It’s a Dangerous World

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on August 28, 2022

Psalm 27

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? 
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? 
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— 
my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall. 
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; 
though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident. 
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, 
to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. 
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; 
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. 
Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, 
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; 
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! 
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” 
Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me. 
Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. 
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation! 
If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up. 
Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. 
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, 
for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence. 
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; 
wait for the Lord!

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.

Psalm 27 is a psalm of comfort.  It is a psalm of strength, a psalm of trust.  It’s a psalm that unflinchingly recognizes that bad things happen to good people, that you can lose everything, and yet – in a way, with God, it is impossible to lose God’s presence.  

And it is with that sense of God’s underlying support that we are able to keep moving forward.  This psalm describes for us the source of our daily life’s purpose and strength.

Here’s the thing:  often, I think, we hear stories of folks who seem to have surely known what wanted them to do, and had the courage and focus to stay on that path and something about those stories makes it seem as though those are things that only happen to people who have “special opportunities”.   We who get up and go to work, well that’s not something we have to work on, or worry about.  And that’s wrong.  Faith, courage, strength – they’re all part and parcel of every  Christ-following life.

Look at how often we read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis at the end of World War 2 for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler.  We admire his bravery, but it’s really hard to imagine ourselves in any situation like his.

Or think about the woman in the middle portrait on the bulletin – Lucretia Mott, was a Quaker leader, important in the work for the abolition of slavery, then active in working for the rights of women – all in a time when a woman speaking publicly was unheard of.  A wife and mother of six, in her spare time she helped found Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.  We admire her, but for most of us, doing all those things, being that influential is simply beyond our experience, and – I’m afraid – that perception makes her reliance on God’s support out of our reach as well.

Then there’s my third example.  In many ways, she’s also famous, but famous in a different way.  She never moved in national circles; she lived her whole life in one town, dying where she was born.  Her name is Gertrude Chandler Warner; she’s the author of the original Boxcar Children series for children.  

I never met Miss Warner, though I served the church she attended.  She was devoted to helping her community, her church and her world.  Her life, I believe, is an example for what any of us might do with our lives, whether we’re in Putnam or Middletown.  

Miss Warner started as a first grade teacher in 1918, and taught until 1950.  I met plenty of her students when I lived in Putnam and uniformly they thought she was a wonderful teacher.  When she’d been teaching for maybe ten years, she wrote the first Boxcar book, and then, in the 1940s, re-wrote the story to make it more suitable for early readers.  But the whole of her life, her bravery, is not that people still read her books, though they do.  It is in the way she lived her life, just as bravely as anyone who is famous today, but in a homelier way, a way much closer to how we can live, how we do live, our own lives.

Listening to God, Miss Warner was an active member of the Congregational Church of Putnam, where she taught Sunday school and was the Church Clerk.  She volunteered for the Red Cross and other organizations.  

When, in the early ‘60s, the state of Connecticut sought better ways to help the residents of the dreadful state training schools, Miss Warner helped change the attitudes of people and opened the opportunities for regional centers.  In short, she was doing what any of us might have done if we’d been in that time and place.  Individual, daily, acts of bravery and focus.  Each of those activities took a certain focus, a determination, a sense that there were things to do.  

Psalm 27 is something of a magnifying glass, a reading that helps us see more clearly just what we are, or are not, doing with our lives.  We need focus.  Without focus, we can still do good things, but they’ll not have the effect they might, if we took the time to focus our efforts.

Someone once (probably more than once) asked me how I managed to flunk out of the University of Florida in just three semesters.  I started my first year with high scores on the Florida Placement Exam, admitted to Florida as a special scholar. Three semesters later, I had a 1.0 GPA and a one-way ticket to Parris Island SC to be a Marine.  Why?  Well, that scholar status got me a pass into the stacks of a seven story university library.  

My last semester, I’d go there in the morning and read my way through the stacks, one book after another…. none of which had anything to do with my courses.  I read everything, but with virtually no focus.  I probably learned a lot, but none of it furthered my goal, insofar as I had a goal. I had no focus, no purpose to my reading.

