Sometimes, It Really Is Too Late

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on September 25, 2022

1 Timothy 6:6-10   . . .  there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. 

Luke 16:19-31  “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” 

“To those watching the livestream at home or listening to our podcast, please be sure to like our page and subscribe so that you can be reminded to join us again in the future.” 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.

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.

How late is too late?

The story tells us that the rich guy, the man who had had everything, died.  He was really dead, dead as old Marley, dead as a doornail.

And he’d gone to Hades.  This is, by the way, one of the places we learn that for the ancient Jews, heat is really bad – and so they describe Hell as hot.  

This was a well-deserved destination.  The rich guy, whose name is traditionally Dives, was one of those folks who never did a good deed today that he could put off until “next time”.  He was one of those guy who’d say, “God won’t mind if I skip this year, because I can always confess and God has to forgive me”.  Dives was a procrastinator when it came to doing good.

In this story one of the most obvious things Dives did was to ignore the poor people who were right outside his front door.

You’ll remember that in first century Israel there  were no retirement benefits, so Social Security.  The way poor people survived, to the extent that the system worked, depended on the generosity of those who were wealthy.  Generosity was a religious obligation.  If you had more that enough, if you had only “enough”, you were expected to share.

Dives didn’t share, didn’t help.  

And then they died, both of them.  Lazarus, the poor guy, went to heaven, but Dives, well, he went to the hot place.  Once there, he got thirsty, and asked Abraham. to ask Lazarus to come down to Hell and bring him a glass of water.  Abraham points out that there’s no cross-traffic with the good place, and Dives then begs him to send Lazarus out to warn his brothers so that they will learn better.  And Abraham says they’ve had plenty of time and plenty of opportunities to learn.  And Lazarus isn’t going to save anyone.  They’ve had their chance, and they’ve blown it.

There’s no time in this story when Dives “gets it”  

Sometimes, it really is too late.  

Here’s the thing.  As we follow the Christian path, we see popping up before us, all along our way, good solid reminders of our path.  Just like Dives and his brothers, we have the testimony of the Bible, the stories of Jesus, the memories of those who’ve gone before us, to help us see the choices we need to make.

And yes, we can always put things off until tomorrow.  We don’t need to do anything today.  BUT, today’s opportunities will never return.  And someday, on a day we most likely didn’t expect, there will be no more opportunities to do good.  I dare say the rich guy, Dives, thought he had all the time in the world to do good, if it ever seemed prudent and appropriate.  And, the story tells us, even after he’d died, he kept on demanding that others serve him.  Talk about not getting the message.

So, let’s be clear.  If we stiff our waitress today, we will never have another chance.  We might be able to be kind to her on another visit, but this visit is a one-time, non-repeatable opportunity.

It’s been said that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once said:

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

So, it turns out it’s not an important thought because Wesley said it, because he probably didn’t, but it’s important because it so clearly says what living the Christian way is about.  

It’s about now, 

it’s about serving now, 

it’s about loving everyone, where they are, as they are.

If we snarl at someone, if we turn our backs on another – those are times we cannot make up, not easily, and often, not at all.  If we step back from standing up for someone who’s being oppressed, if we say something that came out wrong and we don’t move to correct it, or at least look mortally shamed, we’ve lost an opportunity.  

That happens, of course.  It’s part of life.  We’re rushed, we’re upset ourselves, we’re afraid of the repercussions, whatever, there are days when doing good is just stinking hard.  But God gives us the vision, the strength we have so that we don’t have to live in our worst places.  God gives us what we need to live in our braver spaces, the place where we can look beyond our own troubles to help others, the times when we can say “no” to nastiness.  The real problem is not that, from time to time, we mess up.  The real problem is that we forget to use the strength we have to do good, or we forget that God’s forgiveness gives us new opportunities.

Do good, now.  Stand up for the oppressed, now.  Love our neighbors, today.  Serve God, right this minute and all the days to come.


© 2022, Virginia H Child

It’s the Little Things that Matter

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on September 18, 2022

Luke 16:1:13  …..“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. . .  .

