Calmly Plotting the Resurrection

April 9, 2023, First Church UCC, Middletown, CT

Scripture:                                                                                                              John 20:1-18 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

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.

Christians the world over are engaged in a lifelong disagreement about the meaning and purpose of Easter.

Some think Easter is primarily about what happened back then, about the literal truth of the story.  For them, if the story is not literally true, it has no value at all.  They are primarily focused on a better life after death, and the literal truth of the story is the guarantee that Heaven is real and that there is a place for them there.  

Some think that Easter is primarily about the self-offering love of Jesus Christ; that it is a call to love and serve the world.  For us, the literal, historic truth of the event  is not essential; for us, it’s the enduring effect of the story, the way we are changed by it, that is its power.

Dean Greg Sterling, of the Yale Divinity School, said what I believe is most true about Easter, when he wrote:  “Easter is not only the transit from death to life, but from injustice to forgiveness and from despair to hope.”  

How resurrection happened, and all that stuff, is intellectual fun, but it’s like spending the whole meal eating dessert and then wondering why we’re falling asleep.  Those discussions don’t have much nutritive value, not in the long run.

If we spend our Easter celebration discussing about the science of resurrection, we’ve lost sight of what’s really going on, because the week from Palm Sunday to Easter changed everything.  

Christmas is a festival of potential, but Easter is a festival of new beginnings, of things coming to fruition.  Christmas is a festival of dreams; Easter is a festival of realities.

This is the time when we celebrate the ability to make a difference even as we’re in the midst of all the mixed up stuff of life.  

You’ve heard now that Tim Behl died last week.  Those of you who knew Tim knew that his life was hatch-marked by challenges and limitations, that it was far from a joyous journey from high spot to high spot.  I know you all know more than I will ever know about the challenges he faced.  But what I remember is that in the midst of COVID, when we struggled to begin the process of improving our online service, Tim was one of the volunteers who gave of his time and skills to help us all worship together.  That’s living an Easter life.

We are called to always remember the Resurrection story in the context of all the events of the past week.  Because you know, this week gives us in miniature, a picture of real life – great highs, actual successes, brave attempts, disaster, betrayal, failure, death – and then new life beginning.  That’s the story of Easter.  It’s not boxed into a picture of bunnies and flowers and heavenly admission tickets.  It’s broad, and deep, and terribly real.

Easter is the story which tells us how to outlive hate.  It’s the story which pulls us into a life based on love, a life oriented towards justice, a life lived for mercy, for one and for all.

In my files, I have a cartoon – you can see it now on the church’s Facebook page, but right now just imagine a chemistry lab, complete with bench, Bunsen burner, flask and retort.  The flask is filled with ignorance, and  it is being heated with hot, burning fear.  Out of that ignorance, the setup distills pure, thick hatred.  That’s our world today.

It is as if we are stuck at Good Friday, stuck in a place where the best we can do is blame someone else for everything we hate about ourselves.  We’re stuck filled with anger, stuck attacking those who cannot defend themselves.  It’s Good Friday, and hatred walks our streets.

Here we are, in a beautiful room. It’s been lovingly decorated and blessed by gracious music…. What place does hate have in this room, in this company?

On such a beautiful day, can’t we just once ignore the slime of hatred oozing into our world?  But there is no safety, no beauty in ignoring what’s going on right outside our doors.

The power and joy of Easter is that Jesus Christ came just for days and times such as these, to give us a way to live in the worst of times. 

When we hear hatred voiced, we know there is a better way. 

When we hear worries and concerns met with callous disregard, we know there is one who calls us to a path of love.

When we recognize the negligent disregard of racism, we know there is a way to live in perfect equality, one with another.

We know this because, in the worst of times, Jesus Christ came to be in this world.  He came to teach us to measure our world against the standards of generosity, justice, righteousness and love.  We know this because after he died in pain and shame, on the third day, he rose from the dead.

It’s easy to say that this Resurrection, this central act of our faith, makes no sense.  Of course, it doesn’t.  Resurrection makes no sense at all.  It’s not sensible; it’s not logical; it’s not scientifically reproducible, like a chemistry experiment.

It’s the sheer irrationality of the event that testifies to its essential truth.  Because, you see, this isn’t about science, isn’t about rationality or historical fact.  It’s about light shining in the darkness.

Easter began, not at sunrise this morning, but in the darkest events of Thursday and Friday, in the despair of Saturday.   Easter began with betrayal.  It deepened with desertion, abandonment.  It continued with a trial, condemnation, and execution.  

Buried in haste, his body was gone when the women came to the tomb. Nothing about this made any sense, not in that long-ago time, and not today.  And out of that senselessness, new life came.  Out of confusion and fear, courage bloomed, lives were changed. 

The despair and terror of Jesus’ followers is our despair and terror when we face an unknown future.  Their joy when they realize they are not alone, is our joy as well. 

This story, this resurrection isn’t about science experiments; it’s about real life.  It’s about life where things just don’t go right.  It’s about those times of quiet desperation when you just can’t see any way forward. 

It’s hard to remember our need for God when all is going well.  We humans like to take good times and good weather for granted.  We may well expect everything to always turn out well, but we’re doomed to disappointment.  It’s a fact of life, and not plain pessimism to point out that good does not continue in perpetuity.

