What Makes a Church a Church?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on June 26, 2022

Galatians 5:1, 13–25

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.…

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

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

Last Saturday, we had the Annual Meeting of our Conference – I mentioned it last week.  The worship was so not like what we have here.  It was more like what we did when we weren’t meeting together – one person or group after another, each videoed in their living rooms.  There was music – I particularly remember the organ and steel pan duet, the rock band….and other great music, though not what we hear in this place.  While there were songs, we were not able to sing together.  

You could almost think that the differences between that worship and this worship weren’t the same thing.  We struggled with that ourselves when COVID required us to let go of in-person worship.  We wondered, we worried, what could we be doing, was this anything like real worship. 

But we were, in fact, worshipping, different music, different settings.  We were united, not by our appearance, not by our economic status, our gender or orientation, not even our age or singing ability – we were united by what makes us a church.

To be church, you need four things:

  1. You need people.
  2. You need people who love Jesus.
  3. You need people who love one another.
  4. You need people who will reach out into their community.

Now there’s more to say about churches, but this is the core, the essential.  You can’t have church of any type without these things:  you can’t be a Catholic without people; you can’t be a Baptist if you don’t love one another, you can’t be Presbyterian without service, you can’t be a Congregationalist, or a Methodist, or anything at all, without people, Jesus, love and service.

Of course, there are different kinds of churches; some, like ours, are governed by the people, some by the pastor, some by the local bishop, or even some faraway headquarters.  Some insist the pastor wear special clothing – pulpit robes, and all kinds of fancy duds.  Some would rather the pastor wear ordinary street clothes.  Some begin by gathering in a circle, some dance, some have processions. 

And we differ in the details of what we believe.  But when you get right down to it, we all agree on the basic – people, Jesus, love, service.

Now, think about this – turn it around.  If you are a group of people who don’t like each other, can you be church?  If you don’t care about Jesus?  If you don’t serve your community?

This is the time of the year when I often attend mandolin camp; I’m not a very good classical mandolinist, but I really enjoy getting together with this group of about 40 people who all love to play the mandolin.  The first year I went, I remember our teachers were talking about how they began to learn to play our instrument.  Over and over we heard a variation on “I tried another instrument, but here I felt welcome”.  We had love, we had people…. and in many ways, we sounded like a church.  But we had no Jesus, we had no service…

I think of this whenever I hear people say “I worship God when I sail, or hike, or play golf… “ and think to myself (because arguing the proposition seems unwelcome) but you don’t have people, you don’t have Jesus, you don’t have service… and you don’t really have church.

Church is when we get together, not just to love one another, not just to be friendly, but to welcome the stranger, to serve the needy.

Our lessons for today make this clear.  They don’t talk about the right way to organize a church, or the right songs to sing, the right robes to wear.  They talk about how we make our commitments real in the eyes of all.  And that’s what makes a church a church.

In Galatians, Paul tells us that we are free people.  He says, Jesus has freed us from the dead hand of habits and expectations.  He tells us that we need no longer be the thoughtless victims of meanness, cheesiness, nastiness, greed, self-indulgence and so on.  He tells us that we are now the commissioned, empowered practitioners of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

Paul says we are not only all these things; he says we KNOW that we are free, we know we can put shoddiness aside, we know we are made and freed to be good.  And he expects that if we can do it, we will do it.

But, God bless him, Paul sometimes was more than a little optimistic.  Our Gospel lesson adds to Paul’s story by telling us about a couple of disciples and how they got it wrong, and about several would-be followers, who didn’t quite get the urgency of the whole endeavor.

You see, the time to be church is not tomorrow, it is not when it’ll be more convenient. The Samaritans were all in on following Jesus, until they knew what he actually intended.  It was all ok to follow Jesus, so long as he didn’t try to upset what was really important, so long as he didn’t challenge what they’d always known was true.  

It was all ok to follow Jesus, so long as it didn’t mean giving up any of the little luxuries that made life worthwhile. 

It was all ok to follow Jesus, so long as we were given enough time to take care of other important things.