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 three years pastors all over the world shudder to realize that we’re back to this very very strange story about the cheating manager.  It’s not that there is a cheating manager… people cheat, we know that.   What’s strange is how it seems that Jesus approves of his actions…. and that is strange, because it’s really hard to see any part of the way of Jesus here.

Let me pause and give you a little scholarly background… because I think we can all agree, something’s not quite all there about this reading.  The scholars tell us that this section (the technical word is pericope)  is kind of a mishmash.  Even the greatest scholars of the Bible don’t really understand all about this pericope.  Personally, I think that Luke was getting tired; it was the end of the week, and so he didn’t really think through everything, and assumes things that we just don’t know.  But it does seem clear that he’s trying to tell us that Jesu thinks that wealth burdens the wealthy.  The cheating steward works to use his master’s money, for instance, to put others under obligation to him…. in other words, getting this new money puts people into debt, moral debt, ethical debt… but it’s not a free gift.  In fact, it’s a bribe, intended to purchase their support in the future.

This story is trying to help us understand that wealth weighs us down, that the attempts to protect our wealth cause us to do things, to behave in ways that are more self- protective than community-protective.  God offers us a kind of wealth that can’t be bought, can’t be sold, and isn’t any part of the corruption of possessions.

It’s a big concept, but it’s worked out in so many little ways. 

I’ve come to understand that these strange stories are here in the Bible to push us to think about our faith in ways we might not if all the stories were as clear as the one about the Good Samaritan.  Everyone gets the point of that story right away.  But this one… oh, this story begins with frustration and makes us really think.

Jesus said, there once was a man who had a manager who was doing a terrible job, losing money hand over fist.  The boss decided to fire the manager, who, learning he was about to lose his job, ramped up the teaching and, started settling his employer’s accounts receivable at a discount, taking a hefty bribe each time.  His boss praised him… and it looks like Jesus admires him too.

But then comes the stinger.  Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. . .   Look again at that dishonest manager… he was at least consistent, unfaithful in every act… it seems to me that the first thing Jesus suggests here is that we not be surprised if someone who’s mean to the unimportant is also mean to the more important, even if they take caution to do it behind their back.  There’s more here, but that’s enough for today.  Little things matter.

Maya Angelou, the author and poet, wrote: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time. Remember this because it will happen many times in your life. When people show you who they are the first time believe them. Not the 29th. time. When a man doesn’t call you back the first time, when you are mistreated the first time, when someone shows you lack of integrity or dishonesty the first time, know that this will be followed many many other times, that will some point in life come back to haunt or hurt you. Live your life in truth. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. You will survive anything if you live your life from the point of view of truth.”

Little things matter. 

Little things matter all out of proportion to their size or visibility.  I don’t know how many times in the last week, in reading a news story or watching tv coverage of the ceremonies around the death of Queen Elizabeth, people have mentioned some little thing that this very important woman did, some little thing that gave value to the other person’s life.  “She handed around the sandwiches, like she thought I was important,” one woman noted.  It was a little thing, and it gave great value.

Little things matter.

Every once in a while, someone does something spectacular.  Just a few days ago, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, along with his family, gave his company away to a trust.  Future profits will be dedicated to combat climate change.  Now that’s a spectacular act.   The lesson for us in today’s reading is that we don’t need to be Yvon Chouinard, we don’t need to be able to give away billions.  Yes, those big “gives” are spectacular, and we’d love to see more of them, but really they’re not representative of real life.  

In real life, it’s the little things that matter. 

Every year at Christmas, Julie Hurlburt has masterminded a sit-down Christmas Dinner for 300 or so people.  That looks like a big endeavor, and we’re understandably intimidated by the idea of doing it this year without Julie – you’ll remember she said she wanted to retire last January – but we’re going to do it.  One of the ways we’ll make it work is that we’re not going to ask any one person to do all that Julie did. While some of the jobs are big ones (we need someone to be the overall manager, for instance), we’re also going to need dishwashers and food servers, shoppers and cookie makers.  Everyone’s small contributions will add up to a joyous meal for 300-400 people on Christmas Day.  It’s going to be a project where every contribution will make a difference.  And it will be one of those times when little things will matter, a lot.

