verdict in the Rittenhouse case.  So, let’s think about what we can do, and can do right here.  You’ll know the problems on the ground much more clearly than I do, but here’s a couple.  

We can continue to work to tighten up the ways firearms can be purchased and used in this state, in this city.  I was horrified – a couple of interims ago – to discover I had two parishioners, each in the early stages of dementia, who owned and used firearms.  One of them had a Massachusetts concealed carry license, and we discovered he always wore a gun to church.  This led to productive conversations, first, about how to deal with gun owners as they developed impairments, and secondly, did we want to have a rule about guns in our church.  The rules say, don’t kill…. so what can we do to make it less likely that someone will do so?

We can continue to speak out about abuse.  One of the memes I kept seeing over and over yesterday said something like, “thousands of women who used self-defense as their defense in their murder trials would like to be treated like Kyle Rittenhouse”.  What are we doing about domestic abuse?  How do we support those who live in fear for their lives?  

These are not the only things we can work on; and working on them would not take anything away from our commitment to be involved in racial justice issues, because each of them is steeped in the pervasive stink of prejudice.  

Mercy, if it is to be an active word and not just a passive feeling, is so not about Kyle Rittenhouse.  It is about us.  It is about how we interact with the rough places in our world.  My guidance would be different if I were the pastor in Kenosha, Wisconsin, today, but I’m not, and that’s not where we are, either.  Today, here in Connecticut, the challenge is before us.  

We can demonstrate, we can express our anger, and then we have choices:  we can give up on our system and devolve into cynicism or we can show mercy to our world, and work to make it better, work to make it closer to God’s vision for this world.

So, where will we be?  How can we be the merciful people in our world… how can we be the people who bring mercy to the bar of justice?  Which side are we on?

Amen.

© 2021, Virginia H. Child

Too Big to Fall

The Rev. Dr. Sarah Birmingham Drummond, Founding Dean, Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School

Mark 13: 1-8 As [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately,  “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”  Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Our Guest Preacher was Sarah Birmingham Drummond, so there is no text for today. However, I’m posting the full recording of the worship service, including a great presentation of Amazing Grace by Steve Crabtree and the Court Street Singers, the sermon, prayer concerns, and more great music from Shari Lucas.

We’ll be back to the regular schedule/presentation next week.

In? or out?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on November 7, 2021

Deuteronomy 23:3 — No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. . . 

Ruth 3:1-5; 4: 13-17 — Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”  . . . 

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

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.

One of the enduring questions of life is about who’s in and who’s out.  We first get this on the playgrounds of elementary school –  who gets chosen first; who waits to the end, unwanted by all?  There are social groups – did you get invited to the birthday party?  In my elementary school, it even extended to Girl Scouts.  You were only really an acceptable Girt Scout if you had Brownie fly-up wings on your uniform and if you, like me, actually belonged not to Scouts but 4-H…. well, let’s just say we knew who mattered and who didn’t.

If you think about it, I’m betting that each of us can come up with some way we knew we were in, or out…. it’s just that common.  And while at this distance, I no longer care about whether or not I sat at the right table in the lunchroom when I was in high school, in a much more serious way, this is the deciding challenge of the world.

As I look at my newspaper it tells me that there’s a major controversy between the French and the English, ostensibly about fishing rights, but more likely really about who’s in – the European Union – and who’s out.  I doubt they’ll go to war about this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some fights.  Who’s in?  Who’s out?  Who has the power?  Who will share it?

We all know conflicts that have turned to war:  this past week the New York Times had an article about Kenneth Branagh, who’s just made a movie of his experiences growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the time of the troubles.  It was a time when “in” and “out” had eternal consequences.  Even now, there are neighborhoods in Boston where it’s best not to be pushy about the Irish troubles.  In and out … dangerous identities.

Last week I talked about the story of Ruth from the most usual understanding – that Ruth stayed with Naomi out of love.  This week, I want to go back again, and look at Ruth’s story from that in and out perspective.  Because I suspect this is the real center of the story, although that’s not really clear until you read the story in context.

Just who does belong?  It’s clear that this isn’t a new question.  Today’s lessons tell the story of the competing sides in the struggle.  Back in the day, some folks believed that if you didn’t belong, if your parents weren’t “from here”, if you couldn’t trace your ancestry back to the days of Moses, well… you were out.  If you were a Moabite – an outsider – no good Jew should marry you.  If you did marry a Moabite, the powers-that-be were saying that you needed to put your wife aside and abandon your children.  They were saying that there was only one way in, and that was by birth.

At about the same time, up pops the story of Ruth.  Never doubt that Ruth should be read together with the pronouncements in Ezra, or even Nehemiah.  This was a BIG struggle in their time.  The Israelites had been forced into exile in Persia, and under the leadership of Ezra and others, were now back, and trying to rebuild their community.  One way to do that, to rebuild solidarity, was to say it’s only us.  But the other way, the way Ruth suggests, is by expanding definitions – not by keeping them out, but by bringing them in.

This is one of the times when both sides of a major argument are laid out before us and it’s up to us to understand the choices, and to see which was the better discernment of God’s will.  

Two stories – Ezra and Nehemiah say, throw out your non-Israelite spouses & children.  But Ruth says clearly that outsiders are good folks, too, and they can enter the circle.  

Or, as the poet Edwin Markham wrote:
He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!”

Now the thing is, this is not just a story about long-ago days in ancient Israel.  This is a story which is part and parcel of humanity, about an issue we struggle with almost every day.  Who’s in?  Who’s out?  Who matters?

This is a story about something that has pulled human beings apart since forever.  We pretend it’s not there.  Much of the time, those who are “in” never even realize that the “other”, the folks on the outside aren’t in with them, or aren’t just as well off wherever they are.  We find it excruciating to open our eyes to the differences.  It shatters our illusions to realize that everything – policing, education, housing, even access to good quality food – everything is different for those on the outside.  

