What Makes our Foundation Strongest?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on February 27, 2022

Today’s recording starts with the sermon and then begins again in the prayer time. As always, all licensing information is on file in the First Church Office.

Luke 6:39-49 — [Jesus] also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 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.

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”

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.

You can imagine the scene.

It’s 1620, in the unsettled years of the emerging Protestant Reformation.  

You’re in Leiden, in the Netherlands, where you’d fled when it was no longer safe to be a radical Protestant in England.

You’re gathered with all your friends, all your family – your belongings, everything you have, piled in barrels and boxes off to the side.

And your pastor, the man who’s led you for years, is speaking to you for the last time.  For these many years, this person has helped you along the Christian path, has helped you discern God’s particular calling, in this time full of changes.  This pastor has been the source, the foundation of your faith.

Now you have been sent forth, you are leaving, and he is staying behind.

Today, you hear his last words….

The reports say:  “He took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the Reformed Churches, who were come to a period in religion; and would go no further than the Instruments of their Reformation. As, for example, the Lutherans: they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw. For whatever part of God’s will, he had further imparted and revealed to Calvin; they will rather die than embrace it. ‘And so also,’ saith he, ‘You see the Calvinists. They stick where he left them; a misery much to be lamented. *For though they were precious shining lights in their Times; yet God had not revealed his whole will to them; and were they now living,’ saith he, ‘they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light as that they had received.’ “

I seriously doubt that Pastor John Robinson, standing for the final time among his congregants, whom we know as the Pilgrims…. I doubt he realized the long-term effect of his words, but, when they are taken seriously, they are indeed one part of the foundation of our church life together.

We follow Jesus Christ, and that is the same, yesterday, today and forever.  But how we do it?  It changes.  Sometimes daily.  And it’s been Pastor Robinson’s words which have pushed us to understand that we are not locked into repeating the past just because we’ve always done it that way.  He said, “the Lutherans could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw”.  Don’t take it as a slam on Lutherans.  It’s a plain truth about human life.  

Pastor Robinson reminds us, however, that we need to be open to seeing how our world has changed, is changing.  Our denomination, some years ago, re-discovered this idea and put it this way:  God is still speaking.  

Of course, we’re not always ready to listen.  And sometimes we find it challenging to accept the changes that march before us.  Sometimes it feels as though the bottom has dropped out of everything we thought was great.  It’s one thing to change worship by adding heat or air conditioning to the space.  It’s another to do something that makes us less comfortable.  

Here’s the reason I think Pastor Robinson is right, that we must be open to change and new ways.  The testimony is found in the words of our Gospel reading…. Jesus asks, why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  and then, a verse or two later, tells a story about a man who built his house on sand instead of rock.  When the river burst against (the house), immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.

The stories are typical of Jesus – he wants us to understand that these stories are about us, right here, right now, not just stories from long ago.   Those specks in our eyes – in this case, think of them as the things which accumulate and keep us from seeing clearly. When our perceptions are cloudy it’s more difficult to make sound decisions, so it’s as if we’re building on a foundation of sand.

But so far, I’ve been talking about the down side of getting stuck in the past, or in the customary, or in the warm-fuzzy, never challenging parts of life.  Let’s turn that around.  What this means is that we need not be stuck.  We do not have to keep reproducing yesterday, or remain in a place that no longer speaks to today’s challenges.  We are free.  

We are free…. free to examine our assumptions.  We are free to put aside the strictures of yesterday which hurt so many people.  We are free to welcome the outcast.  We are free to be our true selves.  We are free to follow God.

This isn’t easy.  Many of us have been taught all our lives to stay in our lane.  It’s easier that way.  And looking around doesn’t mean thoughtlessly adopting new ways just because they are pretty, but taking the time to work out what they say, in the long run, about God and about us.  Working with change means we need to take the time to understand who we are and what we believe.  Think of it as the difference between just taking everything for granted, and coming to understand what’s happening and why.  It’s often challenging, but so rewarding.  

As we do it, as we learn our past and plan for our future, we become ever more free in Christ, and the foundation on which we stand is strong and firm. 

God is still speaking.  We are still listening.