The time to be church, the time to follow Jesus, is right here, right now.  And it’s often a time that doesn’t see right in our eyes.  I might not feel ready to follow Jesus.  I might think it’s more important to have some time for myself; I might think my laundry needs to be done.  I might even not agree with what it seems Jesus is asking me to do.  It doesn’t matter, not one bit.  

What matters is that we are church.  

What matters is that we are people, people who follow Jesus, people who love one another, people who serve our world.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Words and Deeds Lead the Way

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on June 19, 2022

Galatians 3:23-29    Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. 

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.

Yesterday, the Southern New England Conference, the name for all the UCC churches in CT, MA and RI, held its third Annual Meeting.  At the beginning, there was a long – more than five minute – statement of apology, acknowledgment for stealing southern New England from the indigenous people who were living here.  Land acknowledgement is a great idea, but what does it mean if it doesn’t lead to some sort of action?

Words… words about gun control, words about land acknowledgement, words…. And now these words, from Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow.  McMorrow is a practicing Christian, a Roman Catholic, and she wrote in a recent Commonweal Magazine article:  

Calling yourself a Christian, or putting it in your Twitter bio, is not the same as being one.  It’s performative, and it’s nonsense.  It’s not showing faith through works.  

Last week I pointed out that everything we do here is founded on our belief in Jesus Christ, however you define that belief.  It’s quintessentially in our DNA – we don’t want to confine anyone to a particular way of describing Jesus, but we do want you to follow Jesus.

Mallory McMorrow reminds us that following Jesus is not about saying “we follow Jesus”.  It’s about following Jesus.  It’s not about getting into fun discussions about whether or not Jesus is fully human and. . . and fully divine.  It’s not about saying racism is bad.   It’s not even about white people learning about Juneteenth.  It’s about doing, not saying we do.  It’s about living out our faith.

Today’s scripture reading is one with which we’re pretty familiar, because it contains …. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  But there’s more to this selection that that wonderful declaration.

You see, that declaration is part of a longer discussion about what makes us Christian.  Back in the day of Galatians, the way you became an adherent of a religion,  was that you were born to it.  You were a Roman, you followed Roman gods – tho a wealthy important Roman might also follow the Greek gods because they were classy.  But Phoenicians followed Phoenician gods, Egyptians followed Egyptian gods, and Jews followed the Creator God we follow today.  By and large, you didn’t change gods, unless you were trying to cozen up to the powers-that-be…. Thus the Herods pretend they are kinda sorta Roman, so as to be more acceptable to the occupying powers.

The question of the day for Paul was – did you have to become a Jew in order to be a true follower of Jesus?  If you were a Greek or a Roman or from one of those countries on the south side of the Mediterranean – did you have to give up who you’d been in order to become a follower of Jesus?  This was not just a religious question.  If Romans didn’t honor the Roman gods, their loyalty to the Roman authorities became suspect.  Being a Christian in those days was something of a liability.

There in Galatia, there was an argument going on, one which basically said, if you’re not born one of us, you’re really ever not going to be one of us.  We still think this way — we all know communities where if you’re not born there, or if you didn’t graduate from the high school, you will never ever really be accepted.  Or one of those places where if you aren’t from the right class, or not related to the ruling family… well, then, the words will say “you’re welcome”, but actions will say, “not so much. . .”

Our lesson helps us understand that everyone is welcome, that everyone is a member of the family, that everyone counts, that what supports one, supports all, what hurts one, hurts all.  And there’s more.

Because what we say is not just about words, it’s also about deeds.  And the Bible is really clear as to what those deeds will look like.  How we are to behave is throughout the Scriptures:  in Exodus 22, for instance, we read that aliens, people who are not of our country, must be treated as we treat ourselves.  In fact, all the laws and rules we find in Exodus and Leviticus, as boring and petty-fogging as they can seem, are an attempt to make sure that everyone is treated fairly.

Paul says it very clearly in Philippians 4: 7 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  In the Letter of James, it’s written:  be ders of the word, and not merely hearers…. And a little later in that same first chapter, it’s written:  14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Words are good.  We need to know who we are, whose we are.  

Deeds matter because they give tangible form to our words, they make our words live.   

Words and deeds together, are a gift from God, a gift to God.  