When we set up the world so that there are “in” and “out” categories, we’ve missed the mark.  Sure the Bible says, set aside that outsider spouse, abandon your children…. but – wait a minute – that’s not really what it says.  Ezra says that, not the Bible.  And then we read Ruth, and who is Ruth’s great-grandson?  No other person than King David, the greatest of all the Israelite leaders.  

It’s clear that the story God blesses is the story of Ruth, the story of inclusion, the story of the welcome extended to someone who was an outsider.  The Bible says welcome the stranger.  The Bible says welcome if you are Black, welcome if you are white, Hispanic, welcome however you identify.  The Bible says welcome no matter your gender identity, your affectional preference.  The Bible welcomes Yankees fans; the Bible welcomes long-suffering Giants football fans.  The Bible welcomes Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants.  

The Bible invites us all to sit at this table together and eat one meal.  It is Jesus who is the host; everyone is invited to sit and be part of the family.

In or out – at this table we step over the divisions which threaten to pull us apart, and share the meal which brings us together. 

Amen.

© 2021, Virginia H. Child

Living Without Fear

A sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown, CT on October 31, 2021

Ruth 1:1-18

–back in the day – a family emigrated from Bethlehem in Judea to Moab, looking for a place to live with adequate food.  They settled there, and their sons married there – married women who were not Jews.  In the course of time, all the men in the family died, and the surviving mother decided to go back home to Bethlehem, as the famine there was over. 

When she announced her plan to leave, she told her daughters-in-law they were free to leave and return to their family homes and their family gods.  That’s where we’ll pick up the story:

Then [Naomi] started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab. . . . [and] Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 

But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 

So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, 

“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! 
Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; 
your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 
Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. 
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” 

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. 

Mark 12:28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

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 said that it was October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses – a polemic against the sale of indulgences – on the front door of the cathedral in Wittenburg, Saxony.  It’s been a long time, some of the details are fuzzy, but the central premise of his complaint was clear.  He thought – and worse said – and even worse said it publicly — that it selling promises to get out of purgatory was no more than a scam to finance the building of St Peter’s in Rome.

Five hundred and four years ago.  Over all that time, it seems to me that we’ve mostly thought of the Reformation as something historical, which it is, and something which happened a long long time ago, and it did.  We’ve also pictured it as something like us against the Roman Catholic Church, and that’s not so fully accurate.

That’s what I want us to look at today, because while history is important, it’s all too easy to think that when we know dates and actions, we know everything there is to know.  But the Reformation wasn’t really about one day in October; it was about re-thinking everything about what it meant (and means) to be a Christian.

It was the opening of a centuries-long conversation about whether there is one right way to be what we are.

And while the conversation over the centuries has looked like it was Protestant versus Catholic, I think if we look more closely, we’ll see that however true that was in the sixteenth century, in the twenty-first, it is much more clearly a conversation between those who are committed to one right way, and those who believe there is more than one right way.

The question then, the question now, is how can we hold together our human desire for similarity with our human recognition of the need for diversity?  

This isn’t just about relations between the various flavors of Christianity.  We can see the same questions in our internal conversations here in the church; we can see it happening in our homes, in our families.  How do we balance things out?

First, though, let’s look again at the Scripture readings for today.  We opened with the wonderful story of Naomi and Ruth…. and Orpah.  Orpah went home and was not condemned. Ruth stayed with Naomi, and has been praised for that – but let’s not forget that Orpah returned to her family.  There was more than one right answer to the dilemma of staying or going.  Ruth’s choice brought her into the continuing story and she is known as King David’s great-grandmother.

There are many things to be taken from the story of Ruth, and the first of them is that there is more than one right way.

The lesson from Mark takes us in another direction.  It tells us upon what foundation we can build our unity.  If there’s more than one right way to live out our lives, how can we hold together?  A scribe (think: bureaucrat, niggler, one of those fill-in=all-the-boxes folks) …a scribe thinks to nail Jesus by asking him which commandment is most important.  And Jesus’ answer names our truth:  the most important thing, he says is to love God, and right next to that is the call to love your neighbor.

There you go.  Love God; love your neighbor.  Let Jesus’ call to center on those things help you to sift out the important from the extra added stuff.  Church being what it is, you’ll be glad to know we have a special, obscure name for extra added stuff…. it’s adiaphora, which is Greek for something that doesn’t matter.  

Following Jesus is important; whether the pastor or anyone else wears a pulpit robe is adiaphora.

Feeding the hungry is an obligation; whether we give them food, or money to go to a restaurant, or groceries, is adiaphora… not because we don’t care how they’re fed, but because feeding is feeding.  One church has a free meal in their hall – great.  We got folks lunch from local restaurants – also great.  Neither way is better than the other.

The question is, is it important in the eyes of God?  Years ago, I pastored a church that was redecorating their reception room.  And, of course, we were of two camps when it came to the carpet.  Would it be a lovely soft gray with flecks of maroon?  Or a lovely maroon with flecks of gray?  Would we match the wall color or contrast it?  As I remember, we chose the gray to make the room seem bigger… but whichever we chose, I am absolutely certain God did not care, not one bit.  What God cared about was that that church welcomed the stranger to the newly decorated room.  and that when the teen-ager tripped and fell, and dropped a full platter of ham slices on the new carpet…. we didn’t up and throw him out.  Carpets are adiaphora.

We love God; God cares that because we love God, we love our neighbor.  

God calls us to center our ministries upon that foundation – love of God, love of neighbor.  And to put the rest – all the details in proper perspective.  

© 2021, Virginia H. Child