How Does It Work in Real Life?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on February 20, 2022. All licensing is on file at the church office.

Scripture: Luke 6:27-38

 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 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. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 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.  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. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 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.”

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.

Last week, one of our folks was telling me how sometimes all the talk about doing this or standing up for that can feel overwhelming.  and we mused together about the challenge of saying enough while not saying too much….  It’s one of the conversations I’ve had over and over in my time here.  It’s an important conversation because following our way of life is supposed to be about balance, but all too often slips over to one side or another, falls out of balance.  

Maybe the urgency of fixing our world crowds out the time we need to sit in contemplation.  Maybe the pain of the world makes it imperative that we turn away to a place of peace.  Maybe so much change that church needs to be a place of constancy with no possibility of adaptation to changing times, maybe so much turmoil in our personal lives that we just yearn for one place where all is always well…. whatever’s going on, an over-emphasis on one part of the Christian path can distort church life, even as – to outside eyes – it looks as though we’re the best church ever, that we’re on the one right path…

One of the reasons I love today’s Gospel reading from Luke, is that it drives right down the center line of our faith live…. keeping the needed balance between our personal needs and the needs of the world.  It does that by centering the whole enterprise on love.  

In Luke, you don’t do good deeds because those deeds need to be done, but because they are manifestations of God’s love for you, and your love for the world.  Whether those deeds, those actions are about how you deal with others or about life within your household, love is the foundation upon which they are built…. love for the world, love for your family, love for yourself – all built on God’s love for all creation.

Some years ago, our national church put together a statement entitled “Toward the 21st Century”.  It is another way of saying the same thing – life together is a matter of balance, all built on a foundation of love.  You’ll find the entire text in today’s bulletin, and it’s there because I believe it makes our purpose and way of life clear.  It provides something of a measuring stick for our life together.

We are, the statement says, a church attentive to the word. We are a faithful people.   We are a dedicated people. We are a worshipping people.   

We are a people who have cast our lot with Jesus Christ.  We have been baptized, dedicated to God’s service, and we found our lives on a time set apart to name our priorities and reaffirm our commitments.

We are a church inclusive of all people.  There are to be no barriers at our doors to keep out those who would follow Christ.  The statement says, we seek to be a fully inclusive community of faith, sharing bread and cup with all who see, in Christ, the way to our common future.  

We remember that there have been, still are, invisible barriers, and we work to remove them, that all who would follow this path are welcomed, and enlarge the covenanted community. 

We are a church responsive to God’s call.  God calls us to repair the world, to work for peace, to free the prisoners.  We are called to do this not only out in our world, but here in this place, that we might not just proclaim peace, but live it out in our life together.

We are a church supportive of one another.  We care about one another, even as we recognize that we are not perfect, not all identical, and – truth be told – sometimes annoying to each other.  This community is not built on our individual affinities, like a Harry Potter Fan Club.  In places like that you expect to find people with whom you have much in common.  But church is a community built on a common commitment to a way of life.  In this place, the illiterate and the erudite sit next to one another in mutuality and equality because in this place, in this fellowship what brings us together is our common desire to follow Jesus.  Nothing else matters.

Our is an Open and Affirming Church.  We proudly proclaim our belief that Black lives matter.  We believe that everyone deserves enough to eat.  And our commitments are not words only.  We welcome and include, we work and study.  We act to feed the hungry.

But those actions, in this fellowship, must be accompanied by an equal desire to reach out to one another in mutual support.  Just as we are called to be ONA, we are called to care about one another’s concerns and fears.  When one of us is ill, we hold them up in prayer.  When one of us suffers, we extend a hand of comfort and companionship.  

From the other direction, a church which is so totally focused on comfort and support that it has no space, no energy, no urgency to reach out to love their neighbors and work for justice, is a church which has become a comfortable club for people who have replaced Jesus with themselves.

We seek a balance, a sense that there’s more than just one facet to our faith.  Within that balance, of course, some of us specialize.  The folks who count our offering each week are just as important as those who serve on the front lines of our public work.  Those who create and maintain our prayer ministry complement the work of those who are teaching us about racial justice.  The person who comes in and makes sure the sound system is up and running is as important as anyone else here.