We welcome the stranger; we feed the hungry. We clothe the naked.  But we don’t just do exactly and only what those words say.  Feeding and clothing are only examples. We use our powers of observation and compassion to see what needs to happen where we are.  We use our intelligence to listen to our world, to let go of what’s no longer needed, to pick up what’s important now.  

We are Christians and we care about our world.  We are Christians and we work to make this world better.

That is our name, that is our calling, that is our work.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

The Cost and Joy of Discipleship

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on June 12, 2022

Acts 16:11-22

We (Paul and his companions) set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us. 

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.

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.

Paul and his companions made the big journey over the sea to Philippi, to a city, a Roman colony, a crossroads between Europe and Asia – and a place where no one yet had heard their good news, where they had no friends that they knew of, where they had no connections.

One of the first things they did was hunt up other Jewish believers.  While they knew they would reach out to non-Jews, they wanted to begin where they might find friends, or friends of friends, where they might find connections.

And find them they did.  When they sat down with the women and began to tell their story, they met Lydia, a merchant in the city.  There they forged new connections and a new church.  

Those connections were not limited to those with money and power.  Others heard their gospel news and began to follow them.  One of those was one of the least in the city, a slave, a slave girl, a slave girl with not even a name.  But God’s story doesn’t come only to those with money; it comes to all of us.  The slave girl heard the story and began to tell all the world what she’d heard.  It was Jesus who brought together Lydia, Paul and the slave girl. 

What binds us together?

Is it our mutual love of UNO? Or pizza?

Is it that we went to the same school, maybe at the same time?

Have we known each other since forever?  Do we go to the same church? Were we on a committee together sometimes, some place?

Are we Facebook friends?

Were we/are we members of the same Scout troop? Or Rowing club?

Do we run together?  Work together?

Have we been poll watchers together for years?

Or do we love jazz, or organ music, or .. well, you fill in the blank…..

What ties us together?  What ties the “us” that is here today?  Not the “us” that’s family, or the “us” that loves some sport activity, or any other “us” you can think of.

What ties together the “us” that is here today?  What connects us to one another.

The foundation of all we do, the thing which draws us and hold us, loves us and pushes us is Jesus Christ.

Now we might say no, we’re here for the music, or the people or the church’s passion for justice, and all that’s real and true.  But it doesn’t exist on its own.  It exists because, first, we decided to follow Jesus.  All those things are good, and valuable, and important.  But they are not the foundation out of which all our connections grow.

We have many connection with one another and each of them, in some way, is founded on this man who lived two thousand years ago.  Now as it happens, there are many ways to describe that man.  Some of us believe Jesus was both God and man, some of us think he was a good person. 

But all of us believe that there is something about what he said, how he lived, that gives meaning and purpose to our world today.  All of us know that there’s something gravely wrong with our world.  We know that there are forces and powers trying to drive us back into the dark ages of hatred and contempt. And we know, however we describe Jesus, that he has a way forward, a way which unites us.

It’s on that connection that we build all the other connections which hold us together.  We are old and young and in-between; wealthy and struggling; educated and haven’t read a book in decades.  Some of us run, some hike, and some of us sit on the couch and watch others.  We are not all the same by any stretch of the imagination, and the connection which cements all the other connections here is that connection to Jesus.  That connection builds connections of passion and interest – our commitments to being Open and Affirming, our concern and involvement in issues of racial justice and equity, our dedication to feeding the hungry.

Some of us are Lydia, some of us are nameless slave girls…  some of us could recite the theological intricacies of the Apostle’s Creed, while some of us aren’t sure they want to say – out loud – that they follow Jesus. 

As a church, however, Jesus is the rock on which we stand and it is in Jesus’ name that we make our connections.  

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Where Is Our God Today?

All necessary licensing is on file in the church office

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on May 29, 2022

On Tuesday, nineteen kids and two teachers were murdered.  Seventeen more people were injured.  That’s horrible; we’re all shocked.  But there’s more.

It turns out that the police in Uvalde were in the school, but waited 45 minutes to confront the gunman, while children called 911 and pled for help.  And help didn’t come.  Forty-five minutes, those kids phoned and hoped, waited and died.

