Making a Way out of No Way

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on April 17, 2022

Scripture: Luke 24:1-12

. . . on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

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.

Easter was always the odd holiday in my home.  At Thanksgiving, we went back to Connecticut to have a traditional family feast at the farm.  At Christmas, we had a tree and presents, just like all my friends.  But at Easter, we were different.  Sure, we observed Easter – but really only in a secular way.  I had an Easter basket, and we had traditional Easter food – a big ham dinner.  But in church, there was little mention of Easter – usually just a children’s story about the miracle of daffodils returning in the spring.  And no new Easter clothing…. not in my family.

I was raised a Hicksite Quaker, in the Philadelphia area, the home territory for our kind of Quaker.  Hicksites were about as theologically liberal as you could get, somewhere over near the Unitarians.  As I learned the story, Orthodox Friends believed Jesus was real; we (proud tone), preferred to think of him as a metaphor for life.   I can still remember my astonishment at meeting a rational adult who thought Jesus was a real person and the stories about him were factual.

Reality, for us, was living in a Christ-like way; everything else was just illustration.

As an adult, as a seminary graduate, as someone who has moved into a denomination where we do believe Jesus was real, it’s been a delight to discover that Jesus was so much more than a metaphor or an illustration.  At the same time, I want to state, for the record, and on Easter, that the physical questions about the realities of Easter are still no where near as important as how we live out our beliefs, about recognizing that Easter is not about resuscitation.  Easter is about  the renewal, the rebirth, the resurrection of all of human life.

Outside our doors, Easter is about Spring…. bunnies, and daffodils, the renewal of the earth and the return of warm weather.  Inside our doors, in our hearts, there’s a whole ‘nother layer to the Easter story.

And it’s a layer that begins with failure, frustration, and struggle, with denial and death.  Let’s be clear, the triumph of Easter is not one of unending good and never ending success.  It’s a story of struggle and betrayal, about being found guilty and being executed.  It’s about being a loser.

And only then, comes the triumph.  Preacher Brett Younger writes that Easter is not for folks who have no worries, for those for whom the only issue is which restaurant to go to for Easter dinner.  Easter is for those of us who have seen the dark side of life, and who trust and hope that light will come in the morning.

A friend’s husband died this week, way too young.  For more years than I’ve known her, he’s been ill, unable to work, housebound with something that gradually ate away at his personality while destroying his body.  It’s been hard.  

Another friend wrote this week that her family’s brand-new sofa, the one they’ve had less than a month, the first brand new sofa they’d ever had, was broken this past week by their teenaged son – a six foot tall teen who engages the world through a welter of cognitive limitations.  My friend recognizes his challenges, and understands, and at the same time mourns the loss of “something nice” that they can’t afford to replace.  It’s hard.

Easter recognizes that life is hard.  Easter tells us that it’s when we really recognize and name our realities that we’re able to move forward, that we are freed from the limitations of tough circumstances, freed to live with joy anyway.

The disciples were lost on that first Easter morning.  They were afraid, hidden away, worried that the Romans would be coming to get them.  They were most likely planning how to slip unnoticed out the city gates and on the road to their homes in Galilee, cloaked in broken-ness.

Then the women came and said “Jesus is gone”.  Nothing about that announcement made any sense.  

No one has ever explained the “how” of the resurrection story in an entirely satisfactory way.  For what it’s worth, I think that’s ok. Building our faith on trying to understand “how”, misses the point entirely.  Because we don’t believe in resurrection because we know how it took place, because we have answers to all the questions the stories bring up.

We believe in resurrection because we see it happening in the lives of the followers of Jesus and in our own lives.  

This is really important this year as we come out of the COVID season.  It is such a temptation to put our lives back together the way they were, to rehabilitate, even resuscitate the life that’s gone before.  The story of Easter points us in a different direction.  After Easter, Jesus did not go back to what he’d done before.  He checked in with his disciples a few times, and then he disappeared.  The disciples did not go back to what they’d been doing.  They took what they had and built something new…. they didn’t throw everything old away; they used the experiences of the past to make something that fit the needs of their present time.