Some things, we all do.  We’re all pledged to be kind.  We’re all pledged to question the usual way.  We’re all pledged to care about one another.    We’re all pledged to gather regularly and praise God in worship.

…because we are a church that is attentive to the Word, inclusive of all God’s people, responsive to the needs of our world, and supportive of one another.


© 2022, Virginia H.  Child

Earthquake Time?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on February 13, 2022

Scripture Reading:  Luke 6:17–26

All licensing is on file in the church office

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

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.

The words of today’s Gospel lesson turn the world upside down.

That’s why we want to block them, re-dress them in innocuous illustrations, make them sound like a sort of Hallmark sentiment, try to rinse all the radicality out of them that they might be no more than ignored background.

But power will out; change will happen, and our world will be turned upside down.  

First, a few words about the Beatitudes.  Yes, despite differences in the details,  — Luke describes this as a level place, Matthews says it takes place on a mountain – this portion from Luke is describing the same event as Matthew.  There’s a lot to be brought forward in thinking about why the two authors present the event differently, and why there are differences in the lists, but for right now, the important thing is – this lesson is central to who we are as Christians, and underlies everything we do. 

In the world outside the doors of this building, who you are, where you come from, how much money you make, how much power you have…. all those things matter.  If  you’re so stinking wealthy that, like Jeff Bezos of Amazon, you can try to get the Dutch government to tear down a historic bridge so your “huger than anyone’s” yacht can get out of the harbor where it was built…. well all that means you’re really really important.

But not in here.  

In here, importance is about Jesus.  We’re not working because we want to earn money, or even brownie points with God.  We’re working because God loves us.  We’re working because we love the vision of a world where the hungry are filled, where those who mourn find joy once again, where wrong is righted, where justice and mercy prevail.

Out in the world, CEOs get 40% pay raises, while workers struggle to pay their bills.

Out in the world, powerful people walk away from their crimes, unpunished, while those without power, particularly Black people without power, get stuck in an endless routine of jail, fines, joblessness… 

In this room, in our community, that world is turned upside down.

Some of us have money, lots of money.  Some of us have close to nothing.

Some of us have PhDs, some of us barely finished high school.

Here in this place, each one of us matters.  And we carry that belief out into our world.  It’s not just an equality that works in this space, but outside, we step back into our worldly roles. 

God has invited us, called us, to bring that radical equality out of this space and into our world. This is why we do what we do.  We feed the hungry because that’s how we hear God’s call.  We are kind to the folks running the cash registers at the grocery, because that’s part of God’s call.  We allow ourselves to feel the pain of those who have been left out, because that, too, is part of God’s call.

Some of this, let’s be clear, is pretty easy.  The whole world thinks the proper work of churches is stuff like feeding the hungry, or operating thrift shops, even maybe running tutoring programs… so long as it doesn’t bother people – by which they mean, clean, well-fed, well-off white people – when the poor, dirty, smelly, come around.  

But when we start talking about Jesus’ radical call to wake up to the ways we are called to dissolve invisible walls, and rise right through glass ceilings, well, things get more difficult.  The world thinks we live in a world with finite resources, finite opportunities.  If someone who has nothing gets something, it must come out of my pot, my pile.  

They’re wrong, but that’s what they believe.

We believe, because Jesus teaches  us, that there is enough for everyone.  Even more, Jesus teaches us that in building a world based on sharing, we will create abundance for all.  Whether it’s a Christmas Dinner or a Black Lives Matter event, this is the underlying truth.  When we work toward a world where we all have enough, we work to create a world where all have plenty.

Outside our doors, war threatens in the Ukraine.  Outside our doors, protests in Canada mean people are out of work in factories.  Outside our doors, it’s all me first, I’ve got mine.

But in our fellowship, we are following the path of Jesus; we are turning the world upside down.  


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Head and Heart and Hands

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on February 6, 2022

Luke 5:1–11 — Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed 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.

Life, the good life, is about balance.

And getting balanced, achieving balance, maintaining balance, is doable… but, like so many things in our world, it works better if we pay attention.  