Now some will argue that the blessings of our lives come because we’re better than those who suffer.  We’re smarter, we’re more generous, we have louder voices and are better at pushing our way to the front of the line and we thus get the best rewards.  This is the “everyone gets what they deserve” school of life.

And others will say that we get what we work for, and so all we have to do is work hard and rewards will appear.   That’s kinda the “I went to Wesleyan, so my life will be great” school of life.

Both run thin when we face a cat-scan filled with signs of cancer.  Neither has any comfort or strength when the factory closes and we’re out of a job at the age of 59.  And neither has any explanation for school shootings, or laws to restrict the medical options of kids in pain.  Neither works for the kinds of evil we see every day in our news feed. 

Christianity is faith for the tough times.  It’s not an “always sunny weather” way of living.  It anticipates challenges, knows we’ll face ethical dilemmas, personal disasters.  It knows that at the end of all, we will die – the ultimate failure in American life. 

Through all that, it helps us understand the value of our lives.  It shows us that life isn’t about toys, or job success, but about the grace with which we live. 

And today it reminds us that hatred leads to death.  Only love leads to life. 

Because we serve a risen Savior, we will not incite riots.  

Because we follow the way of Christ, we will not stand for condemnation of the poor.  

Because we carry on the love of Jesus,  we will not join in the disenfranchisement of the downtrodden.   

We are Christians; we will condemn hatred and practice mercy.  

Today is the spring of souls, the beginning of a new year of following God’s way.

When we sing Christ the Lord is Risen Today we proclaim that death is not the end of things.  Hope rises up out of despair, creates justice, proclaims mercy, practices love.

Today, we are a resurrection people, born anew out of a culture riddled with hate, born to be messengers of God’s love, to all the world.

Christ the Lord is Risen!  Hatred will not win the struggle.


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

Gratitude: The Purpose of Life

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on February 26, 2023

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, 
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, 
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

The story says the devil is asking Jesus, “are you really who you say you are?”  It’s as if he’s saying, show me – show me your power, show me your influence, show me your magic tricks.  If you’re the Son of God, show me.  And Jesus says, that’s not how it works.

Like a lot of things in the gospels, the story is presented in a way that – to the original readers – would have just reeked of authenticity.  Because of the way it’s constructed, its literary style, it’s quite likely that the earliest church put this together, like a word portrait, to portray real events in mythical language.  

This story reflects what those earliest members believed about Jesus.  They thought he was the Son of God, and so they told the story in ways that made that belief clear.  It also speaks to common accusations about Jesus in those times – some people said he was nothing but a magician, so one of the lines has him refusing to do parlor trick magic.  Some folks were still accusing him of being a rebel against Roman rule; the story thus says he had no interest in earthly power.

Today, the story can seem really bizarre.  We need to get under the words, to see what they would have meant back then, and from that see what that story means to us today.  It was a story about falling prey to the temptations of that world.  Our temptations may look different, but they have the same effect – they can still separate us from God’s love.  

Today, for most of us, the temptations are going to be about whether or not we lose ourselves in the world’s priorities – or whether we’re able to resist that pull and follow our understanding of right and loving living.

There’s no doubt that today, we who follow Christ have chosen to live with a different set of priorities than much of the world.  Around us are people for whom educational credentials are the be-all and end-all.  There are people for whom amassing possessions which show their wealth.  And we all know people for whom having and exerting power is more important than anything.  We believe that it is loving and building community which matters most.

That means that, for us, the story of these temptations speaks most clearly about the challenges of being people who are different.  It’s for us that retired Presbyterian pastor Roy Howard writes:   

I finding a renewed sense of the counter-cultural oddness of a season set apart for reflection and letting go all the ways that separate us from neighbor, self and God. How remarkable to walk – and stumble – through these days with companions on the Way, . . . aware of our mortality and yearning for the fullness of the new creation coming into being. 

There are few, if any, cultural supports for such practices that guard our hearts and guide our lives into greater mercy, compassion and love. I’m grateful for odd practices that help us walk against the grain toward a life revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

For us, today, this lesson says first off,  there are more important things than material goodies.  That’s a hard saying.  Doing God’s will, living in God’s way, is more important than life itself.

Second, easy answers don’t really solve things, and cheap miracles are just that – cheap.

Finally, there are more important,, much more important, things than being in charge.

What about being different has to do with today’s subject, with gratitude?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sage of Concord, Massachusetts, the rabble-rouser of his era, who made is name by shocking Harvard with new ideas wrote:  

The purpose of life is not to be happy, it is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived, and lived well.  He was writing to a world where, as happens generation after generation, people had succumbed to the temptation to go for money, to work for power, to think their education made them better than others.  They were wrong, and Emerson said so in a memorable way.

Life is not about having all the creature comforts possible; it’s not about being able to make a great life for yourself, taking advantage of every benefit of privilege; it’s not about greedily grasping at power for its own sake, or to aggrandize yourself. 

Life is about being useful, good, generous, welcoming, loving.  

And surely that’s worth our gratitude.  We have purpose to our lives, and that purpose is more than just our individual circumstances.  

Whether we struggle to feed the family or are well set financially, it’s this purpose that matters in God’s eyes. 

When I was in high school, I lived on the farm my father managed in Broward County, Florida (between Fort Lauderdale and Miami) – it was a dairy farm with a 1000 cow milking herd.  It took eight straight hours to get all those cows milked, even with modern milking machines.  

