Why?  Why Do Bad Things Happen?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on March 20, 2022

All necessary licensing is on file at the First Church office

Scripture:                                                                                                     Jeremiah 29: 1-9

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. . . . 

It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.. . . 

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.

Super Saturday yesterday:  Dean Sarah Drummond said “planning in this COVID season has been something like building castles in the sand” …. And much of the time, dry sand, with no stability.

Who here doesn’t know what she means?

As I’ve been thinking about this sermon all week, I’ve been constructing a mental list of all the challenges we’ve faced in the last, oh, five years or so:  

Remember opening the paper, or turning on the radio/tv every morning to find out what new horror had happened in Washington?  

And then, add on a new, creeping, epidemic…. Some weird, unfamiliar disease which seemed to really kill people, lots of people?  Remember those pictures of hospitals with refrigerated trucks outside the doors?

The epidemic got worse and worse: how many of us washed our groceries with Clorox?  Who here stripped to the skin every time they came home, to change into clean clothes before entering the main part of the house?  We lived in fear.

Yay, an election.  O my God, an insurrection!  Yay, a vaccine…. Oops, it needs boosters…. No, not another wave!!!

Missing high school, graduations, teaching in person., starting school and making friends… all gone, and for a lot longer than we had expected.

And now, today, a European war.  I don’t know how much more can go wrong.

We feel close to the edge.  This past week a number of you have shared with me your exhaustion.  And when we look back at all that’s happened, exhaustion makes sense.  It’s been a hard time, and it’s not over yet.

In our conversations, we’ve talked about the things we might do to lower our stress level…. more walks in the woods, maybe get a pet.. take naps.  

I stopped watching tv news about a year ago.  It just began to be all bad, all the time, and when the show was over, I felt worse.  And have you who use Facebook seen how easy it is to find yourself in an argument there?  In these tense times, it’s ever so much easier to get angry than it ought to be.  Read the newspaper instead, read it on line.  Nothing’s going to happen so quickly that we need instant news reports to survive.

Back in the day, I knew two couples in a local church.  As it happened, they were long-time friends of one another, all semi-confined to their homes because of failing health.  Visiting them was a delicate thing – though Frances and Joe were struggling, they were totally upbeat and always a pleasure to be around  But Alice and Larry lived for bad news.  They were so determined to find the bad in everything that it was difficult to be around them.  The day I met their visiting nurse after one of my visits was life-changing.  I discovered they had the exact same effect on her.  After that, it was easier to be with them, easier to cope with their worldview – because now I was not picking their gloom up and giving it houseroom in my heart.

Sometimes these days, it’s as if we’ve moved permanently into that world my friends inhabited.  No matter what good’s out there, we’re so overwhelmed, and rightfully so, with all the bad, that we’re losing the ability to see anything else. We’re exhausted.

I think it’s the shock of moving from a world where we pretty much knew what the future held, where our world was mostly stable. Our problems, when they came, were serious, but generally just about one person, one family, one company at a time.

Today is totally disorienting.

The real power and importance of our Christian faith is in times like these.  Christianity was built for the times when we can’t see the way forward, when we just don’t know what today is, much less what tomorrow will bring.

The reading from Jeremiah that I shared gets right to the core of things.   All the leaders, probably all the literate people, in Jerusalem had been driven into exile in Babylon.  Google tells me that’s about 1600 miles, or 5-6 months, walking all the way.  It’s not a competition, but I think we can agree that their experiences were as bad as ours.

And, it looks like, just as with us, they began to run out of resilience.  They had arrived, but it was as if they were in suspended animation.  What next?  Where would they focus?  On returning to Jerusalem?  Or on living in this new place?

Jeremiah, who had stayed behind, wrote:  settle into to your new place.  Don’t spend your time pining for yesterday, when you had nice tidy homes back here.  Build new lives.  Plant, harvest, marry, have children, encourage your children to marry and have children.  Look for what is good where you are, and trust that God will be with you.

We want to get settled and to know what’s going to happen, and live in happy expectation of better and better.  But God says to us, don’t wait until you know all that – you may never know!  Go ahead, build on what is there now.

We’re filled with worry about what might happen tomorrow…. Jesus said to us, “So, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.  Today’s trouble is enough for today”   Take a deep breath.  

Step away from the worries about a new COVID variant.  If it shows up here, we know how to deal with it.  We’ll bring out our masks, and go back to all the other cautions.  We know how to handle COVID when it comes.  But while it’s not here, by golly, we’re going to live.

Is the war in the Ukraine going to end soon?  I don’t know.  Will it spread to other countries?  I hope not.  Can I do anything about it?  Yes, I can send relief money and I can pray.  But I can’t stop it in its tracks.  So, let’s do what we can do.  Pray about the Ukraine.  Give of our resources to take care of refugees.  