Think about it….. how often do we do things in the same way that we always have, like Simon, fishing in one way, maybe always from the port side of the fishing vessel? and have never thought about letting down the nets on the other side, doing things from a different direction.

I don’t know about you, but changing things up to see things from the other side, or at least another direction, is not my default setting.  

My default is all about doing things in the same way, preferably at the same time….

My saving grace is that I’ve learned, over the years, that my default is a sure road to nowhere, that even my life needs both routine and out of the box in order to continue to be faithful to God’s call.  

It’s church life that taught me this.  I didn’t come up with it on my own.  It’s reading stories like today’s Gospel lesson and realizing that when Simon tried another way, he found abundant gifts – think of every one of those fish as a little wriggling opportunity – that he would have missed had he not followed the call to try something new, something different.

Church can be like that as well.  We, too, can fall into habits that keep us fishing from one side of the boat, which prevent us from see the gifts just waiting for us when we’re open to new ways, other ways, of being

At it’s best, church, like individual life, is a balance… the way our bulletin cover puts it – for churches – is that at its best church life is a never-ending circle of belief, compassion, and action.  No one of them is primary, no one of them is the single most important.  The three work together to create a balanced way of being.

In the UCC essay I included today, John Thomas, who was president of the UCC from 1999 to 2009, wrote of a visit he’d made to Emmaus Homes in Missouri.  Emmaus was founded by German immigrants, part of our denomination, who had learned that faith called forth compassion, and compassion led to action, and so they had created this beloved place for people with developmental disabilities and epilepsy to live in safety and comfort, surrounded by love.  He tells of the resident, who believed that a mural of the Emmaus story in Luke, where the disciples meet the risen Christ, was more importantly, a mural of the day Jesus visited her home.  John adds, “what our resident friend may not have grasped with her head she knew in her heart.”  

Jesus is where head and heart and hands come together.  Whether it’s the Emmaus of the Bible, or the Emmaus of St. Charles MO, Jesus is there where head, heart and hands work together in harmony.

Just as that’s true in our church life, it’s true for our personal lives as well.  We are made to use our minds, to think things through, to check out the long-term implications, to learn the background history, and even to understand the math behind the proposals.  But life is so much more than head can ever show us.

I kinda think of it as head stuff is just one dimension of our world.  And there’s so much more.  When it all plays out the way it’s supposed to, our head knowledge should help open our hearts, to call us to care about what we’re learning.  And, as much as I love academia, I’m not talking here about making us love the abstract, but to draw us inevitably to love the world to which our studies expose us.  In many ways, that’s just what we’re trying to do with racial justice – move from a head knowledge of the evils of racism to a heart which cries at the pain we now see at the base of Black life.   Our head knowledge breaks open our hearts.

The broken heart of compassion yearns to do… compassion, at its best, calls forth action.  I learn about a wrong, I feel the effects of the wrong, now what can I do.  Think of what we’ve done, year after year, through the Christmas meal that’s led by Julie.  Think of the volunteers, who come from all over, because they know what food insecurity is, and because they feel they have to do  something.

Sometimes we get stuck and keep doing the same thing over and over, even when its time has come.  I’ve known plenty of folks who, having lived through the Depression, could not stand to leave a roll on the table when they went out to eat.  They had plenty of money, and good food in their larder, but the experience of being hungry all the time had never left them.  My own mother told me she took up smoking to kill the pangs of hunger as she worked as a nurse, because she did not make enough money to afford adequate food.  When life was better, she was hooked on smoking, no longer hungry, but unable to stop.  She died at the age of 64 of emphysema.  Sometimes we hold on to things we do well beyond their use-by date.

And so we work our way around to our heads.  It’s a constant process, this learning to fish from the other side of the boat.  It’s not just move from this side to that one and now you can forget about it.  We need to always keep up with what’s going on around us, with how the world is changing.  So the interaction of head, heart and hands is circular, not linear.

Head, heart, hands – the building blocks of Christian community.  Knowing, loving, changing our world, one day at a time, that we might be a community steeped in love, immersed in mercy, and moving towards justice, today and always.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child