There are no words to describe that.  I just can’t imagine how the families are coping with this news.

I don’t want to get into the arguments about why the police made the choice they did, or whether or not it was proper for the Border Patrol to take over and rescue the children.  There’s another place for us to go today.

We hear all this with the echo of Sandy Hook in our backgrounds.  I expect that some of us know someone who had a child die there, or we know people who know people… Connecticut’s a small state.  Sandy Hook was a Connecticut tragedy; we know how folks in Uvalde, Texas feel today because we’ve been there.  This tragedy, this week, coming so close on what happened last week in Buffalo, brings back that awful question – where is God when things like this happen?  What does our faith have to say in the presence of evil?

You know, we’d all like to think that God has a finger on the pulse of every living person, that nothing happens outside the will of God.  I sure wish that were so.  My favorite question from the Heidelberg Catechism says:  

What is your only comfort 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.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven. . .

That Catechism was a major point of formation for all of Reformed Protestant Christianity.  It’s still used today, more than 450 years after it was first written.  But it is not Scripture, and it is not right in every particularity.  Yes, I belong to my Savior.  But neither God nor Jesus watches over me to protect me from every harm.  

Theology can be something like trying to untangle a knot of yarn; if you loosen it here, it can tighten up over there, far away from where you started.  Here’s the thing:  if you believe that God watches over you and protects you, then what does it mean when bad things happen?  Does it mean that, oops, God’s attention wandered?  Does it mean… that God wanted this bad thing to happen to you?

There are Christians who have followed that idea down a rabbit hole, leading them to teach that bad things are God’s intentional acts, that those things are like a refiner’s fire, making us more and more fit for Heaven. You can even read the Book of Job, in the Bible, and find an entire argument about that way of understanding why bad things happen.

I’ve never been able to assent to that way of understanding evil.  I don’t think God sends bad things, or even allows bad things, so that we can deepen our faith.  In fact, I don’t want anything to do with that kind of God.  Life has sent me all the bad things I can handle, and more; I don’t need more from God!

So, where do I think that God is in the worst kinds of tragedies?  I think God is right there with us when bad things happen.  God is sitting next us in the emergency room, maybe handing us a bad cup of coffee – but it’s warm and feels good somehow.  It’s God who brings meals to my house when I can’t cook.  It’s God who gives me the courage to step into the funeral home when that’s what needs to be done.

Here’s where I got this idea of God:  there’s a lot of places to find it, but for me the key one is Romans 8, starting at verse 31:

If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nothing can separate us from God’s love.

Romans tells us that nothing can separate us from God’s love.  That means that God’s love is the most important thing.  I dunno, I think God has made us so that when bad things happen, we’re capable of learning from them, growing stronger.  But I also know that sometimes the bad things are so bad that when they happen, we break into pieces.  I went to high school in south Florida; 1/3 of our school was Jewish.  None of my Jewish classmates had grandparents; they had all died back in Europe during World War II.  Sometimes things are so bad that they break us.  But even when we are broken, even when we can no longer believe in God, God is still there, still loving.

When his own son died, tragically, driving drunk, taking the curve too fast and sliding into the winter-frigid water in a small city north of Boston, William Sloane Coffin, then pastor of the Riverside Church in NYC, preached two weeks later and said:

When parents die, as my mother did last month, they take with them a large portion of the past. But when children die, they take away the future as well. That is what makes the valley of the shadow of death seem so incredibly dark and unending. In a prideful way it would be easier to walk the valley alone, nobly, head high, instead of — as we must — marching as the latest recruit in the world’s army of the bereaved.

We know he’s right, we feel it in our aching hearts.  When children die, they take away the future. . . 

Coffin rails against those folks who come up to us in our time of grief, press our hands and say, consolingly, “it was all God’s will”.  When my sister died, a couple of days after her birth, someone told me that “she was too good to live and so she’s gone to live with God”  That’s not a helpful thing to say to a three year old.  It made me profoundly angry with a God who would snatch my sister away before she had a chance to enjoy life.  

