In Everything, Give Thanks

A Sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, CT  December 18, 2022

First Reading:                                                                                    I Thessalonians 5:12-22

But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

Gospel Reading:                                                                                            Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 

            “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him 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.

One of the oldest books in the New Testament is our first reading today – the first letter to the Thessalonians was almost certainly written within twenty or thirty years of the first Easter.  It was written to an early Christian community in what’s now the Greek city of Thessalonika (or Thessalonica) where Paul had been working.  He’d moved on, probably to Corinth, in Turkey, and was writing back to the folks he knew well.  

We know that most early Christians were working class, sometimes poor, often slaves – with the occasional wealthier person.  They were people for whom the world did not work well.  When Paul urges them to give thanks in all things, he’s not talking to people who always have enough for everyone. He’s talking to people who are wholly dependent on the good will of others for their work.

When we read Paul’s injunction to “give thanks in all circumstance”, know that he’s not one of those “every day in every way I am getting better and better” people.  He knows that life is often hard, frequently challenging, and sometimes really painful.

And yet, he calls on the Thessalonians – and by extension – us, to give thanks on all occasions.

It’s the painful truth that bad things happen today just as they did for the Thessalonians.  We still lose our jobs.  Our parents get COVID.  Each of us faces health issues – if not now, well, just wait.  I’m not going to recite a long list of the bad things that can happen – it’s depressing.  But not reciting the list doesn’t mean I don’t know they exist.  I do and so do you.  Sometimes life is just plain awful.

And yet, Paul calls us to “give thanks in all circumstances”.  How can we possibly do that?

I think the answer is in our second reading this morning.  

I think we all know that one of the unwritten truths of the Christmas story is that it’s the story of two people who are facing a pile of trouble.  Mary’s going to have a baby; Joseph knows he’s not the father.  Matthew portrays Joseph as a kind man, in that while he’s going to break things off with Mary he intends to do so with a minimum of public shame.  But he is going to step away from the idea of raising another man’s child as his own first-born.  

And then the angel comes and tells him not to be afraid, to go ahead and accept this child, to take Mary as his wife.  Between Joseph’s story here in Matthew, and Mary’s story in Luke, we hear clearly the story of two people who are resolved to follow God’s lead, and who intend to live as faithfully as they can.  She will have the child; he will give the child a name and raise him as a son.  

It’s not just that the parents make the best of things; it is that the child changes the world by his presence, through his teachings.  It is those teachings, that changed world to which Paul points.  This, he teaches, is why we can give thanks in all circumstances.

We can give thanks because – in the midst of the worst the world throws at us – we have hope.  I may struggle, but we are together.  When my world collapses, there is a community to stand with me.  When our community struggles, there is a world to reach out.  

And the presence of this world is not simply a community of comfort.  We are also a community of action.  We do not simply feed the hungry; we work to eliminate the causes of hunger.  We reach out to end racism; we welcome the stranger and re-create community so that all are welcome.  This, then, is why Paul calls on us to give thanks.

Listen, we’re not going to be able to always do it.  Sometimes we’re too tired, sometimes it’s just all too much.  God understands that kind of exhaustion.  That’s why we keep an eye on one another – so we can hold each other, hold our neighbors up.  So this is not a call to work ourselves to death; it is a call to be community.

Paul is calling on us to be “glass half-full people”, to make our focus what can happen, not what can’t.  Let’s be clear; our world is filled with people who are ready to say things are terrible or you haven’t done enough.  But that’s not what Paul is calling us to do or be.  We are the people who believe the best of others.  We help those who are down; we take the disasters of our world and figure out how to do better.  This is what Jesus was born to teach us.  

Every person matters.

We live hope.

We love our world.

Hear Paul’s words again, this time from the Message translation:

“Get along among yourselves, each of you doing your part. . . .  Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. 

“Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs.  And be careful that when you get on each other’s nerves you don’t snap at each other. Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out.Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. 

“This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.

“May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ.  The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it!”


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Good News is Coming!