I learned two things the first year I lived there…. to my surprise, I learned that the cows didn’t care when they were milked, so long as it happened twice a day, about 12 hours apart.  We milked in two shifts, one starting at noon, and the other at midnight, and the cows were happy campers.  

More seriously, I discovered that the men who worked on the farm, who lived in a little colony of farm-provided houses down the street, had had to quit school at the end of the first grade to go to work to support their families.  That’s right, first grade.  When they were seven, they were working full days picking peanuts, not far from Jimmy Carter’s part of Georgia.

They were really pleased to be milking cows, because for them it was good work.  The herdsman, the man who was my father’s chief assistant, had made it through third grade before he had to go to work.  

I learned from them then that lack of formal education had nothing to do with whether people were good.  I learned that lack of money had nothing to do with kindness.  I saw that lack of power did not mean they were worth less

We can work as hard as possible and get the world’s greatest education, so that people believe we are truly smart, but it is the way we live our lives that makes us good.

We can work as hard as possible, and make more money than anyone else in our high school class, but it is the way we live our lives that makes us good.

We can work as hard as possible to become the most powerful person in our world, but it is the way we live our lives that makes us good.

It is the goodness of our actions which gives our lives value.  Today let us be grateful for the gift God has given us, the ability to be good – no matter the circumstances of our lives.


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

Gratitude: Welcoming Home

A sermon preached on March 5, 2023 at First Church UCC, Middletown, CT

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 (The Message)

So, how do we fit what we know of Abraham, our first father in the faith, into this new way of looking at things? If Abraham, by what he did for God, got God to approve him, he could certainly have taken credit for it. But the story we’re given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story. What we read in Scripture is, “Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.”

If you’re a hard worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don’t call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it’s something only God can do, and you trust [God] to do it—you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked—well, that trusting-him-to-do-it is what gets you set right with God, by God. Sheer gift.

That famous promise God gave Abraham—that he and his children would possess the earth—was not given because of something Abraham did or would do. It was based on God’s decision to put everything together for him, which Abraham then entered when he believed. If those who get what God gives them only get it by doing everything they are told to do and filling out all the right forms properly signed, that eliminates personal trust completely and turns the promise into an iron-clad contract! That’s not a holy promise; that’s a business deal. A contract drawn up by a hard-nosed lawyer and with plenty of fine print only makes sure that you will never be able to collect. But if there is no contract in the first place, simply a promise—and God’s promise at that—you can’t break it.  . . . .

This is why the fulfillment of God’s promise depends entirely on trusting God and [God’s] way, and then simply embracing [God] and what [God] does. God’s promise arrives as pure gift. That’s the only way everyone can be sure to get in on it, those who keep the religious traditions and those who have never heard of them. For Abraham is father of us all. He is not our [literal] father—that’s reading the story backward. He is our faith father.   

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 my favorite childhood books was “The Boxcar Children” by Gertrude Chandler Warner – the story of four children, essentially homeless, and how they first make a home for themselves, and then find a family they’d thought completely lost.  

When I was 10, it was my favorite book.  Today, many years from my delighted first reading, I’m still impressed by the book, and not just for the enduring story.  You see, over the years, I learned quite a bit about Miss Warner, including the fact that no one called her Gertie.  She lived in Putnam, up in northeast Connecticut, taught school in the public school system there, and for years was the clerk of the Congregational Church which I later pastored.  

Even today, Putnam inhabitants mostly came here from Europe.  There are some Black families, some Native families, but not many.  It’s a poorer town than it’s neighbors, a former mill town – the last mill, a Belding Corticelli thread mill closed while I was there.  Today, it’s a great place to visit if you like antiques. 

But that’s not why I’m telling you this.  Putnam, you see, was one of those places new immigrants ended up.  There were lots of French Canadians – even twenty years ago, the Roman Catholic priest had to learn a Canadian version of Breton French in order to minister to his congregants.  In that little town of maybe 6000 people, there were also Latvians, Swedes, Finns and Norwegians, along with smaller numbers of immigrants from other non-English speaking countries.

Miss Warner, seeing the struggle that immigrant children were having in her classroom, wrote The Boxcar Children with an extremely limited vocabulary so that those kids could have the experience of reading something interesting as they learned to read.  She wanted those kids to feel at home in her classroom, at home in that community.

Some years ago, I used that same book when helping to teach immigrant kids from Santo Domingo how to read and they were equally thrilled to be able to read a good story.

I’m grateful today for the way Miss Warner worked to make home for those people.

Today’s lesson, from the Letter to the Romans, talks about another kind of home.  Of course, Paul’s not talking about houses or human families.  He’s talking about the foundation on which all good home is built, something like the ideal home.  He says that the home with God that Abraham had was God’s free gift to Abraham.  Abraham didn’t earn it, didn’t get enough green stamps to buy it.  God gave him a home, and through Abraham, gave that home to all humanity.  

I’ve been a pastor for quite a while.  I know as well as any of you that not all homes are places where we feel loved, safe, and welcome, just as I know that not all families are perfect.  This story is not about the imperfections of real life.  It is about the Godly dream, the hope, the goal and aim of our humanity. 