We are not three.  We know to fight back from hurtful or damaging ideas.  We know, as William Sloane Coffin wrote, My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

Why did those children die?  Because Texas has weak gun laws?  Because folks didn’t know how to stop the shooter before this came close to happening?  Because the police didn’t seem to know what to do with an active shooter in their school?  Sure, probably little bit of each of those, and more beside.  But they didn’t die because God wanted it that way, and they didn’t die just to teach us all a lesson.

This is Memorial Day weekend; it’s a time when we routinely honor those who have fought and died in our nation’s wars.  It’s a day when we, for once, recognize that wars inevitably take lives.  Out of each of the great wars our country has fought, have come great movements for peace, beginning with the establishment of Memorial Day itself.  Having seen the horrors of war, having paid the price with the life or health of a loved one, we work to try to make things better.  In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln wrote:

With malice toward none,  with charity for all,  
with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,  
let us strive on to finish the work we are in:  
to bind up the nation’s wounds, 
to care for him who shall have borne the battle 
and for his widow and his orphan 
— to do all which may achieve and cherish
a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Today, in the face of what we have seen in the last two weeks, we’re called to step up and challenge those who would make weapons available to all, without restriction or limit.  Today, let’s join the hundreds of thousands of people who are calling for better gun control.  The historian, Heather Cox Richardson, writes in her daily newsletter that today more people than ever are ready for gun control, background checks, and other boundaries around gun sales and possession.  We are not alone; let us not be discouraged, and continue to work to make our world safe for all God’s children.  Let us be the presence of God by our words and our actions, in the name of Jesus Christ.

Amen.

On the Importance of Paying Attention

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on May 22, 2022

All necessary licensing on file in church office

Acts 16:9–15

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

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.

On Tuesday of this past week, President Biden went to Buffalo, New York.  

We know why he went.  

He went to Buffalo for the same reason President Obama went to Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston SC. 

He went to Buffalo because an impressionable kid who had spent way too much time listening to hate talk on television, decided it was his job to kill Black people.  

The kid planned his trip, chose to go to this city, this store, because he knew it to in an area with a lot of African-American people.  He made a recon trip to check out how the store was laid out, to maximize the number of people he would kill.  He identified two other areas in Buffalo – he’d intended to go to each of them and kill more people, more Black people.

That kid made plans, and when it was time drove three and a half hours from his home in Conklin NY to the big city of Buffalo, just to kill people.

We can blame the kid.  We could blame his parents.  We could criticize the law enforcement people who knew the kid had problems.  For that matter, we could blame the problems the kid had, but that’s not going to cut it, not anymore.  

When President Biden stood in Buffalo and said that white supremacy was a poison, he was right. And it’s white supremacy that I blame for the deaths of those people, for the deaths of immigrants, and Blacks, for the murder of Jews in Pittsburgh, for the deaths of people in a Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in California on Sunday afternoon.

The “replacement theory” this kid had been reading about, hearing on social media, and who knows what else, suggests that white people in our country are being “replaced” by people of color. That’s the theory behind hating immigrants.  That’s why keeping people of color out of the US is important. Killing people of color re-balances the races.  These people believe in “whites first, whites only” in much the same way George Wallace used to say “segregation now, segregation forever” – until he got really saved and changed his tune.

Folks who believe this poison think that the only people who should be here are 100% white, 100% Christian people – and by Christian, they don’t actually mean Christians.  They mean people who will use the name, but who don’t need to follow Jesus.  They mean people who aren’t anything else – not Jews, not Muslims, not Sikh, not anything else.  Christians by culture, but not by faith.  Those people are evil and the doctrines they teach are poison to our land.

This is why the lessons of Jesus are so essential.  Jesus teaches us, and the parts of Acts we’re reading in this season remind us, that there is no such thing as “replacement theory”.  We can’t be replaced, because we are all one family.  Everyone is welcome at God’s table; everyone is a member of God’s family.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that what we teach here is just something to fill in the time on Sunday mornings.  There isn’t a member of this church who doesn’t know how pleasant it would be to sit in peace and just read a Sunday paper, or go for a hike, or go fishing on a Sunday morning … and sometimes we do all those things.