Sometimes it seems as though we’re living our whole lives with the same lack of focus as I had in that library; Psalm 27 is a way of finding the track and staying on it, because it constantly calls us back to God’s hope for us all, that what we do, how we live, will reflect our grounding in a life of love, justice and mercy.

That clarifying focus is everywhere in the Bible – here, it says, is what really matters.  Here, it tells in one story or another, is what happens when you lose your focus.  Here’s a path for you.  Here’s a promise that our failures don’t mean we get kicked off the boat, fired from the team.  God does not forsake.  God helps us keep our focus.

There are hard decisions before us, challenging choices about what we should do, times when we’ll have to risk it all to do the right things, to take the right path.  This psalm assure us that, as we take this seriously, God will be with us, encouraging us to step up and take the courageous step.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on August 21, 2022

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 
 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, 
and before you were born I consecrated you; 
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; 
for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. 
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, 
“Now I have put my words in your mouth. 
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow, 
to build and to plant.” 

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 last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about truth, about what it is, and how to deal with it.

Now, you might expect that it’s all the stuff in the national news that is making me thing about the nature of truth, and I suppose that’s part of it… seeing how little some people think of truth.

But much of that isn’t really about truth, it’s about facts.  Did President Biden win the election?  Yes, that’s a fact.   Facts are demonstrable, provable, verifiable.  Truth, well, that’s something else altogether.

It seemed to me that today’s reading from Jeremiah is one of those Bible selections that can be read either as about facts or about truths.  I first thought about this in seminary.  You’ll remember that I’ve said I was raised in a Christian denomination considerably more liberal than the UCC, and it never occurred to any of my teachers that the Bible contained anything other than truth.  The idea that it might also contain facts was astonishing to us.  I’m not sure my teachers believed that Jesus was a real person, and I know no one believed that the miracles of Jesus were based in fact.

So, when I was studying Jeremiah at Andover Newton, with one of the world’s experts on Jeremiah, I was doubly astonished to discover there were people who believed that because the words said “before I formed you in the womb” that it was a polemic against abortion, or because the words said, “I am only a boy” that it literally meant Jeremiah was a little kid, maybe an eight-year old?

Doubly astonished because not only was that so unlikely to be factually true, but because for me, those interpretations or explanations meant that you missed the real point of the story.  

So, here’s what I think the story is about at this point.  God is calling Jeremiah to speak truth to the people of Judah in very troubled times.  Think of it this way…. Jeremiah has a job as dangerous as Liz Cheney’s, trying to speak truth to people who not only don’t want to hear, but don’t want him to have the opportunity to speak.  Speaking, in his time, and in his place, was dangerous.  But God was calling him, and so he tried to avoid the truth of the call by saying he wasn’t an adequate choice.  He was trying to fool God into letting him go.  

At the same time, and this is the truth I saw this week, Jeremiah really believes he’s not equipped for the job.  He can’t see the truth of his own abilities, and so he’s ducking, or trying to duck, the call to exercise what he doesn’t really believe exists.  He sees the danger, knows what’s likely to happen, and doesn’t feel up to it.

Who can blame him?  Who here has not, from time to time, found themselves denying a truth because it was too challenging, too frightening?  Friday night I was reading an article about leadership: the author was describing being sent to a basic school, where for the first six weeks, because of his prior experience, he thought he could skate.  One day, he wrote, I realized that the newbies, the students who’d never studied this before, were learning more than me, because they knew how little they knew.  And I thought I knew everything that was important.  His attitude changed that day, and recognizing the truth of his ignorance, he began to get so much more out of the training.  He saw his truth and it re-ordered his life.

Seeing the truth, not allowing facts to mislead, is one of the great skills of the Christian life.  It’s not easy to move from assuming that facts are truth, to understanding that facts are only part of truth, that facts always exist within a specific context, and that context is part and parcel of the meaning of those facts.  

This past week there was a story in the NY Times about a home appraisal in Maryland.  The owners wanted to appraise their home so they could get a loan and they expected, after having put tons of money into it, that the value would have risen considerably.  They’d paid $450,000 for the house, and done $40,000 of improvements, for a total of $490,000.  Homes in their neighborhood had gone up about 42%, so they expected a value closer to maybe $600,000.  But the appraiser said it was only worth $475,000.  In a neighborhood where values had gone up 42%, their home had lost value.