A sermon preached at First Church, UCC Middletown, Connecticut, on December 11, 2022

Matthew 11:2-6  When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

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 beneath the surface stories in Matthew is the rivalry between John the Baptist and Jesus – if not between the two of them literally, then certainly between their followers.  Their followers badly wanted to be right, to be following the right guy, doing the right thing, standing with the true Messiah, or rebel against the Romans.  And since our Gospels are stories about Jesus, we see there a number of little stories about discussions between followers – or, as in this case, a direct question of Jesus:  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another…”

Now, today we’re not going to be getting into the rivalry between John and Jesus or their followers.  What I want us to focus on today is Jesus’ response to the question:  “Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  What I want us to think about is what’s really important, what is really good news, what is true happiness….

There’s good news, and then there’s good news.  There’s happy and then there’s happy.  . . . 

Think about it:  there’s the happy of getting the last piece of pie, of making it home before the traffic gets bad… and that’s a good, solid kind of happy.  

But there’s another happy, and that happy is even better.   That’s the happy which transcends those little daily goodies, and focuses the life-changing happies – the happiness of a good result on a medical test, or the happiness of seeing people thriving, or the happiness of knowing that we have done good in a life well lived, productive, valued.  Think of it perhaps as the difference between the happy of the job done “good enough”, and the happy of the job well-done, no matter how long or how hard.  

When the Psalmist writes “happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,” he’s thinking of that second kind of happy.

This is more important than you might think at first glance because it is a happiness that is not based on always being right, always being perfect.  It is a happiness which grows out of our intentions.

Think about it.  How often do we discount our efforts because they weren’t perfect?  How often do we feel like failure because things aren’t quite up to expectations?  And yet, we’ve given it our best, we’ve tried hard.

I don’t know about you, but one of the things I’ve learned about myself over the years is that if I don’t think there’s a chance in the world that I can succeed, it really kills my motivation to even try.  It feels like the game is rigged, and who wants to do that?

But the psalmist says, forget those lines that tell us we’re worthless.  Forget that stuff about having to be perfect to be acceptable.  Because, you see, God loves us as we are.  God loves us so much that God’s Son came to live with us…God think that it’s so ok to be a failure that Jesus came to a poor family in one of the most dismal parts of the Roman Empire.  

Jesus wasn’t born in Rome, not born to a wealthy Roman family, not born the son of Caesar Augustus.  Jesus wasn’t born to perfect parents who always knew the right things to say and do, who had the latest baby gear.

The good news in Advent is that God has come to care for the barren land; God has come to stand with those who feel deserted, those whose lives are surrounded by stress and trial.  God shows up, not when we are perfect, but when we are in need, when we have failed, when we are tired, discouraged, when we feel inadequate, unwelcome and unacceptable.  

Christmas is that sure and certain sign that God loves us.  Here and now, we celebrate the idea that God loves us so much that Jesus as come to live with us, as one of us, human, prone to failure, sure to be disappointed, and yet, here with us.  That is the most magnificent gift of all.

God’s good news is the kind that encourages, that strengthens, that keeps us looking forward.  

Jesus’ presence among us is also the sign that our physical reality is good.  Martin Luther once asked “how could God have demonstrated his goodness more powerfully than by stepping down so deep into flesh and blood, that he does not despise that which is kept secret by nature, but honors nature to the highest degree.”[1]

 We are worthwhile, old or young, thin or not, well-dressed or struggling to afford clothes.  “God does not love the person we are trying to be, or hoping or promising to be, but the person we actually are.”[2]  That’s the foundational support to the happiness of Christmas – that we are loved as we are.

Years ago, when I was new in ministry, I officiated at the wedding of a beautiful young couple who’d planned every detail to be perfect –the right dress, the right ring, the right place for the reception – and even the right time for the service – just as the setting sun caused the interior of the church to glow pink.  It was a gorgeous day, and every one of their plans went the way they’d wanted.

About a year later, I got a phone call from the husband; could, would I come to the Maine Medical Center in Portland, where their newborn son was in the ICU?

I found the parents huddled around their son, who lay in the middle of an adult-sized bed in the ICU.  To this day, I’m not sure why he was there and not in the pediatric ICU.  They turned to me in desperation, asking for their son to be baptized, to protect him from what he faced.  After the baptism, they shared with me their frustration and puzzlement – we did everything right, they said, we made all our plans like responsible people, saved the money for the wedding, didn’t even live together before hand.  Why is God punishing us?  Why has this happened to us?

The God who comes to be with us in Jesus Christ does not send bad things to us, not to punish us, not to toy with our feelings, not for any reason at all.  Our God loves us.  Our God stands with us when the worst happens.