In the midst of these terrible times, let’s follow Jeremiah.  Don’t let the bad stuff keep us from seeing the good in our midst.  We’re not asked to close our eyes to the evils in our world; we are only asked to keep an eye on the good as well.

Last week, the Civil Rights icon, and UCC minister, Andrew Young, celebrated his 90th birthday by preaching at First Congregational Church in Atlanta, Georgia.  He said:

“What I have seen after these 90 years is time and time and time again we come to the edge of a cliff and an angel comes in our path and rises up and we rise up and find ourselves in a new power, in a new spirit. And that’s where we are now.”

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Where Do We Belong?

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

All required licensing is on file in the First Church office

Philippians 3:17—4:1 —  Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

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.

A million years ago, I lived in California.  It really wasn’t my choice; I was then in the Marines and I’d been transferred to a base not far from the original Disneyland.  Even though I’d not chosen to go there, I was glad to go.  I wanted to see more of our country.  I was excited to make the trip and looking forward to seeing places I’d only heard about.  The first time I saw a real, live, Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe train engine, I was thrilled.  

California was everything I’d expected… look, over there is San Juan Capistrano, and Laguna Beach…. and deserts and orange groves, and even the occasional cactus.  But there were things I’d not expected.  I had not expected that everything would be brown…. brown houses, brown roofs, brown yards, brown, brown….

Most of all, as I look back on that time, the thing that most disconcerted me was that the ocean was in the wrong place.  I was born and bred on the East Coast of the US.  Here the ocean is always to our east.  But in California, it’s in the west.  Now that seems simple and clear, but it turned out that, somewhere in my subconscious, it’s an important factor in my navigational skills.  I can’t tell you how many times I’d take off to visit cousins who lived north of Los Angeles, and I’d find myself seeing signs that said “welcome to San Diego”.  I was in a new place, and could not reliably find my way around.  I was not sorry when I received new orders that returned me to the East Coast after only a few months, orders that returned me to a world that felt like home.

I bet most of us have had similar experiences…. we’ve moved to a new place where, no matter how nice, there’s something that just throws us off, makes us feel like perpetual visitors in a place we’d thought would be home.  Or you’ve taken a wrong turn on a long drive and found yourself totally lost.

I think something of the same thing happens when we’re betrayed by someone in whom we’ve put our trust.  We thought we knew what was what, but it turned out…. that our hero really does have feet of clay.  Maybe it’s not so much, but sometimes… it’s like the scandals in the Roman Catholic Church… and the accumulating pressure makes you abandon your trust in what has been the foundation of your lives.  

Today’s Scripture reading from Philippians speaks to that kind of disorientation I’m talking about.  There is a foundation upon which we can build with confidence.  There is a foundation which carries us through those times when we’re totally disoriented.  There is a base on which we can build a life that has value and purpose.

Where do we belong?  We belong to our brother, our friend, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Our citizenship, when you get right down to it, is with God.  

Now, just because I’ve said it, and even though it is true, it’s also true that there are and will be times when we’ll find we are still lost, still feel as though everything that gave us meaning is gone.  There are and will be times when we question everything we know and believe.  “Where is God when there is war once again?” is a real and powerful question – and really it’s another whole sermon.  Today, I want just to say that in those times in my own life, it’s been the community that has carried me through.  It was the community which welcomed me back when I couldn’t believe.  

The words from Philippians are important because it’s so easy to get distracted into putting your ultimate trust into something or someone other than God and God’s community. 

We can put our trust in our continuing good health… and maybe, for some of us, that’ll last right up to the day of our death.  But for most of us good health is a relative matter.  

We could put our trust in our business acumen…  or in our smarts… or in the power of the box office…. or in our own innate ability to get people to follow us.  Those are all real, but they are secondary powers.  You can be a great business person, but the question is still there — to what purpose do we do these things?  People will follow you, but to what place?

It is in our following God that we find the answer to that ultimate question… what point is there to all this?  

Here’s the point:  our task, our goal, our purpose is to build community, to create a world that is built on peace, practice justice, lives mercy.  We can best do that when we build our lives on the foundation of God’s love.  Then we can allow that belief – for instance, that God’s accepts everyone, that every one of us was made in God’s image – to inform our business decisions, or guide our teaching work…. to influence every other decision we make.   

There’s a story which circulates on Facebook from time to time – about a small child who, having heard in church that God welcomes everyone, takes that lesson to school…. and sits down at lunch with another child who’s been deliberately ignored by all their classmates.  The friendship of the two children changes the dynamics of the classroom.

That sort of thing won’t happen magically every time it’s tried, but it will make a difference, when we keep on trying.  

So, where do we belong?

On the side of those who seek to build up.  

Standing with those who are suffering.  

Working with those who seek an end to the dividing walls of hostility.  

Gathered with our siblings as one community of love throughout the world.

We belong, body and soul, in live and in death, not to ourselves but to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Tearing Down or Building Up?