They tried again, made some changes in the interior – changed out photos – and arranged for friends to be there for the appraiser instead of being there themselves.  This time, with no other changes, their home appraised at $750,000.   

Yes, you heard me right.  The first appraiser said the home was worth $475,000.  The second appraiser said it was $750,000.

What was the truth here?  The truth seems to be that the first appraiser met the owners, who are Black.  The second appraiser met the owner’s friends, who are white.  And being white made the house worth almost $300,000 more.

Tell the truth and shame the devil.

It’s truth we need to get behind why the facts are what they are.  Yesterday, I read an article which discussed whether or not going to college is worthwhile – their primary evaluation was whether or not you made more money after going to college than if you had never gone.  No one will be surprised to hear that there’s a wide variance in results.  The top 19 schools are all medical schools, for instance.  After that, there are law schools, and business schools like Babson and Bentley.  The only unexpected high-success school, for me, was Princeton Theological Seminary.  Apparently, Presbyterians pay a lot better than I ever imagined, and Princeton Seminary is a much more financially rewarding place to study than even Princeton University.  Who knew?  

There are almost 4000 schools on the list; things get really interesting when you head to the bottom of the list.  The very bottom is populated by beauty colleges and independent yeshivas, but just above those schools, and the for-profit technical schools, you begin to find schools like the Inter-American University in Puerto Rico, where a former dean of my seminary went, and colleges for the native American community, and then community colleges and historic Black colleges, HBCUs.  They’re all mixed together, and if you only looked at the facts, you’d think that Benedict College was not all that different from the McCann School of business or the Advanced Institute of Hair Design.  Benedict is a small, Black school, in South Carolina.  Many of the kids who go to Benedict come from families where no one has ever gone to college before.  Their prep is abysmal, their challenges daunting.  Once you know the facts of the school’s background, know just who they’re hoping to educate, you realize that the worth of the school cannot be measured by how much money their graduates make.

Truth provides nuance to facts.  Facts are flat, truth is multi-dimensional.  When Jeremiah dug in his feet and tried to argue that he was not qualified, God provided a different view, the view that’s not quantifiable, the idea that some of our options have more social value than others.

Facts can say that we don’t make a difference, but truth says there’s more to what we do in life than facts can ever reflect.  Facts say we are only worthwhile when we can contribute to the community in some quantifiable way… either by working outside the home, or caring for children…. something that might be best described as work.  

A friend who’s living at an over-55 community tells me that she has neighbors who are still canning their vegetables for the winter, even though they live alone and can eat all their meals in the dining room, because without that canning activity, they don’t think their lives have value.  Facts say, unless they’re producing, they don’t matter; truth says that everyone matters, whether they can add to society or not.

Today’s lesson from Jeremiah calls us to a way of life which values truth more than fact, values people more than their usefulness, values love more than anything else.  Let us join Jeremiah in listening for God’s truth in our lives.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Baptized into One Body

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on August 14, 2022

Scripture:     I Corinthians 12:12-26 (The Message): Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.

I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.

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 Saturday’s New York Times, David Brooks offered an essay about the importance of friendships, and not just friendships, but friendships which cut across class lines… and I thought, “aha, those kinds of friendships that our children make in church, or at church camp!”

Because, you see, children who are part of friendship which cut across the social lines that divide us one from another – those children – do better in life than kids who don’t.  He writes:

One of the most powerful predictors of whether you rise out of poverty is how many of the people you know are well off.

The size of the effect is astounding. Cross-class friendships are a better predictor of upward mobility than school quality, job availability, community cohesion or family structure. If these results are true, then we have largely ignored a powerful way to help people realize the American dream.

Now the essay is focusing on upward mobility, but I don’t think the positive effects of cross-class friendships are limited to just making more money or living.  That’s because cross-class friendships are just one example of the reality we explore in baptism.