That’s resurrection.  That’s the resurrection we’re facing this year.

We’re not looking back.  We’re not trying to re-create yesterday.  We’re not trying to rebuild the successes of, say, 1965, with a full church and fantastic church school… all the 1965-era appurtenances of success.  We’re not trying to resuscitate what’s dead and gone.  Leave it to Beaver is not going to happen again. We’re aiming to build in the ways this world, this time, needs.  We’re plotting resurrection here.

In the introduction to Katherine S. White’s masterpiece Onward and Upward in the Garden, her husband, EB White, wrote: 

“Armed with a diagram and a clipboard, Katherine would get into a shabby old brooks raincoat much too long for her, put on a little round wool hat, pull on a pair of overshoes and proceed to the director’s chair – a folding canvas thing – that had been placed for her at the edge of the plot. There she would sit, hour after hour, in the wind and the weather, while Henry Allen produced dozens of brown paper packages of new bulbs and a basketful of old ones, ready for the intricate interment. 

As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion – the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.”

That’s resurrection as well…. plotting and planning for a world most of us will never see.  And it’s the courage of Jesus, setting his face to Jerusalem, hoping and trusting that the God he loved would help his followers bring resurrection to the world.  

You may remember that when Peter speaks to all the followers on the day we call Pentecost, the first accusation he has to deal with is that folks think he’s drunk, even though it’s only like 10am.  Resurrection’s like that as well, something that can seem so absurd to those around us that they think we’ve taken leave of our senses, as foolish as an old dying woman planning a garden she knew she would not live to see.

We see, in Resurrection, the promise that nothing can separate us from God.  We see a promise that, even in the midst of the worst that life can throw us, there will still be good. We see the promise that even if we perish, life will continue. With these promises, what is the scorn of the world?  

I don’t think Wendell Berry was quite writing about Resurrection in his poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, but the words describe what I’m talking about.  Whether he intend it or not, there they are there and so I’m going to close today with a part of the poem, a snippet of Berry’s description of resurrection life:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

You’re One of THEM. . . one of life’s losers

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on April 10, 2022

Luke 22:54-62

All applicable licensing on file in the First Church office

Arresting Jesus, they marched him off and took him into the house of the Chief Priest. Peter followed, but at a safe distance. In the middle of the courtyard some people had started a fire and were sitting around it, trying to keep warm. One of the serving maids sitting at the fire noticed him, then took a second look and said, “This man was with him!”

He denied it, “Woman, I don’t even know him.”

A short time later, someone else noticed him and said, “You’re one of them.”

But Peter denied it: “Man, I am not.”

About an hour later, someone else spoke up, really adamant: “He’s got to have been with him! He’s got ‘Galilean’ written all over him.”

Peter said, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” At that very moment, the last word hardly off his lips, a rooster crowed. Just then, the Master turned and looked at Peter. Peter remembered what the Master had said to him: “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” He went out and cried and cried and cried.

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.

Every year, every year, we get to this point and stall out.  Because, you know, the front story is nothing but success… crowds, palms, loud hosannas, the whole thing just says, “we’re winning!”.  You can just picture the disciples sitting around a fire in the evening and counting up what they’ll have next week.  They know it’s coming.  They’re going to be in charge.  They will be the ones who overthrow the compromising religious authorities.  They’ll tell the Romans what for.  Yes, the army may stay, but they’re going to be the one occupied country the occupiers respect.  

Yes, indeed.  The crowds are behind Jesus, and winning is inevitable.  

But, looking ahead, this week is going to be one of unending failure…. one bad day after another, each worse than the one before.  On Sunday, Peter is Jesus’ right hand man, next in charge, about to become really really important.  But by Friday, he’s cringing in the shadows, denying he even knows Jesus, frantic to save his own life.  On Thursday night, he’s willing to kill for Jesus, but on Friday night, he’s not even willing to stand with Jesus.