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

All licensing is on file at the First Church office

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’
and
‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

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 accounts I follow on Instagram is Bostonhomeinspectors.  The person who runs it posts photos of the things he sees when doing home inspections.  Sometimes the pictures of something old that still works… an ancient doorbell – pull on it and a wire pulls on a bell inside the house…. but more often, the pictures are startling – the dryer vent fan that exhausts onto a window screen, covering it with lint – and sometimes they’re downright dangerous – the leaking pipe dribbling down onto a junction box…. the deck supports that don’t actually touch the ground.

I’ve come to the conclusion that building a strong and safe building is about more than looks – those decks look ok, at least from a distance – but in fact they’re not the least bit safe.  And I’m convinced that house inspections are a really good idea. 

We’ve begun the Lenten season, the time set aside for us to do our own “house inspection”…. to look more intentionally about what we’re doing, how we’re living, what we’re making important, what we’ve put at the center of our world.

What does our house need to have?  Our Lenten prayer hymn will remind us  that the house we’re aiming to build will be one gathered by love, built to be safe for all.  It will be a place which practices forgiveness, where we can dream, and hope.  And above all, it will be a house where all are welcome.

One of the quotes for today is from Margaret Mitchell’s book Gone With the Wind.  GWTW  is an astoundingly clueless book about how noble white people were willing to give up everything, including their lives, to protect their way of life – a way of life that was self-indulgent, profligate, and build on the buying, selling, and working to death of Black people.  

Land, Margaret Mitchell writes, is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything.  Not only is she wrong in saying that, land is not the only thing in her make-believe world that matters.  For the heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, land is not what’s important; land is the means to her end – which is to have what she wants when she wants it.  Being good, in her world, doesn’t matter.  Being kind, being just, showing mercy – none of those things matter.  Land matters, winning matters, getting her own way matters.  If you remember the story, at the end, Scarlett has lost everything – husband, child… 

Maybe the most striking thing about the story, read in this day and not when it came out, is how little anyone seems to understand about right and wrong, how unexamined their lives are.  

The life that is never examined is a life which all too easily can go astray.  And that’s why we have Lent, a time to examine our lives.

So, are there places where maybe instead of ramps or strong steps, we have stumbling blocks?  Are there places where maybe instead of an open door, we have one that only works from the inside out?   Have we allowed our understanding of the world to grow in this past year, or are we still holding on to the assumptions and expectations of an era gone by?

When I was a young girl, my family lived in Pennsylvania – and each summer we packed up and came up to my grandfather’s cottage on Martha’s Vineyard for a month.  If we left anything important at home, we either had to go without or my parents would have to spend money to buy something that they’d already purchased… and we didn’t really have enough money to spend it that way.

My mother started the packing process about 4 weeks before we left.  Our spare bedroom slowly filled with piles of summer clothes, sweatshirts, light jackets, socks…. towels, sheets, the right kind of soap and shampoo, and even cooking essentials.  And of course, it all had to fit in our suitcases and trunks.  Limited space meant she simply could not pack every single thing we owned…. some things would be left behind.  And every once in a while, if the process was skimped, something would get left behind, and we’d have to re-examine what we were doing.  I learned early that packing was not a process to be undertaken lightly, that it wasn’t to be rushed.

Likewise, Lent isn’t a process to be rushed.  I know how much simpler it feels if you can just make a list and check things off, but if we rush through the process of Lent, we’re like to find we’ve just given our spiritual homes a lick and a promise.  We’ll discover that we’ve overlooked some part of our lives that really needed to be examined.

If I had said, last month, our world was filled with overwhelming problems, you would have agreed.  And I think we’d all pretty much had it with all the bad around us…. we just wanted it all to end.  Instead, we cannot close our eyes to the ways in which our world has just gotten worse.  Yes, sure we can put our masks aside in many places where we had to wear them just a little time ago.  And we’re safer going out in crowds than we were last month.  But last month there was no war in the world; this month there is.

This month there is war, and moreover, war which bring to our minds echoes of other wars; those echoes ratchet up our own fear.  We stare with horror at the tv stories of people fleeing Ukraine; or the photos of buildings going up in flames.  Our hearts break…   We want to do something to help, we wish we could make it all better…  Now this coming week, we’ll publish a list of places which are organizing help – with local connections, from our denomination, and other groups – and today we have sunflowers – the national flower of the Ukraine – in our worship space.  Some of us wear blue and yellow colors, some of us have posted those colors on Facebook pages and other places.  

Some of those things might seem insignificant, but none of them are.  Every step we take matters because we are not alone.  As we stand up for Ukraine, we join a great throng all over the world.

It is for this work of solidarity that Lent prepares us.  This year, the work and the preparation for the work will go along together.  This is no year for quiet withdrawal from the world for the next six weeks, but it is a time for us to search our hearts, and in the searching, prepare for the joy of Easter.

Let us get ready!

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child