We were called, out of our brokenness, to the work of creating a new and better home, a haven of peace and a place of blessing – not just for each one of us, but for all of us, together.  

At the end of the month, we’re hosting, sponsoring, a meeting about refugee resettlement.  You heard an invitation to help put the meeting on at the beginning of today’s service.  But did you realize that we’re not just planning a meeting, and hoping to help a refugee family…. but that we’re reaching out to extend God’s home to people who, right now, feel homeless?  

Welcoming a refugee is not just about that one (or more than one) family.  It’s also about being and becoming the sort of community which welcomes new people.  It’s about extended the warm acceptance we give our friends and fellow worshippers to people we’ve never met before.

The work of home-making to which we are called takes place primarily outside the doors of this room.  Really, if we were only good to one another, we wouldn’t be building a home, we’d be creating a club for insiders.  That’s why we have to reach out beyond who we know, who we’re comfortable with, to get to know strangers and allow the relationships you build to change you and us, so that we become a deeper and richer home for all.

In the words of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we have been given a great gift – a home for us, a home for the world… a home that welcomes all, no matter who we are, what we have done – or not done – a home that can build peace among all the world.

Today, I am grateful for the call God has given us to make the world a home for all.


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

What’s This Cross Stuff?

First Church UCC, Middletown, CT, April 2, 2023

First Reading:                                                                                                Matthew 21: 1-17 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 

“Tell the daughter of Zion,  Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 

The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, 

“Hosanna to the Son of David!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” 

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, 

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;

but you are making it a den of robbers.”

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 

But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,  ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”

He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there. 

Second Reading:                                                                                          Matthew 26:36-46

 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” 

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 Friday evening, I often watch the Shabbat Service from Central Synagogue in NYC.  I expect that if I were a Jew, this worship space would feel like my “home congregation”.  In this time when I can’t attend my own church, it’s often been the space where I could simply be a worshipper.  

This Friday, there was a naming ceremony.  A young trans man, a high-school junior or senior,  was receiving a more appropriate Hebrew name, marking his journey.  In the middle of the blessing, the officiating rabbi’s voice broke.  He’d known the young man all his life, had celebrated his growth into his Jewish faith and also this passage into his deepest identity.  

And yes, on the Trans Day of Visibility, that rabbi, the young man, and indeed everyone watching, knew just how dangerous that young man’s journey is in our world today.  Surrounded by a loving faith community, surrounded by three generations of his family, Cooper Hartog is known now as who he is, and he’s safer in himself.   But living truly as a trans person today is not safe, never safe.

Jesus came into Jerusalem two thousand years ago, surrounded by those who knew him, followed, him, loved him, called him their rabbi, their leader.  They laid on him all their expectations – that he would heal the sick and raise the dead… that he would drive out the despised Romans and reinstitute the beloved rule of the descendants of David.  Some of his followers were already planning their new homes, paid for with the money they’d make in this new day.  On that Palm Sunday, anyone in Jerusalem would have said that surely no one was safer than Jesus of Nazareth.

Five days later, he was dead, executed by the Roman authorities.

Jesus wasn’t executed because he was trans.  But like trans people, his existence challenged every one … not just the folks with whom he disagreed, but even the people who loved and supported him.  His existence challenged them because he called into question their deepest assumptions about right and wrong and ways to be.  And so I want us to understand just how it is that the triumphal entry of Sunday could turn into the execution on Friday.  

People who hate trans folks can come up with, have come up with their reasons, their explanations but I think that one major reason, one they’ll not acknowledge, is exactly the same reason Jesus was arrested.

They challenge, as he challenged, everything. 

Jesus challenged the assumptions of his world.  He challenged the assumption that safety was better than honesty…. that it was better to go along to get along than it was to wash your hands of evil.  He challenged the universal assumption that it’s better to have money and power…. and yes, it is better than starving on the street corner, but he suggested that was a false dichotomy – that it was NOT better to have more than enough than it was to have enough.  He said it was not true that the powerful, the rulers, were better human beings than the poor people who scratched out a living on their teeny-weeny farms.  In fact, he said that God blessed the poor more than the rich.  In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, he said 

. . . it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.

What you have is all you’ll ever get.

And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.

Your  self will not satisfy you for long.

And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games.

There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it

Trans people challenge all our assumptions about gender identity and what it means to be a woman or a man.  They challenge conservative assumptions about the limitations within which women are to live.  Their existence tells us that there is no longer one right way to be, to be male or female, husband, wife… and that scares the stuffing out of people.

Here’s the thing.  The danger that trans people live in?  It’s our danger,  the danger we all live in when we choose to follow God.  The danger that Jesus lived in?  That’s our danger too.  Because following Christ is dangerous stuff.  It’s not just that your friends will scoff when you admit you go to church, though they may.  When I say dangerous, I mean dangerous.

A year or so ago, Shawn Fiedler, who was then one of the pastors on the staff of the Old South Church in Boston, started posting funny videos on Tik-Tok, videos that promoted the welcome of the UCC.  The videos made it clear we welcomed gay people, that we believed in using our minds, that, gasp, we had women as pastors… and people responded.  A lot of folks liked what he was saying.  A lot didn’t.  People used the internet to not just find out where he worked, but where he lived.  He started getting threatening messages.  His family, which does not live in the northeast, started getting threatening messages.  His husband got harassing messages at his job.  Eventually, Shawn shut down his TikTok account.  I don’t know if it’s connected, but he’s now working in fund-raising, for a big church in Chicago.  Maybe he’ll do ministry again; I hope so, he’s one of the most gifted leaders I know.  But standing up for Jesus… it put him, and his family, in danger.  It made him sick.  It made him stop.