Baptism, you see, establishes the ultimate cross-class friendship.  Think again about what Paul describes in our lesson from 1 Corinthians:  Your body has many parts – limbs, organs, cells – but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body.  We are all part of something, something that is incomplete without what we bring to the body.  

Today, right now, we are more complete now that Maeve is part of the body. 

There’s more to this – because, you see, baptism, in its proclamation of radical inclusivity, drives inclusivity in our wider world…. not overnight, but inevitably.  That’s because baptism is a foundational acknowledgement of humanity.

Look at it this way:  we only baptize human beings.  We don’t baptized dogs or cats or cows or sheep.  We baptize humans.  Therefore, anyone we baptize is human.  Baptism is an absolute affirmation of our humanity.

That means that when slaveholders insisted that their slaves must be baptized, they were acknowledging that slaves were human beings – not sub-human, not animals, but people, and people loved by God.  When we said Natives had to be baptized, we were acknowledging their humanity.  I don’t think every slave holder understood what they were doing, but that doesn’t change the truth of the offer.  

Baptism is Christianity’s response to the attacks on any of us who have been told that we are not fully human for whatever reason – women who’ve been told they are second class, trans folks, GLBTQ+ people, Black people, brown people, all POC, folks with intellectual challenges, immigrants, people who don’t dress right, eat right, talk right – it doesn’t matter to God, and it shouldn’t matter any of God’s people.  Because God has recognized that each any every human being matters.  

Once you acknowledge someone’s humanity, you can no longer legitimately deny them the right to live as they are, as who they are.  They are real, as they are; they do not need to change to be human.

This applies to everyone, to the whole world.  You don’t have to be baptized to be recognized as a human being.  It’s not about being baptized, it’s about our unconditional welcome to every human in the world.  It wasn’t baptism that made slaves human, it was God who made everyone human.  Baptism helps us see that truth, and pushes us to make it real in our lives.

Baptism destroys the idea that the church is a club for like-minded people.  And when we live up to our calling, we naturally create cross-class friendships.  When we create those cross-class, cross-race, cross all the dividing lines-relationships, we change ourselves and our world.

It’s not easy, but that’s what we’re here for, that’s why we baptize.  The struggle to change, to recognize the meaning of baptism, is the struggle of our world to grow closer to God’s intention for us, to be a place of peace, justice, love, acceptance, mercy.  

Every time we baptize someone, we stand up for the equality of all humanity.  And every time we seek to live into our baptism, we take part in that difficult, but foundational, struggle.  Maeve doesn’t yet know what’s out there for her, but her parents have promised to teach her, and we have promised to help them, not just here, but standing in for every congregation which takes baptism seriously.

Today we blessed Maeve and her family, and we thank them for reminding us of the power of baptism to make our world better.


What’s the Point?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on August 7, 2022

Hebrews 11:1-3 — Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

Luke 12:32-40 —  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 

 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” 

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.

I want you to imagine your usual day – we get up, we eat, or not, we shower, we go to work, or get busy on a project, and the day progresses.  Maybe we go out to lunch with a friend, or the grandkids come over.  Evening comes, and we watch the baseball game, and then to bed.

And tomorrow will be more of the same.  Well, maybe we’ll go to the beach, or play golf, or spend hours in the library researching something exciting, but basically, it’s get up, eat, work, play, back to bed.  Over and over.  If we live to be eighty, we’ll do it 29,200 times.

Why?  Do we do this just because we’re alive, do it without thinking?  Or do we ever ask the more interesting question —  if we have 29,200 days at our disposal, what makes them worth living?

What makes our lives worth living?

When I was a kid, one of the joys of the library in West Chester PA was their extensive collection of science fiction.  It was there that I discovered the subtly subversive works of Robert Heinlein, and reveled in his picture of a world where real questions were raised and chewed over – what is honor?  how can we be honest? what do we owe our community, our family?  And in one of my favorites, his book Beyond This Horizon, Heinlein first raised this question for me –  “what makes life worth living?”

I suppose that, at some level, those books were my first theology texts, tho Heinlein is not the least bit theistic.  None the less, the question he raised – what makes life worth living – is one of the major questions of any religion.  