Little things matter.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

The Lens that Transforms

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on September 11, 2022

1 Timothy 1:12-17      I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. 

Luke 15:1-10  Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

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.

There’s a whole lot of backstory to these readings about tax collectors and sinners, especially sinners… The first thing is that for far too many times, all this talk about sin is used like a stick to beat us with.  And the definitions of sin kinda end up being limited to specific acts, like it’s a sin to steal, or whatever.  It’s all the more powerful because, looked at from a very narrow angle, it’s all true.  Stealing is bad, and bad things are sins (or sins are bad things), but that’s just the narrowest, and I think, most dangerous way to think about or talk about or do something about sin.  But, at its worst, and strongest in our memories, are those memories of going to Confession or having a parent lay down the law, or going to the principal’s office – being told off for whatever.

That backstory makes it a lot harder to hear what this is really about.  You see, sin is, at its root, nothing more or less than being separated from God.  Sure, you might see the results in some mean act or another, but sin sin is more about the why than the what.

Years ago, when I was the pastor in Putnam, up in the northeast, the Quiet Corner, of Connecticut, we learned that some of the folks who used our food pantry also visited other pantries up and down I 395, getting groceries at each place, and then selling those groceries from the front room of their apartment in the town’s low-income housing.  This led to a really thought-provoking conversation because some of us wanted to bar those who were “cheating” from our food pantry while others didn’t.  Yes, for sure the folks who were selling “our” food were cheating, but why was their model working?  Wouldn’t the folks at the housing authority have preferred to go to the grocery store?  

Well, maybe.  But when we looked more closely at the problem, we realized the housing had been built in a beautiful part of town for sure, but a part that was a half hour walk from the Price Chopper… a half an hour walk down a steep hill, which meant a little more than half an hour up that hill, with groceries.  Maybe not so do-able with a toddler?  Certainly not doable if you were of an age to have walking problems.  And there was no public transportation in town.  We decided that our frequent flyer at the food pantries was really offering a public service, and extending our ministry to a place we had no way to reach… 

Who sinned in this case?  The folks who were taking that food and re-selling it?  Or the planners who never thought about how dirt poor people would get to necessary services? Or someone else?

You see, vision is an essential element in understanding what sin really is… so, let’s spend some time thinking about vision, what warps it, and how we can learn to see more clearly.  This is no blame game; it’s an opportunity to sharpen our eyes.

You’d think it should be easy to know right from wrong, but it turns out that clear moral vision is more rare than perfect physical eyesight.  It is as if our moral senses can be affected in much the same way our eyesight can be… by things that keep us from seeing clearly, by experiences which cloud our vision, by accidents that “scar” us and make it harder to see rightly.

Cataracts happen when something clouds the lens of our eyes.  For us, thinking about our moral vision, that’d be something like aspects of our privilege, our experiences.  If you’ve had a cataract, you know how sneaky they are… it takes a while for them to affect your vision and even longer for you to realize how bad things have gotten.  That’s the way it is with our own experiences, and how they can limit us.   

Tim Cotton writes of a recent visit to his downeast Maine camp:  …while my guests were here, they borrowed a kayak and a canoe to cruise around.  When they returned the craft, I assumed that the canoe would have been overturned on the beach because that’s how you leave a canoe on a beach in an area where you get significant rain that sometimes comes out of nowhere. Not because of concerns about water getting in the boat but because it’s easier to flip it back over than to flip it over twice. Once to empty it, and once to right it for a paddle up-lake. There is also less chance for a canoe to float away if left on the shore hull-side up.  But the guests were Texans. . . and I recalled that it rarely rains in Texas, and right side up would be appropriate in most all situations in that fine state. . . . We always think that our way is the best, which is just not the case. Each of us navigates life with values instilled in us by the people, places, and experiences we come from. We carry that forever. 