Churches are being attacked for sponsoring drag gospel breakfasts and drag library events.  The Loomis Basin UCC in California is being attacked for their support of LGBTQetc people.  They’ve had to stop having in-person worship because it wasn’t safe to be on their property.  

It’s not safe to follow Jesus.  But it’s a good thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.  

One of the questions I’ve been asked the most often throughout my years as a minister is “why does God allow these things to happen?”  You can major in this in seminary – in the study of evil, why it exists, and all that. 

Personally, I’m no big fan of the philosophical answer – that if there were no evil, there would be no good; the theory is something like this:  you need contrast in order to recognize good, better, worse, and so on.  I don’t think the logic of the answer deals adequately with the pain of the reality of evil.  And I am not going to say that the evil of killing trans people exists only so that we can appreciate the good of our world.  

And saying that, well, stuff happens, that can sound like I’ve given up.  Jesus died, well, what did you expect?  The Romans did that sort of thing.  That’s a path that makes it “just one of those things” and robs the life affected of any meaning at all.

Maybe my answer is too simplistic as well, but here’s where I end up – the world was created with the capacity to choose.  That’s it.  That’s the challenge God has placed before us.  God didn’t make it so we had to choose evil.  God made it so we could choose to be good.  

We tell that story in Genesis, framing it as Adam and Eve’s choice to eat an apple…. and then we worry about what kind of apple it was, or if it was an apple at all – when the story is really about the freedom to choose.

Sometimes the choices God places before us seem innocuous – but that’s rarely true.  Sure, some choices are ethically meaningless – shall I have this kind of apple or that kind of apple.  But God’s choices are never ethically meaningless, even as they can be very dangerous.

Do you know these names?  James Chaney?  Andrew Goodman?  Michael Schwermer?  Do you know Jonathan Myrick Daniels?   Eric Liddell?  Dietrich Bonhoeffer?  

Each and every one of those people made choices which put their lives in danger, ethical choices, not always because of their faith, but always because they had a clear vision of what was right and what was not.  They chose to step into danger because it was the right thing to do; they chose to stand up against evil.  They chose to stand up for good.  And each of them died because of their choice.

Cheney, Goodman and Schwermer were murdered in Philadelphia, MS, while working for racial integration. And Jonathan Myrick Daniels was a Episcopal seminarian who died in 1965 protecting Ruby Sales, from a shotgun attack by a county deputy in Alabama,  

Eric Liddell, the runner about whom the movie Chariots of Fire was made, died in a Japanese internment camp during World War 2.  He had chosen to remain in China when the war came, knowing the danger.  Of him, the theologian Langdon Gilkey, who was in the camp with Liddell, wrote: “Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humor and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the choice to fight Hitler, chose between being a traitor to his country or a traitor to his God, and was executed by the Nazis on April 9, 1945, just days before the liberation of his prison camp.  

Jesus stood up for what seemed right, and on that Palm Sunday, it was all fun and games, loud cheers and probably, a feast… but during that week, the reality of the choices Jesus had made, changed the atmosphere.  It’s way easier to cheer someone you think is going to smack down your enemies, especially if you think it might mean you’ll have more money, more power, more prestige. 

We’ll see, as we follow the events of the week, especially on Thursday evening at our Maundy Thursday service, how that worked out.  A lot of Jesus’ followers disappeared during that week

So, what can we take from all this?  Nasty stuff happens.  And how we respond matters.  If you’d been there, in Jerusalem, during that last week, how would you or I have responded?  If someone makes a nasty crack about trans people, where will you be?  The right wing is saying that the Nashville killer was trans and that’s why they killed… trying to whip up fear of trans-people as potential murderers.  Will we stand with Jesus on this, or will we turn away, pretend we didn’t hear the slur, figure we don’t know anyone…. but, of course, we do.

The week starts with joy… but it ends with choices.  What will we choose?  Where do we stand?


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

Gratitude: Looking in the Right Direction

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on March 19, 2023

Scripture:                                                               Romans 12:1-3, The Message Translation

 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for [God]. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what [God] wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.

1 Samuel 13:  1-13  

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 

Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. 

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lordsaid to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lorddoes not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

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.

Years ago, I read Claudia Black’s book It Will Never Happen to Me and my life was changed.  I’d been raised in an alcoholic family.  While I knew that my father was an alcoholic, and I knew I didn’t want to live like that, I had not realized the extent to which that experience had formed, molded, even warped the way I saw the world.  I thought how I experienced things was just who I was, and formed the limitations within which I lived.

Claudia Black’s book changed that perception.  She helped me see that some of the characteristics which had formed & limited my life were not “me” but rather artefacts of my family’s challenges.  That meant, to me, that I could move beyond them, grow into new and better ways of being.

In those days, I often found myself running book displays at church meetings. and talked the book up regularly.  I’d sell maybe 10 or 20 copies at each book fair.   (There are a lot of adult children of alcoholics here in New England.)  I discovered to my astonishment, that for some people the book became for them an excuse to stay where they were instead of a get out of jail card.  