But sometimes it’s so very hard to know that.  That long-ago bride and groom didn’t feel God’s presence, and in their fear and grief, they really felt as though they were being punished, and punished unjustly.  Too often, we also feel that way when things go wrong — When a spouse dies,  a job is lost,  a marriage fails?  When the world falls apart before us?

And yet, the Christmas story tells us that it is not so.  Long ago, in Bethlehem, God came to live with us.  God came to us because we are God’s beloved Children, and because God did not want us to live our lives alone.  

God wanted us to know, know that God knows how hard our lives can be. 

God knows the feel of temptation, the pain of sorrow, the heartbreak of loving and losing.

At Christmas, God tells us that human beings matter, that all of us are loved, all of us welcome at the Table. 

The best gift of all is not in a fancy box under the tree.  The best gift of all is not a perfect job, or even a loving family gathered around the living room.  The best gift of all, the most magnificent present, is the gift of Jesus Christ, given to us this Christmas once again.

Let us give thanks for the God who brings joy with the gift of Christ.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

[1] David Lose, In The Meantime blog,, retrieved 12/10/16

[2] Ibid.

Who Matters?  Why?

A sermon preached at First Church, UCC Middletown, Connecticut, on December 4, 2022

Isaiah 11:1-9

licensing for all music is on file in the church office

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, 
the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, 
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. 
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; 
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, 
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, 
the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; 
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, 
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; 
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 

Mt 1:1-17

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar,and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. 

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriahand Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. 

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel,  and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, 
and Matthan the father of Jacob,  and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; 
and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; 
and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations. 

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.

When life gets stressful, I start reading cozy mysteries.   They’re really fun, for me – no one gets hurt badly, or permanently, or on-stage…. the deceased is often someone no one knows, or likes, often never really becomes part of the story….   and usually, even though they are low stress, the best of them have well-drawn characters who are not ignoring today’s society.

Well along those lines, some years ago, I found a series by Ann B. Ross… definitely a cozy, though not a mystery.  Ross’s protagonist is a Southern lady, a widow in a small North Carolina town.  Her name is Julia Springer, and in the opening book, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind, we meet a lively, sharp-tongued and proud woman in her middle 60s, recently widowed.  They’re not perfect, but they’ve been a lot of fun over the years.

Miss Julia, as she is known, is the social leader of her town; she believes that everyone looks to her to know the right thing and to be the town’s model of decent behavior.  Decades of marriage to the super-perfect and demanding Wesley Lloyd Springer trained her to be swift, sure and unimaginative in interpreting what the right thing is in any circumstance.  She has built her life on being, and being known as, the most righteous person in town, in the most righteous marriage.

Then her husband dies – suddenly, and with no preparation.  He had a fatal heart attack in the front seat of his new car, parked in front of the house after coming home from a late meeting one Thursday night.  She discovers him the next morning, and her world begins to change.

It turned out that the man she’d lived with, and not always easily, was not the paragon of virtue she’d thought.  Her late husband was a usurious banker, a mean-spirited landlord, an exploiter of other folks’ problems, and in the final insult, and kept a mistress with whom he had a son.

It was devastating.  Every single thing she’d built her pride on: her husband’s honesty, competence, compassion – and now his basic decency – was gone, and along with it, her social position.  She was humiliated all the more when it turned out that every one of her friends had known about the mistress and the son.

Julia’s picture of herself is destroyed by the truth of her reality.  There’s a whole series of books about her; they’re light reading and pretty funny.  But they are also the story of a woman who, after facing the truth, rebuilds her life.  Her basic honesty about what has happened changes her world.  Instead of living in the midst of secrets, she takes the mistress and her son in.  She learns to trust, makes stronger friends, and practices a faith which is built on the idea that “no matter who you are, you are welcome here” (though she doesn’t put it quite that way.  It’s not easy; she struggles throughout the series with her habitual assumptions – men are untrustworthy, for instance, or poor people are trashy.  But in book after book, she moves deeper and deeper into a better life.

I hope you’re wondering what Miss Julia has to do with that interminable genealogy I read!  Well how about this:  the genealogy is there to tell us that Jesus is a direct descendant of King David, and through King David, a descendant of Abraham.  And the author throws in the tidbit that each section represents 14 generations, which to the Jews of that time would have been an auspicious number.  Any number that’s a multiple of 7 has both literal (it really is 14) and figurative “wow, 14 reminds me of the 7 days between sabbaths, or the seven days of creation, or whatever.