But, most Sundays,  between 10 and 11 we gather here to remind ourselves that though we live in a world filled with poisonous ideas and hate-filled people, that is not the end of things.  It doesn’t have to be that way, and we are called to fight against it.  We come here to hear the story one more time, to refresh our energy, to be a community, to confront evil wherever it shows up, even if it’s in our own hearts.  

Today’s story is another of the many stories in Acts about breaking barriers.  This time, it’s the story of how Paul and his companions came to intentionally move from Asia to Europe.  If they’d never made that trip, we Europeans might still be without the knowledge of the way of Jesus.  

Let’s be clear; that wouldn’t have been better – the religious practices of the times before Jesus in northern Europe were sometimes very unpleasant, and could include, did include, human sacrifice.  So I, for one, am very happy that my ancestors heard about Jesus, heard because Paul travelled to Greece to tell the story.

In the latter part of this reading, a part we didn’t read today, we learn that one of the first converts Paul and his companions make in Europe is Lydia, a businesswoman; her example empowers women in a new way.  The trip from Turkey to Greece changed the world. 

It happened because Paul prayed.  It was prayer which changed his plans.  It was prayer that changed our world.

While I’m sure Paul prayed for guidance, I’m going to suggest today that the prayer which led to his journey didn’t begin with an impassioned call to God to give direction.  That’s one kind of prayer, but it’s not the only kind.  I believe Paul was also immersed in another kind of prayer, the kind of prayer which provides a framework for our lives.

Petitionary prayer, the kind of prayer we usually experience as joys and concerns, is always offered in response to a need expressed or a joy experienced.  It is one of the ways we speak to God.  

Formative prayer, however, is one of the ways God speaks with us.  

I think it was formative prayer that was the kind of prayer which prepared Paul to hear the call of God, to recognize the vision of the man in Macedonia, asking “come over and help us”. 

At its most basic, formative prayer is based on a commitment to listen to God’s word as chosen by some one or something other than ourselves.  It might be grounded in a commitment to say the Lord’s Prayer every morning, so that prayer might provide a pattern for the day.

It might be found in faithful reading of a magazine like The Upper Room, or the use of a prayer book, or the reading of devotional book.  The person who decides to read a chapter a day of the Bible is doing the same thing. 

There are thousands of “right ways” to tune into this kind of spiritual leadership.   It doesn’t have to be complicated.  Sometimes we read a chapter a day from a book.  There are devotional books of daily readings, some still in print after a hundred or more years.  There are daily prayer books, with full-blown prayer services for morning, noon and night.

The essence of this kind of prayer is that we follow someone else’s lead in choosing what to read, study or pray about.  It is not about what feels right to me, but the courage to listen to someone else, giving authority to someone outside our own lives.  

Paul founded his faith in that kind of daily, repetitive, openness to hearing God’s will for him.  It drew him out of the land of his birth, the land where his faith was known, into a new place.  His practice of listening for God’s voice opened him to God’s word, gave him vision, courage and strength.

EunYoung Choi, a current Yale Divinity School student , wrote in the most recent, on-line, issue of the magazine Reflections,   “I believe prayer is a force of resistance that raises hope by naming injustice and suffering.  Prayer is not a passive act that merely wishes for dramatic change and breakthrough, but is a stronghold that gathers hearts and instills wonder.”

In a world filled with the poison of  hatred, we need that kind of strength.  We need that kind of regular call to move beyond our own comfort levels, we need that constant reminder of who we are and what we’re called to.

The prayer which forms us is important.  It focuses us, helps strengthen our resolve, clarifies our purpose.  It is a central part of how we stand up to that evil we all see in this world.  It counteracts the hatred which is everywhere these days.  It is absolutely foundational.

Our world is filled with poison; let us in our prayers listen to God’s preparation to be people of peace.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Agreeing Isn’t Easy

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on May 15, 2022

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Acts 11:1-18 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 

But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 

And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

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 are two kinds of people in the world:  the people who want something new and different every day, and the people who, like me, could cheerfully do things the same way for the rest of our lives.

Today’s Scripture is a story about those two kinds of people.  