This week, this Holy Week, is the most important part of the story.  It lays the foundation for the triumph of Easter, because Easter is about winning despite failure.  Without Good Friday, without the betrayal of Judas, or the denial of Peter, the new life of Easter doesn’t make sense.

On Thursday, we know, Jesus will eat the meal we remember as Holy Communion.  We remember it because the story tells us it was his Last Supper.  But even more importantly, we remember it because it was a meal with people he loved, including the man who would betray him before the evening is over.  Jesus loved Judas.

Later in evening, after the arrest, Peter was hanging around the edges of the crowd at the Chief Priest’s house, trying to find out what was happening.  And it was there that he was caught – you sound like a Galilean, the maid said – he responded, not me.  Not just once, but three times, Peter denied he even knew Jesus, much less that he was a leader in Jesus’ movement.  And still Jesus loved him.

Being good isn’t easy.  Peter was all in, right up to when he realized that it might cost him his life, and that hadn’t been on his radar before.  Stuff happens, but we are still loved, still accepted.  

Following Jesus isn’t easy.  We try and fail, and try again, and sometimes fail again.  We work as hard as we can, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference.  It’s discouraging.

And part of the challenge is the illusion that what we do, who we are, isn’t worth much unless we succeed all the time, unless we always have it together, unless we never never fall short of the goal.  If there’s one thing to learn from this COVID epidemic, it is that the idea that we control our world, that everything will be good, and well, and pleasurable is fake, that life is not about unending success, . . . and, yet, in the midst of all this difficulty, we are loved, we are welcomed, we are strengthened to go out and do it again.

Years ago, when I was in seminary, we had a professor who was enormously intelligent, and notoriously impatient with students.  It seemed to me that one of the challenges that teacher had was that they didn’t realize how much smarter than most of the students they were.   Lfe is not all that different:  when all is going well, we don’t realize how well off we are, how much better off than some, or even what extra help our good jobs, ample funds, well-made homes, sturdy health, give us in navigating our world.

And then a pandemic hits, and while what we have is good, it’s ever so much easier to see what we don’t have – no more guaranteed health, no more sure work, no more this, no more that… and, if we pay attention, we develop more sensitivity to the challenges others face.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest rabbis of the twentieth century, once wrote:  “A religious person is a person who holds God and humanity in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.”

Peter failed, but he didn’t give up.  He took all his experiences and allowed them to enrich and strengthen his life, his work.  

That is the gift of this week of despair.  Yes, it’s about failure, betrayal and death.  And it’s also about new chances, new opportunities, about growing through all our challenges.  Don’t close your heart to the times when things have not gone the way  you wanted.  Don’t turn away from pain, even death.  Live with all life gives us.

And trust in the truth that no matter who we are, no matter where we are in our lives, no matter our struggles, no matter our successes, we are always loved by God.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

The Race is Long, but We Do Not Run It Alone

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on April 3, 2022

All required licensing on file at the First Church office

Philippians 3:4b–14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

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.

We’re gathered here this morning for two purposes – first, of course, we’re here to praise God, to bring our lives before God’s love and unfailing acceptance, to be reminded once again that, even as we fall short of our own goals, much less God’s, we are still loved, still valued, still part of God’s loving community.

And secondly, we’re here to be refreshed and restored, equipped and sent out to live out that love and acceptance in our world.

That sounds easy, and sometimes it is.  And sometimes it’s surpassingly difficult.  In today’s Scripture reading, Paul is talking with us about the difficulties of life.  He, of all people, should have had it easy, he says.  He belongs to the elite.  He comes from the best of families.  He’d taking all the right positions – religiously, politically – in every way.  Think of  him as someone from the best family in Middletown, someone descended from Colonial settlers, someone who drives a great car and has a summer place down on the Sound…. and maybe even someone who went to Wesleyan or Yale.  Every single way that could be made easy for him, has been.