I think it’s natural for each of us to assume, absent any other input, that our experiences are everyone’s experiences.  And that’s the foundational false assumption that leads us toward a “cataract” about our privilege, our special knowledge, a blindness to the ways our experiences and resources have influenced our ways of success or failure.

Moral “cataracts” form like scar tissue where we’ve found ourselves

As human beings, our vision, our understanding, even of our own lives, is limited by so many facts, as if they were glaucoma or cataracts or macular degeneration.  Christ calls us to do for our souls what an ophthalmologist can do for our eyes… and, in giving us a vision of what our world is supposed to look like, helps us get beyond those constricting experiences of our own lives.  

The first step towards good spiritual vision is recognizing that we’re not seeing clearly.  You might think that of course we know when we aren’t seeing right, but that’s not so.  I remember getting my first pair of glasses when I was in sixth grade.  While I knew I was having trouble reading the blackboard, I never realized that my vision was the reason all my lines were slanted… when I put the glasses on, with the correction for fuzzy vision AND astigmatism, I was astounded.  In fact the entire world then looked slanted to me, while my eyes and brain adjusted to the new input.    

Something of the same – no, that can’t be right feeling – can happen when we first realize the extent to which our life experiences have blinded us to the experiences of others.  We think, ‘no, I got through college with little or no debt; I worked hard, had two jobs, so you can do it too’….. our experience of survival  can make it harder for us to realize how the costs of education have risen…  Or we think, “I have no privilege, I got no special help” without understanding, for instance,  that not everyone expects their children to get an education, that some, in fact, don’t want their children to get that excellent education.  Someone likely enrolled at Wesleyan this fall despite pressure from family and friends to stay home and go to the local community college – all to keep them from being lured away from home and family and community.

Our Bible, our stories of Jesus, our history of welcoming the other, of standing up for the rights of the oppressed, of asking the difficult questions and then making the hard decisions, all are something like lenses through which we are able to see life as it was meant to be.  

What God asks of us, when it comes to sin, is to open our eyes to the discontinuities between God’s vision for this world and the realities in which we live.  

We participate in that sin when we wilfully close our eyes to the pain of our world; we participate it when we act without considering the effects of our choices, or when we act knowing that what we do will hurt people and we’re going to do it anyway.  

We renounce our participation in the world’s sin when we take the time to open our eyes to the world, when we reach beyond the blocks of our individual experiences to reform our lives, and rebuild our expectations, to move beyond our limitations into that vision which God holds before us.  And when we turn to do that, then it is as if we, too, have been found and carried on the shepherd’s shoulder, returned to our true home.  Not condemned.  Loved.  Loved and welcomed home.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

You Spent How Much for Bread?

Permissions on file at First Church Middletown CT office

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on September 4, 2022

Scripture:      Luke 24:28-35 — As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

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.

$4.99 for bread when you could have gone to the factory store and gotten a cheaper loaf for 1.99.

$4.99 for bread when you could have gone to the factory store and gotten a cheaper loaf for 1.99.

The deacon was excoriating her pastor for wasting the church’s money.  The pastor should have gone to the factory store and gotten it on sale – their cheapest loaf that week was $1.99.  You know that loaf – the bread is white and puffy, flavorless and less than 24 hours from total staleness. Instead the pastor had gone to a bakery and gotten a loaf of something dark, like rye or pumpernickel, sturdy, tasty and nutritious.

I’ve got to say, this is something I’ve never experienced… getting chewed out by the deacons for purchasing expensive bread… and – never having heard it before – it really hit me.  

It’s not that I’ve not heard concerns about the expense of communion supplies, though usually it’s around the grape juice.  The thing about grape juice is that mostly, we can’t use a whole bottle on Communion Sunday, no one likes it enough to take the bottle home, and it doesn’t keep for a month.  It doesn’t ferment either…. it just gets undrinkable.  Well, we’re Yankees; the whole idea of a new bottle of grape juice every month can make us grumpy. 

But this complaint wasn’t a Yankee whine about wasting the rest of the bread.  The leftover bread cubes had an ultimate destination – depending on which deacon took it home.  One deacon made bread pudding; another made croutons – in fact, you could say there was a quiet contest among the deacons to come up with the most interesting way to use the bread. 