There were the people – called the “circumcised believers” here – who want to hew as closely to the past as is humanly possible, and the people, Peter and his followers, who were stepping out into new ways.

Except, of course, that parallel isn’t strictly true.  Peter was no fan of change.  Neither were his followers.  What they were, were people who, when they absolutely had to, were open to change, willing to change.  And the other folks?  They simply didn’t believe that change was necessary, in this time, or this place.  

Let’s look at what was really happening in this story:  it’s early days, really early days in the development of the Christian way.  What we’re seeing in this story is the beginnings of the separation of Jesus’ followers from the Jewish faith, not yet an argument between Christians and Jews.  In those days, almost all those who followed Jesus were themselves Jews. They kept the Jewish customs and laws, but, just as some Jews were Sadducees or Pharisees, these Jews were followers of Christ, proto-Christians.

And then gentiles, people who were not Jews, began to follow Jesus.  So the early community began to get into a heavy discussion of just what these new folks would have to do, how they would have to live, in order to be authentic Christians.  This discussion goes on throughout out all of the book of Acts, and shows up in other New Testament books as well.  Did they have to formally convert to Judaism?  Did they have to keep kosher?  And the question here – could Jews and non-Jewish believers eat together?

These are real questions.  What do we have to do, believe, follow, in order to be authentic?  What makes us Christians?

But the focus today is on how we deal with new ideas and change….on how we work out answers.  As I said, this is hard stuff.  I hear it in just about every church I work with:  we’re all willing to do what’s needed, but, wait a minute, what do you mean we’re not going to do that one thing I really like?  Or that thing which I find so deeply meaningful? 

I don’t know about you, but I’m happy as all get out to offer new things for new people, so long as it doesn’t mean I have to give up something that I really love.  And it’s easy to adapt to new ways, new contexts, so long as I feel as though I still have control… right?  You know what I mean???

So when the disciples got all upset because Peter had dared to eat with gentiles, because it destroyed their picture of Peter as a great, trustworthy, guy… it reminds me of those folks who loved their pastor right up until they saw him marching with Martin Luther King…. Or who respected their pastor until the day the church stopped using hymnals, or went to demonstrations, or . . .   

In this case, the folks who felt as though control was slipping from their fingers began to criticize Peter.  Here’s the good news:  they talked with him about their concerns.  They didn’t stand out in the parking lot.  They didn’t meet at Brew Bakers.  They didn’t tell Peter’s wife they were upset.  They spoke to him.  That gave Peter the opportunity to share with them how his mind had been changed by the dream God sent him.  He saw that God was giving him a new way, and the confirmation was when the men from Caesarea showed up and asked for his help.  They were gentiles (you can read their full story in Acts 10)… the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household.  

When Peter told Cornelius about Jesus, Cornelius immediately was struck by the truth of the story and the Holy Spirit fell upon him.  I dare say Peter was astonished, but it served as sure confirmation that God wanted them to be welcoming to gentiles, as they were, without them having to first become Jews.  

As Peter told his story to his fellow believers, they too were convinced that God was telling them to leave behind the requirements they’d lived for so long, and to begin to look at new ways to understand what it meant to live as a follower of Jesus.

As we look into our future, we’re going to find things – large and small – that we need to discuss, decisions that will have to be made that will be difficult, changes that will require us, either temporarily or permanently, give up things that have been so very important to us in order to gain something essential to our witness.  Maybe some of those things will be easy to set aside – like the church which stopped requiring their deacons to wear morning coats when they served Communion.  Maybe the future will ask hard things of us.  Maybe my easy thing will be  your hard thing, or vice versa.  When those times come, remember this:  when we pay attention to what God is calling us to do, it’s easier to see the authentic, the faithful, way to proceed.

I don’t mean to say that when we look to God for guidance that the answer will always be clear or simple, because that’s just not so.  Looking to God, however, pulls us away from our own personal preferences, draws us out of “what I’ve always done” toward the redemptive conversation about how we follow Jesus.  It takes us from “I” to “we”.  Without God, we’re simply debating personal preferences.  With God, we’re basing our decisions on something beyond ourselves.

With God’s guidance, we will find ourselves echoing Peter, when he says, “who am I to hinder God?”