They might simply refuse to acknowledge they’d been raised in alcoholic families — sure, they’d say, everyone drank, but so what?  But mostly, they denied that growing up with one or both parents drunk much of the time had formed their lives in any way:  “Yeah, I was never sure that dad would pick me up, but what’s new about that?  Fathers are unreliable, you know.”

They were locked in a past that still held them captive.  They were terrified about what they might find if they began to really look at their lives, to discover who they might be without those habits and assumptions, and so they pretended that they’d not been affected in anyway by their parents’ drinking.

But, you know as well as I that the what we’ve been raised with can be pretty comfortable even if it is warped, kinda, sorta… and it’s not just those of us raised in alcoholic homes who prefer the familiarity of what we know to the unfamiliar feelings of a life in the light.

Looking backwards, living in yesterday, is such a human temptation.  

When Samuel the prophet went out to find a successor to King Saul, he went looking backwards, hoping to find someone who had the same kind of outward looks, the same height, the same whatever, as Saul, because Saul looked right to be a king.  He looked backwards, even tho history told him that Saul had turned out to not be a good king; he looked the part but he didn’t fill the part.  Samuel’s experience led him to look first at the tallest of Jesse’s sons, the oldest of the sons… and then to work his way down the list, in the traditional fashion, until each and every one that looked like a king had been rejected by God.  Only then did he ask about anyone else.  Only then, did he look upon David. 

Do you remember the story about Jesus healing a blind man – and all the local folks, instead of celebrating, start whining because Jesus not one of them? 

Jesus doesn’t live the right way, do the right things in the right order, doesn’t get permission.  Jesus is looking forward, trying to find answers that fit that day’s problems.  He sees the blind man, today, now, blind, and needing help.  The establishment sees a temptation — sure the guy’s blind, but can’t he wait until tomorrow, until we get the right license, until we do things the way we’ve always done them?  

Judging tomorrow’s capacities by yesterday’s standards is really our default position, and it’s hard, really hard for us to see that we have woken up in a new reality. 

Jesus points us a toward new way to live, a way that is not grounded in living just as we did yesterday, but rather in seeing the reality of the world today.  As a teacher writes:  “even our most cherished practices matter little if they do not facilitate a relationship with the living God.”[1]  Paul tells us that when we live our whole lives as one integrated experience, we can then present that life, our life, to God as a completely acceptable offering.

This is good news.

We don’t have to keep doing what didn’t work before in the vain hope that this time things will change.  

We are free to learn from our experiences – to allow the living Christ to change our lives, to move in new directions.

We are willing to be vulnerable, open to truly seeing one another and our world, and to build a community in Christ’s name that takes everyone’s gifts, skills and future seriously.

We serve a God who loves us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us locked in yesterday. 

Today, I am grateful for the call to look in a forward direction.  


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

[1] David J. Lose, In the Meantime, 3/26/17

Gratitude: It is Enough

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on March 12, 2023

Scripture: Exodus 17:1-7 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” 

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.

Let evening come.  
let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid.  God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

I met Jane Kenyon, the poet who wrote those words, while watching a Bill Moyers special on NPR, almost thirty years ago. It was mostly an accident; I’m a Moyers fan.  I was taken by the idea that both Kenyon and her husband, Donald Hall, were members of the local UCC church; I was not looking for poetry.

Sometimes we really find the most wonderful things by accident.   I intend to go to a poetry reading, wasn’t taking an English course, hadn’t even picked up a book… but there I was, listening to Kenyon, and hearing these words…. let evening come.

I’ve been thinking about the challenge of “enough” for a while now, and I’ve been wondering if all the losses of the past few years, combined with the terror of political life, the challenges of regular life – whatever that might have been – have not just all worked together to make it almost impossible to recognize “enough” even if we tripped over it.  In other words, stress challenges our ability to be satisfied.  Before COVID, I’d have expected that in this kind of stress, we’d yearn for something to be satisfied with, but instead, it seems to me that it’s become harder to see and acknowledge anything good.

I should have known better – I knew the testimony of today’s reading, the story of the journey of the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of a new land…. and how they keep meeting one challenge after another…. and how they keep blaming Moses for everything that’s just not completely and absolutely perfect.  It’s a classic illustration of how stress affects groups, and I just didn’t see it.

In our story, the people of Israel are whining because there’s no water.  Not that they weren’t right to want water, that part made sense.  But in the previous chapter, they’d whined about food, and in the one before that, hadn’t liked the taste of the water.  In other words, the whole journey had been punctuated by the followers complaining to their leader that one thing or another wasn’t right.  Despite God’s promise to provide, they had struggled to trust that promise.  They kept harking back to the past, implying that they were better off in slavery than free and on their own.  

In other words, the enough that was before them was not enough to meet their stress-heightened needs.

Today, I want to talk a little more about enough, because when Pastor Will comes, I’m sure there’s going to be lots of high expectations about what he’ll do, and how quickly he can do it…

The first thing I want to say is that enough doesn’t have to mean enough forever.  More often than not, it’s really about enough for today.  

The second thing I want to say is that enough is not the same as all I want.  It’s not the same as achieving perfection.

And the third thing I want to say is that enough is exactly what it says it is.  Not insufficient, not too much, not overwhelming, not disappointing… but enough.  It is not a call to complacency – so, I have enough, so everything’s fine…. not that, never that.

