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A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on December 19, 2021
Luke 1:39–45 (46–55)
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Back in the dark ages of time, before I went to seminary, I occasionally ate dinner with friends. One time, her parents were there visiting, and after dinner, we were invited to play cards. It was a new game to me, and I wasn’t sure about it but we started and we were having a great time – I was doing well, and thought I was winning – but then my friend’s dad said, no you can’t play that card… and the rules turned upside down. So I followed the new rule, and began to get ahead – and then the rules changed again. Thoughout the game, the rules changed erratically, and always in favor of my friend’s dad. I never did feel as though I understood what we were doing. I lost, of course.
It was, in my mind, utter chaos. I still don’t know if the rules were that complicated, I was that slow in picking them up or the dad was cheating. I’ve never played it again. But the chaos of that game was utterly disorienting, and took the fun out of the evening.
You know what I mean?
Just as we think we know the rules, just as soon as we begin to get our balance again, it seems as though something changes with COVID and we’re turned topsy-turvy, what seemed so sure, even safe, no longer sure… and right around Christmas, too… a time when we count on doing what we’ve always done, a time when the stability of the usual means so much, and it seems so broken.
I think that this year, this COVID, has thrown us right back to something about our faith that we don’t often see. It’s thrown us back to a truth we’d rather hide. Chaos is part and parcel of our world.
Chaos is part and parcel of our reality. We try to hide the chaos, we’re frustrated and embarrassed when it shows up, but it is there. Much of the time we try to control that chaos – we make laws, we have customs and habits – and hopes and dreams – but chaos is always right out there on the edge of life. And this year, it’s closer than ever.
That’s bad. But it’s also good, in a weird way. It’s good because it helps us see more clearly than in decades just what good it is that faith brings to us.
Into a world with its own version of cataclysmic chaos came a baby. Jesus didn’t magically “make it all right,” as much as we might wish that were so. What he did, and continues to do today, is that he helps us see and live out a way which takes the energy of chaos and helps us use it to form lives of meaning and purpose.
Mary touched chaos with the visitation of the angel, and her immediate thought was to go see her cousin Elizabeth, who had likewise been touched. The two pregnant women, pregnant under the strangest of circumstances, embraced and in their conversation found a way out of chaos. Mary proclaims that way in the words known as the Magnificat:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Those words are a declaration that in the midst of a random world, there is justice. In the midst of an uncaring world, there is love. In the midst of everything that can go wrong, there is still meaning and purpose to our lives.
We are made to live out God’s spirit. The true counter to chaos is not a new and better COVID protocol, as much as I’d love to see that. It’s not even a perfect vaccination, and everyone in the world signing right up, as much as we’d all like to see that. The true counter to chaos is a Christmas dinner, open to all, served to anyone, welcoming the poor and the rich. The true counter to chaos is a bell choir, started this fall, and already producing music which lifts our hearts. The true counter to chaos is Heather Kennedy and her many colleagues who care for us when we are ill with a compassion which goes beyond the minimum required. The true counter to chaos is love.
When I was in seminary, I had a number of classmates who were Presbyterians – there was a friendly rivalry among us… we’d tease them about their need to “go by the book” and they’d give it right back about the truth that we had no book.. we were the Un-tied Church of Christ. But under that friendly rivalry, was a truth that we can all hold onto. God has called us to create order out of chaos, to live (in the old Presbyterian way) decently, and in order. This is the gift of the babe of Bethlehem…. meaning, purpose, order, justice, mercy and love.
permission has been obtained through CCLI for all music.
© 2021, Virginia H. Child
A wonderful time was had by all at the December 12 Christmas Concert. Posted here is a recording of the entire event.
Permissions to record/share the music have been obtained through CCLI
A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on December 12, 2021
Scripture: Luke 3:7-18
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
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.
Here we are at the third week of Advent, closer and closer to Christmas, to the birth of Jesus, and instead of a story about Jesus, we get a story about his cousin John, whom some scholars believe was also Jesus’ major rival.