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

A Good Solid Breakfast

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on May 1, 2022

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Scripture: John 21:1-14

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.  This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

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.

Jesus was dead.  Sure there were some crackpot stories about some folks seeing him in Jerusalem, about his body being missing from the tomb, but really, no one believed that.  Everyone who’d gathered around Jesus – so far as they knew – everyone had put aside their hopes, their dreams, their expectations, and now they were hard at work trying to re-create the life they’d known before they met Jesus.

And it wasn’t working.

The fisher-folks went out on their boats.  They went out to their favorite spot, the place where they’d always hauled in nets filled with fish.  But today there was nothing.  Today, trying to do the usual, to do what had always seemed right, just didn’t work at all. 

I think we can all sympathize with them this year.  As we come out of the life-changing experience of COVID, we, like those disciples, really really want to move everything right back to where it was before, back in the good old days of 2019.  Just a couple of weeks ago, someone grabbed me right after a service to ask, why weren’t we doing “this”, or shouldn’t we be doing “that”.  And I know that person isn’t the only one to ask, why aren’t we doing … or when will we stop some COVID practice?  We yearn for a return to that “before” time.  And we struggle with our attempts to adapt what worked then with a now that is significantly different.

Well, if our situation is something like theirs, what happened next in their story?

Discourage, the disciples brought their boat back to shore.  They didn’t have any trouble pulling it up to the shore, it was so empty it floated high in the water.  That’s the kind of good you don’t actually want, you know.  Kinda like the church that never needed to have the walls repainted because nothing every happened there….  

There was a stranger standing on the shore as they came in.  He named what was happening – you have no fish.  They agreed.  They were so discouraged they didn’t even wonder why, or take offense at, his comment. 

This stranger suggested then that they do things differently, that they turn their practices upside down.  In this particular circumstance, the stranger wants them to let their nets on the other side of their boats.  It’s a simple idea, and, the story tells us it was as if every fish in the water had just been waiting for this one little change…. and now their nets were so full they couldn’t haul them in.

In this success, they suddenly recognized the stranger.  The stories were true; Jesus still lived!  And he was still leading them, giving them the courage to step into new ways, steeling them to look thoughtfully at what they were doing.

Jesus didn’t just give people new ideas, he equipped them for their new journeys.  In this story, he fed them breakfast… a good solid breakfast, nourishing, even encouraging.  They ate heartily, and rose up, ready to move into a new life.

Now it’d be really amazing if I could say to each of you that after we take communion, we too will leap from our seats ready to do great things… but it doesn’t work that way – didn’t then, and doesn’t now.  What does happen, what will happen is that as we sit together is that we are not alone.  We are no longer one single person, struggling to survive on our own.  We are part of a community, and that is nourishment to our souls.  We are not alone.

The stories of the early church go on and make it clear that things, going forward, weren’t peaches and cream.  

It’s not just that they had struggles with the civil authorities wherever they went.  

It’s not just that, as Christianity morphed and changed and gradually separated from Judaism, there were painful, destructive fights among the two groups.  

It’s not just that, almost from the very first day, it was clear that there was more than one opinion about the right way to proceed.

It’s all of that, and more.  It’s differing opinions and grating personalities, it’s available resources and local customs, it’s everything that has ever united or divided us, one from another.  That’s the nature of being human; there are a million ways to divide us one from another. 

For those of us who have dedicated ourselves to following the way of Christ, this is the one way of love to bring us together.  No matter what ways we differ – age, wealth, gender, affectional preference, education, nationality or beliefs about the eschaton – the love which is taught by Jesus and practiced by his followers is what brings us together.

Those early Christians worked hard to understand what they were being called to do; they studied, they talked together, they took advantage of every opportunity to gather. In these changing times, that’s an important part of our work as well. Books, meetings, conversations, visits – all are resources for us in the days to come.

Yes, we’re not sure where we’re going.  Sure, some of us still want to return to yesterday, to 2019.  And all of us are disturbed and worried about the future.  Making our way will not be clear and simple, but it will be satisfying so long as it is built on love for God and one another.

In Jesus’ name, amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

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.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child