You won’t be surprised to know that there’s more than one answer.  In Beyond This Horizon, it’s the promise of reincarnation that makes the difference; the idea that life continues made life worth living for the protagonist —  although I seem to remember that the hero’s views begin to change when he marries and they have a child, so there’s that, as well.

Christians have another take on what makes life worth living.  We understand our world to have been created with great potential, but at some level, it is not yet finished, certainly not perfect.  What makes our lives worth living is that we have been giving the opportunity to participate in the further creation of a world which practices the Godly virtues of peace, justice, equity, and welcoming love.

Well, it’s easy and clear to say, but not so much when it comes to the doing.  

Look at our world today:  we’re surrounded by the unmistakable evidences of climate change.  It’s hot, it’s August, but it’s too hot, for too long; there’s not enough rain.  I don’t know about you, but these days those ideas about how the Sahara became a desert are making too much sense.

Look at our government, and other world governments.  We’re fortunate here in Middletown to have great local government, but we can’t pretend that all is well with the state of democracy in the US.  

Maybe you know someone, maybe you are someone, who’s worked hard all their lives, and seen it all go for nothing.

Sometimes, it’s just hard to believe there’s any way that life is worth living.  We build our lives, maybe, on being the very best at what we do, and then the day comes that we’re not, not the best, not anymore.  Or our lives have value because of the work we do, or because we’re parents, or spouses.  And all of those are worthwhile things, but they are ways of valuing our lives that are built on fragile assumptions.  They’re good foundations, but not quite reliable foundations.

Building a worthwhile life on God?  Now we’re building on a reliable foundation.  God loves us, and that’s something to rely on.  But more than that, God knows us.  Other foundations expect us to be the best at what we do – best teacher, best mom, best whatever… but God does not expect us to be the best person in the world.  God knows that we are shot through with imperfections – that we don’t always work as hard, that sometimes we’re selfish, or greedy.  Our imperfections, in God’s eyes, do not stop us, do not make us utter failures.  They help us sharpen our focus, give us goals going ahead – we can aim to get better, but we do not have to batter ourselves against the unachievable goal of perfection.

God knows us, God loves us, God gives us valuable work to do.

Sometimes it can feel as though what we do to make a living is not worth much.  Not everyone teaches at a first-class school, not everyone creates a life in a place as nice as Middletown.  When I lived in Rutland, Vermont, one of my friends worked in a local grocery, checking groceries.  You know, that’s not very exciting work.  It doesn’t really engage your mind (and less so now than then, what with the price scanning technology we now have).  But Dot thought that God had called her to be friendly, and had given her that job as a place to practice her friendliness.  She told me that she knew that some of her customers did not speak to anyone from one week to the next, so she made an effort to recognize people, to engage them in meaningful conversations, to remember them from week to week, to give their lives value.

That’s the valuable work God gives us to do…. To make lives livable, to give them value.

In our first reading, from the letter to the Hebrews, the author says that faith is the assurance of things hoped for…what is seen was made from things that are not visible.  The life we can see was made from things we cannot see.  Our faith is built on something we cannot see clearly and will not always recognize.  And our Gospel lesson reminds us that we have to be ready for action at any time.

We do not always see or know the ways in which we can change our world.  Sure, some jobs seem to make it obvious – folks in the medical field save lives, for instance, and teachers do too, when they open up the world of the mind to their students – but even there we will never see all the ways we influence others.  

And how often do we make someone’s day by saying “thank you” when they serve us our coffee?  Or teach our children?  How many kids have felt better about themselves just because we exist and welcome queer children?  They never walked in our door but they know we exist and they know we think it’s ok that they exist too.  

You don’t need to be US Senator Robert Stafford, a member of Grace UCC in Rutland, Vermont, and come up with Stafford Grants, to have a life worth living.  You don’t need to be Bill Russell, maybe the greatest basketball player of all time, or Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame… you don’t need to be an actor or play pro ball – you just need to be kind, honest, trustworthy, decent.. and if you are, you will change the world around you for the better.  This is something that each of us can do, every day of the rest of our lives.

So, let’s get going…. let’s change our world and make our lives worth living!


© 2022, Virginia H. Child