So, let’s look a little closer at the idea that  enough doesn’t have to mean enough forever.  More often than not, it’s really about enough for today.    Do you remember the line in Matthew where Jesus is talking to folks who are worrying about what will happen next?  It’s part of the Sermon on the Mount, and ends with him saying:  “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Turn that right side up, and it says, don’t look for tomorrow’s good today; today brings good of its own.  In the Lord’s Prayer, which we recite each week, we say give us this day our daily bread.  There we’re asking not for infinite amounts of bread now and forever, all we can stuff down.  We’re asking for bread for the day.  We’re asking for enough.  Just for now, just for today, or just for tomorrow, but just enough.

Enough is not the same as “All I Want”.  I took a few vacation days early this week and made my yearly trip to the Philadelphia Flower Show – for the first time since March of 2020.  the Flower Show is next door to the Reading Terminal Market, which is the greatest public market/food hall in the US.  The Reading Terminal Market is where I finally realized how very German was the food we ate as kids… scrapple and sauerkraut, chicken and gravy, dried beef on toast… maybe not your cup of tea, but nostalgic for sure.  And the RTM is filled with food places…. African food, Moroccan food, Irish food, Mexican, Caribbean, Pennsylvania Dutch, and of course, Philly delicacies like cheese steaks, soft pretzels, hoagies, and Bassett’s Ice Cream.  

The Reading Terminal Market is a place where everyone comes face to face with the difference between “enough” and “all I want”… 

Enough is exactly what it says it is.  Not insufficient, not too much, not overwhelming, not disappointing… but enough.  But not a call to complacency – so, I have enough, so everything’s fine…. not that, never that.

Yesterday, the Daily Devotional from the UCC was about gratitude… written by Lillian Daniel, whom many of us knew when she was the pastor at Church of the Redeemer in New Haven… Lillian wants us to remember that being grateful doesn’t mean being complacent, doesn’t mean blinding ourselves to the continual call to be better, to do better.  She writes: Gratitude in the Christian tradition is not all about you or what you feel. It’s about giving thanks anyway, and keeping alert to the well-being of others.

Enough, the way we’re using it, is a call to understand the essential imperfection of human life.  Last week, a minister wrote in Reformed Journal about his journey from the Christian Reformed Church to the United Church of Christ.  

The article is a wonderful song of love for the theological principles on which we build our way of being Christian.  And when it was shared among other UCC’rs, there was always someone who thought it wasn’t enough… mostly, he wasn’t clear that we often fall short of our own vision for being church.

So, there it is – on the one hand, Lillian reminding us not to be complacent with our gratitude, and on the other hand, an essay reminding us that, however incomplete we are, we are still enough.  That’s the challenge of being grateful for what we have, what we are.  We balance between those two poles….

I think one of the clues to help us keep our balance, between being both grateful and impatient for better and more… is this:  remember that life is imperfect at best.  We will not be judged failures when we do not get everything right  in every thing we do.    Well, at least we won’t be judged failures by God and it’s God who has our deep allegiance.

Give thanks, be grateful, for the progress we’ve made towards being God’s love-based community.  Don’t beat yourself, or others, up for not being as good at this as you wish we were, or they were, or you were.  But take those gaps as guidance on where we need to grow.   Be grateful for enough for today, and even more grateful for the call to a better tomorrow.


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

…the wisdom to know the difference…

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on February 19, 2023

Scripture:Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, [six days after Jesus had prophesied his death and resurrection] Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.  As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. –Reinhold Niebuhr

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.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday.  Every year, at the end of the Epiphany Season, we read this story about a very strange meeting on a mountain top.  This is one of those Bible stories that, at first glance, makes little sense.  It feels like a weird dream sequence, something that follows a wild meal, that maybe is as much a nightmare as anything else.  I mean, look at it – Jesus changes before them?  Instead of clothes, he’s clothed in light, like the brightest of sunny days.  What does that mean?  Peter and James and John think they’re seeing Moses and Elijah, and they’re so fuzzled by their vision that they can only think to make a shelter for each of those great people.  Not one thing that happened on that mountain top made one iota of sense, not to those who were there.

What this story means to us is going to depend on more than what it literally describes.

Because “Transformation Sunday” isn’t really about what shade of white those clothes of Jesus turned into.  And it’s not about the design of the huts, or whether or not there was food, or even if Moses and Elijah were literally there.

Transformation Sunday is about transformation.  It’s not about outward signs; it’s about inward realities.

In the famous Serenity Prayer, UCC pastor and professor Reinhold Niebuhr wrote:  God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  Transfiguration Sunday is a day that’s all about that wisdom to know the difference.

It’s important, this lesson says, to know whether or not you’re focusing on building huts for Moses, or recognizing the holy in your midst.  

It’s not that one is more important than the other; it’s that we need to be clear about which one is which.  Because, you know, it’s a lot less trouble to do concrete things like building huts, than it is to recognize and react to the holy in our midst.  We are called to pay attention to the differences.

This is related to that old saying:  Don’t miss the forest for the trees.  It’s not that the trees aren’t important – they are, and there’d be no forest were there no trees.  But if we can’t see beyond the individual tree, if we don’t allow ourselves to see beyond our own individual experiences, then we’ll miss the meaning of the whole.  Life is about more than me, mine and myself.  It’s also about us and ours, and everyone’s.