And yet, his life is one challenge after another.  Not one of those important things has turned out to be important.  Who he was born to be, doesn’t matter.  How much money his parents had, doesn’t matter.  What school he went to, what profession he undertook. . . not one bit of it mattered in the long run.

What matters, he says, is following Jesus.  What matters is getting your foundation right, building your world on God, not on who you are.  

Now, I know you’ve heard that before.  But it strikes me that today, it’s helpful to remember that this isn’t a quick kind of thing, it’s not a once and done experience.  We build our lives on Christ – and maybe we started in elementary school, building on a church school education.  And that was good.

Some things never change.  There’s very often someone who’s desperate to know the one right way to do something – maybe the right kind of dish soap, maybe the one right way to hold a vote, or the one right way to offer a prayer.  Or someone who’s struggling with addiction, someone who’s hiding their adultery or deception. . . someone who thinks they have better taste, or better fishing skills, or something, that makes them a better person. . .   In today’s portion, Paul is writing about thinking you’re better than anyone else.  The key for us today is this line:

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

He’s saying, to those who think they’re so important, that nothing else matters but one thing – following Jesus Christ.  We are not good because we’re naturally good, but good because we attempt to follow the way of Christ.  We’re not important to our community because we’re important, but because we attempt to follow the way of Christ.  

Whether or not we suffer from self-importance, this is true for us as well:  what really matters, what is the true north of our internal compasses, is following Jesus Christ.  

Around the times of the Reformation, when Protestants began to see that there was more to know about being Christian than just memorizing the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, we began to develop question & answer series – called catechisms – to help us learn what we needed to know.  One of the first, and one of the best, is called the Heidelberg Catechism (because that’s where it was written).  It begins with this question and answer:

What is your only hope, in life and in death?

That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

There it is again… what matters to us is Jesus Christ.  It is Christ who leads the way, Christ who shows us how to live.

When our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors came to this land, they wanted to re-create the church of Jesus Christ in a way which would be more faithful to Christ’s example than what they had known in England.  They weren’t sure what ways would be right, but they were sure that some things were wrong.  

Over the years, we’ve discovered that some of their ideas were no more than reflections of how things were done in their day, but others really did create a way to draw closer to God while creating a more loving community.  And always, we have learned, it is when we look to Christ that we are able to see our actions truly.

It is in looking to Christ that we find our true direction.  Christ is our north star, Christ the one who calls us to check out all the options, to look at those alternative or different paths.  It is Christ who helps us when we get so discouraged that we’ve not yet made all the changes we need to make in our lives, in our world.  

We are not alone.  We are never alone.  Wherever we are, wherever we go, Christ goes with us.  In the depths of the pandemic, when it all threatened to be too much, I’d listen to the anthem We Are Not Alone, sung by the Oasis Chorale, and be reminded that we do not travel this way alone.  Christ is with us.

It is Christ who gives us the courage to let go of what worked yesterday, but doesn’t today.  It is Christ who helps us see new ways, but ways that simply give us new paths to be the same faithful followers.  Jesus doesn’t care what color our carpet is; he cares how we live out our relationships with one another and with our community.  

We are not condemned to live all this out, depending on yesterday’s answers for today’s problem. The journey’s not done, but we are not alone.  

In Clarence Jordan’s “Cotton-Patch” translation of the Philippians letter, Paul says:

Brothers [and sisters], I don’t think I’ve caught on even yet, but with this one thing in mind, forgetting everything that lies behind and concentrating on what lies ahead, I push on with all I’ve got toward the prize of God’s invitation to the high road in Christ Jesus. So then, let all of us who are mature set our minds on this. Even if you should see things somewhat differently, this too will God make clear to you. Let’s just live up to the progress we have already made.

Here’s our future.  The questions aren’t settled, the answers aren’t clear yet.  But the map is right there in front of us – It is nothing more or less than the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The journey has begun, and now, as we do each month, let us join together to re-dedicate ourselves to following the Christlike path as we eat and drink the bread and cup of Holy Communion.

Let’s look forward to a faithful, if yet unknown, future in Christ.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child