What’s more, this is one of those stories that bigots over the centuries have turned into anti-Semitic propaganda.
What’s up with that? Why this story? Why here, and what does this story mean for us today?
Our reading takes place in a particular place, at a particular time, and it’s helpful to understand that. The Israelites of that day, lived in an occupied country. They were used to what that meant; in the Middle East of that time, their land was the main highway between the Egyptians and the Persians, the two main powers of their world. If you know European history, it’s something like the situation of Alsace and Lorraine in the decades of war between France and Germany, or something like Catalunya or the Basque country in Spain. In other words, not only did they not have much control over their land, but they were always in danger of just plain disappearing, being assimilated into the dominant culture.
Along with the cultural questions, the religious leaders of the time were expected to help keep the peace in the occupation of the land by the Romans, and the government of the many and various, but equally slimy Herods, not one of whom was worth a red cent. The poorer you were, the less power you had, the less you trusted the Herods, and the less you thought of the heads of the Temple in Jerusalem, who couldn’t win for losing.
If they stood up for the am-haaretz, the poor of their country, the Herod of the day, or the Roman governor would smash them down.
If they supported the Romans, they ran the risk of rebellion.
Into that context stood John the Baptist, trying to call folks to repentance, naming names, and getting into trouble.
There’s one level on which this is a story about the conflict between taking care of yourself and doing the right things. It’s a story about people who, bereft of effective leaders, begin to take things easy. It’s a story about the foundations belief in Judaism that right believe is shown by right behavior. Yes, it’s a story about specific people in a specific time, but it is not just about them, and then. It is a story which applies to here, and now, and to every time and place where we are tempted to substitute saying the right things to living in the right way.
John says that some folks have been defending their wrong actions by claiming that they don’t have to worry, that they “have Abraham as their ancestor”… to which he responds, “big deal. God can make descendants for Abraham by the dozen; you didn’t do anything to make that happen. If you can’t be bothered to live up to Abraham, you won’t last long.”
You know, it’s not about literally being a descendant of Abraham. It’s about privilege, the thing that these days, we call “white privilege”. And around here, sure it’s about being white. But it’s also the privilege of having been born here, having gone to a better school than others, being smarter, having more resources, or any number of other things that give us a step up in the world. John’s saying that having been given that step up, we now need to live up to it, and help the world around us.
Then he starts telling how – share what you have with those who don’t have enough. Do your jobs honestly, don’t cheat, don’t over charge. This isn’t a place for a long list; he’s simply responding to the jobs the people there have, and pointing out how they could do them more faithfully.
So, what he’s really saying is that, whatever you have – money, power, influence – use it to make things better. Be honest, be loving, be just, be merciful. Live out your faith. Be who you say you are.
He’s saying that we’re no longer bound by the expectations of our world. Instead, we are freed to live under the commitments of our faith. We don’t have to stop with what we think is possible; we are freed to think towards what needs to be done. It’s not about the limits of possibility or practicality; it’s about the call to build on God’s foundations – what does our world need? How can we get there?
Today in the Christian Calendar, is Joy Sunday. that started because Advent had been celebrated as a kind of Lent, no meat, no eggs, no fun… and this Sunday was a day off from that denial. But today, it’s Joy Sunday, because on this day we see the practical meaning of the idea that we are freed from the sin of living within custom and assumption. Today, we see how Jesus will show us how to strike off the bonds that prevent sharing, block love, make it too easy to think “me and mine first”.
Today is Joy Sunday because today we see the first signs of our freedom coming, a new and better way to live. And that is the best thing of all about Christmas.
© 2021 Virginia H. Child
Permissions to record/share the music have been obtained through CCLI.
A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on December 5, 2021
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
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 the first year of the presidency of Joe Biden,
- when Ned Lamont was governor of Connecticut
- while Darrell Goodwiin was the Conference Minister of the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ,
- the Word of the Lord came to the people of the First Church UCC in Middletown, Connecticut.
Right now. Right here. Not in some far off time, yet to be determined. Not in some imaginary perfect place. But right here, right now.