The complaint was one that said the bread the pastor bought was too fancy for the occasion.  Think about that.  We’re going to shared bread and cup with Jesus Christ, and the deacon thought the bread was too expensive.  And think about this – the deacon, in the course of the conversation about Communion, about the core, the center act of our worship, tore down her pastor and made that person feel like dirt.  

Communion is the time in our service when we are closest to Christ.  Like those folks along the Emmaus Road, it is in the eating and sharing that we recognize Christ in our midst.  

The story from Luke happens just a day or two after the Resurrection, as two of Jesus’ followers are on their way home.  They’re joined on the journey by a stranger, and in their conversations, the stranger has a way of telling the story that makes sense to them… clicks with their heads, their thought processes.  But it’s not until they sit down to eat, that they realize this is not just some random meaningless connection, but that they’ve been talking with Jesus, that it is Jesus who sits with them… and when that recognition hits them, they beg him to stay… with the begging, he disappears.

Much of our faith is about how we’re to live with others – how to be kind, why it’s essential to work for justice, what it means to be merciful.  But this story, and the others about eating with Jesus, are about a different part of being Christian.  These stories are about where our strength comes from, how it is that we can continue to be kind when others are mean, or hold our tempers when the world yells obscenities at us.  These stories, and especially this one, are about spending time with Jesus.

Now, I’m not talking about the historical Jesus, as if he is literally sitting at our Communion table, probably wearing a t-shirt and sweats.  I don’t know, maybe for me it’s all about getting lost in stuff like what’s he wearing, how long is his beard, who does he look like, what does he look like… that all makes a real physical presence so unlikely and even unwelcome.  All that aside, I believe that Jesus is with us each time we celebrate Communion, and he’s here not so we can admire his hair cut, but so that we can receive some of the strength he gives to all who follow his way.

The Jesus who welcomes us to this table is that person we encounter when we read this story of Emmaus, and imagine ourselves, maybe in one of the rest areas on the New Jersey Turnpike, actually meeting someone at lunch, having a conversation that made our picture of our world shift into focus.  Because when we read about him, when we imagine ourselves in conversation with him, we are carried away to where he is.  

Have you ever had one of those life-changing conversations, maybe over a cup of coffee at a bookstore, or during a baseball game… this is that kind of place and time.  Rachel Held Evans once wrote  The church is not a group of people who believe all the same things; the church is a group of people caught up in the same story, with Jesus at the center.  That’s what I’m talking about…. this isn’t an encounter with a list of things we have to believe, this is a meeting of all different ways to live out the same goal.  This is like, but better than, the lunch I had last week with classmates from our time together at seminary.  We’ve been meeting for lunch two or three times a year ever since our graduations – through marriages and divorces, through children born, adopted, grown and now grandchildren, through various kinds of ministries… and sitting at table with Jesus is even better.

It’s easy to miss all that.  It’s way too easy to think of Communion as just one more thing to do.  It’s too easy to think, this bread’s too expensive, after all it’s not a real meal.  And in this post-COVID time with our little pre-packaged sanitary, gluten-free offerings, it’s even easier to count the cost of the package and worry about money instead of what’s really important.  Isn’t that just like life, though?

How often is it that we focus on what something’s going to cost, when cost isn’t that important, and lose sight of what it’s supposed to bring.  How often do we find ourselves worrying about being like everyone else, when the real goal of our lives is to be like Jesus?  How often do we worry about the right clothes, or the right car, or the right kind of grass in our lawn, when what’s really important is how welcoming our home is, or being the person who reaches out to the lonely, or sends cards to the sick.

Today, Jesus invites us to this table as a way of helping us re-calibrate our priorities in this new season.  Come to this table today, not to save money or to spend it, but to be with companions.  Come to this table, not to be seen as a Christian, but to live as one.  Come to this table today to eat with Jesus, and to learn to live with love, joy, justice.  Come because here you are welcomed with love everlasting.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child