All that’s nice, but there’s more in that list than sets of seven, or even proven descent from David.  That’s because hidden in all those names of dads are four, and only four women.  You all know that the Bible rarely mentions women, right?  Back in the day, we weren’t all that important to history.  Let’s be honest; it’s only been in the last fifty years or so that our world’s gotten more committed to remembering the names of women.  So, it’s important that in this long list of men with hard to pronounce names, there are four women.

Tamar.  Rahab.  Ruth.  The wife of Uriah (we know her as Bathsheba, but Matthew didn’t apparently want to name her).  Four women.  There were other women, of course, but only these four were remembered.  

Here’s the thing.  Every one of those women had something “wrong” with her.  Not one of them had an unspotted record, not by the standard of their time, and mostly not by ours either. 

Tamar’s first husband died and left her childless; her second attempt at marriage left that husband dead as well – and still no child.  Everyone thought she was cursed.  No one would marry her.  But she wanted a child and she wanted that child to be able to be her father-in-law Judah’s heir.  it’s a complicated story, but in the end, she is pregnant, Judah is the father, and there’s lots of scandal.  Tamar was daring and smart and scandalous.

Rahab kept an inn in Jericho.  Our Bible makes it clear she offered more than rooms and bed.  Her reputation was only saved by the way in which she helped Joshua win the battle of Jericho by giving safe space to him and his spies.  And she’s not Jewish; she’s Canaanite, an outsider.  Rahab was daring and smart and of ill-repute.

We all know Ruth.  She’s a fixture of sentimental readings at weddings even though that beautiful passage is about a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law.  Now, unlike the other women in this list, no one suggests that Ruth is immoral, but everyone knows that Ruth is the fullest of outsiders.  We remember that Ruth was daring and smart and hard-working and loyal – and not a Jew.

Finally there’s Bathsheba.  I think we all know enough of that story that I don’t need to go into detail.  We know Bathsheba and we know she committed adultery.  

Not one of these women was fully acceptable.  And that’s the point of our conversation today.  Miss Julia thought that her position came because her husband was so impressive.  It was only later, after his death, that she began to understand that in the sight of God it’s not our money, or our position, or our public acceptability that really matters.  As she begins to move out from behind her husband’s assumptions, she discovers that what really matters is welcoming the stranger, loving those who are unimportant.   

As we study the Scripture, we discover that in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, are embedded the names of four unacceptable women.  That list is not a list of the greatest women of all time, or the greatest men.  It is a list of people who are a mixture of good and bad.  And in there, not one entirely impressive woman; not one woman who, back in the day, would have been easily welcomed in any home.  

Life is hard.  As Wendell Berry writes, “we live the life we’re given, not the life we planned” or expected, or wanted.  Doing everything right, getting to where our goal pointed us – that’s not always going to happen.  

No matter how hard you study, no matter how good your grades, if neither of your parents went to college, it’s going to be harder for you to go and succeed than it will be for someone whose parents went and graduated.  

No matter what your goal in life, if you get addicted to alcohol or drugs, your life will be harder.  If your spouse moves out… if the place where you work goes bankrupt… if, if, if… then …..

And when “then” happens, who are you?  Are you less welcome in God’s world if you’ve been arrested?  What does this story say to you?  Are you less welcome in God’s world if you’ve been divorced?  Or if your parents abused you?  Or if you’ve had trouble holding a job?  Or if you’re feeling overwhelmed by all that’s on your table?

What does the Gospel tell us today?  It tells us that we live in a world, a faith-world, where you are welcome, as you are, with all your past.  If those women, immoral and unwelcome, can be celebrated as the ancestors of Jesus Christ, how can you not be welcomed with open arms?

God does not hold back his welcome and save it only for the righteous.  God welcomes everyone to the Table; God welcomes everyone to the family.  

In the dark of December, in the gloom of Advent, we claim once again this welcome.  We light our Advent candles to remind ourselves that the baby who will come will change everything, has changed everything for us.  

It may be dark.  Everything may have gone to pot. It’s likely we’ve done things we’ll regret the rest of our lives, and some days it can be hard to get out of bed.  But no matter where we are on life’s journey, we are welcome here, in God’s house, in God’s family.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child