Not when the paint’s been done. Not when the extra weight’s been lost. Not when the kids become perfect, or the ill are healed, and surely not when Captain Ahab finally catches the whale Moby-Dick. Right here, right now.
That’s when and where Jesus is. That’s where the baby will arrive. That’s where God is, all the time. Right here, in the midst of everything. That’s where God is.
If you are looking for God, you need not yearn for some far off place of imagined peace. God is not only in the stark landscape of, say, rural New Mexico, but here as well. God is not only in our summer homes, or when we are immersed in work, or hobby, or boating on the Connecticut.
Where we are, God is. Where God is, there is peace.
Don’t mistake God’s peace for a the quiet of an empty room. God’s peace isn’t the quiet of nothingness; it’s the peace of worthwhile purpose and meaning. God’s peace is not the lack of human contact; it’s in the hurly-burly of helping those in need. God’s peace falls on those who make our world better – the policeman working the early morning shift; the school bus driver on yet another cold morning, the clerk at the big box store who greets every customer.
And don’t confuse the activity of God’s peace for the chaos of ordinary life. God’s peace is in the midst of life, but it’s not that never-ending pile of laundry, or the never-empty sink of dishes.
God’s peace is in the midst of the chaos of daily life. It is found as we pay attention not just to what we’re doing, but how we’re doing it.
Martin Luther, the great founder of the Reformation, used to say that any work we do, any task we undertake, can be a way of being in God’s presence when we do it intentionally.
I don’t think he ever said that would be eternally easy. After all, he and his wife had six children – this in a time when no one had yet invented the stove, refrigerator, or even indoor plumbing. They kept open house for all Luther’s students, and rented out rooms in their home (a former monastery) to make money. I think it’s fair to expect that that home was more than a little chaotic. In the midst of all that, the Luther family nurtured a sense of God’s peace.
Have you seen the on-line Christmas commercial that features a dad dancing with his baby son? It shows dad dancing for the son in all sorts of places as the son grows up. At first, it’s just about dad having fun, you know? And then it seems to mostly be about the kid’s discomfort as he hits the teen years… but then comes the final scene. A phone is ringing in the dad’s home; he searches for it and finds it in a Christmas present box. He opens the present and answer the new smart phone – and there is his son, dancing with a newborn grandchild.
I’m betting that for a long time, that son thought the dancing was all about his father, and maybe even his dad’s attempts to embarrass him… but on the day he first picked up his own child, he realized that the dancing was a way of showing his child the love and joy of life. It’s all about being clear as to why you’re doing what you do and bringing your why and your what together.
That’s harder than it should be. It’s harder, not because there’s something wrong with us. It’s harder because we’re going through a terrible time. We didn’t expect this, couldn’t plan for it. We’re all stressed; we hoped that COVID would be completely gone by now, and instead we keep getting new variants. Yes, things are better than last year; but they’re not where we thought they’d be. We’re still wearing masks. Life still doesn’t feel safe, reliable…. even at our safest, we’re a little hesitant to go to concerts or gather with the family. Life is harder than it should be, and that means it’s more wearing.
It’s easier, these days, to work off our frustration by being snarky. It feels good to upset people. One of my favorite cartoons has a story running right now about three eighth-graders… one of whom is always critical of the clothes or hair of the other two. “Wow,” she says, “that sweater is…ummm…. really bulky, isn’t it?” or “that hairstyle is very nice, very third grade”…. and the others are totally upset. That’s what our world feels like these days.
Here’s the thing: we don’t need to be stuck in that hard place. We’ll go there, from time to time, but we don’t need to stay there. We can, with intentionality, re-focus ourselves on each day. Because God’s good news comes to us, right where we are, right in the midst of our struggle to live in good, kind, and loving ways.
The peace of God, then, comes to us most clearly when we are trying to live our lives in accordance with God’s way, when we are trying to be people of peace, when we are trying to sustain justice, show mercy, create love, be followers of Jesus Christ in this Advent season.
© 2021, Virginia H. Child