Here’s the core of the problem, at least for us.  When we focus on the trees, the day to day, immediate challenges, we are acting as individuals.  What we are not doing is acting as a church.  A church is a group of people who, in covenant with one another, work together.  In this analogy, churches are forests – a group with a common purpose and goal.  When one group goes this way, and the other group goes that way, we are nothing but a bunch of trees.  But to be a church, we need to act as one group, focused on our agreed upon goals… we need to be forests.

Now, we’re Congregationalists.  And an argument can be made that congregationalists, at their foundation are natural trees, almost incapable of acting as forests.  No one’s going to tell us what to do, right?  Well, yeah, kinda, sorta.  but over the centuries we’ve come to understand that you can carry that “everyone for themselves” theory too far.  You may remember Roger Williams, a founder of Rhode Island after he was driven out of Massachusetts?  He’s perhaps the best example – for instance, he believe that only with all parties agree on absolutely everything, can there be a true fellowship.  He woduldn’t even take communion with his wife.  It pretty much illustrates the truth that congregational individualism, taken too far, is a kind of anarchy which destroys community.

But here’s something we maybe don’t pay enough attention to:  one of the reasons we became the United Church of Christ was that we agreed that we are better together… that there’s something wrong with rugged individualism, everyone going their own way.  Working together in covenant with one another – within the church, among the Association’s churches, and in the Conference, is absolutely central to the way we think the world works.  We must work together if we are to be faithful to God.

Most of the time, we think that working together describes our relationships with the other churches of Middlesex Association, the Southern New England Conference and other religious groups here in Middletown. That’s true, but it’s not the whole of it.

Most essentially, working together describes our relationships with one another here in this church, not just how we talk with one another at coffee hour, or prayer time sharing, but also in all the work of this church.  At its best, at its most faithful, we are a team, a forest – a group which plans and works together, not a collection of individual groups, each off doing what they think works best for them.

And now we’ve circled back to the transfiguration which Reinhold Niebuhr points toward… in knowing the difference, knowing what really matters, knowing what we believe as a church about the importance of working together as a team.  Because it’s only as a team, as a community, that we can clearly discern where it is that God is calling us to go.

It’s up to us:  will we be trees, each of us pursuing what we believe is most important?  Or will we, continue to be transformed, transfigured into a forest, coming together, working together to seek and to follow God’s call for our church?  Will this be a Transfiguration Day for us?


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

Choices, Choices

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

1 Corinthians 3:1-3

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 

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.

St. Paul was a loser.  

He says so himself.  It’s right there at the beginning of the first letter to the Corinthians – off to speak to the folks in Corinth and terrified:

            I was unsure of how to go about this, and felt totally inadequate—I was scared to death, if you want the truth of it—and so nothing I said could have impressed you or anyone else. 

The traditions say Paul was a tentmaker, someone who made tents from scratch…probably a lucrative occupation in a world where everyone traveled slowly, where lots of people simply migrated along the food and water supplies with their flocks, and where the motels (well, they called them caravanserais) were not on every block.  So, we might deduce that Paul, in his work with tents, was good at what he did, at least good enough for folks to remember his skill…just as we might well deduce that he was very good at his other occupation – starting religious communities to live in the way of Jesus Christ.

But Paul thought he was a low-talent, poor-speaking nobody.  He hadn’t met Jesus in the flesh, after all.  He was not one of the “elite” living in Jerusalem and running the main organization.

So, you know what should have happened when he stood up and spoke, especially when he spoke to crowds who didn’t want to hear his message.  Their rejection should have destroyed him.  He should have slunk away in shame from his performances.

Instead, he kept on speaking.  Instead, he founded churches all over Turkey and Greece.  Instead, in his letters, he wrote words so powerful they still bring wisdom to our lives today.

The Old Testament lesson . . . is part of Moses’ final words to the children of Israel.  Moses has led them through the desert, led them out of slavery in Egypt, led them through forty years of wandering, and now, as they approach that land, the focus of their hopes and dream, Moses is dying.  He will never reach their goal; he will never see for himself what God has promised.

But he knows that the land toward which they are heading will be easier in so many ways than where they’ve been.  He knows that in this new place, doing things the “easy way” will be baked in.  He knows that, having settled down, it’ll be harder for them to adjust to change, harder to accept that, somewhere along the way, they’ll have to set aside beloved old habits in order to maintain God’s way in this new land.

Who are we?

Some years ago, I was working with a church that had just been through some difficult times.  As part of our work together, we had a Conference person come to help lead us in a conversation about who we are.   She wanted to hear from us as to what we’d been doing, and who we thought ourselves to be.

At one point, she said something like, “well, we all know you’ve been through so much; where are you now?”  Our members responded with what they thought was going on, and the Conference person looked at us and said something like, “you’re not a troubled church; you’re a resilient church.  You folks are survivors.”  

And suddenly the church’s picture of itself turned around.  We’d been the church that had been through several unhappy settlements in a row; we thought we couldn’t keep a pastor.  We’d been the church with a pastor who went to jail.  We were bad at choosing pastors.  But our Conference person heard us talking about all that and what we’d done since, and turned our picture of ourselves on its head.  We were not victims.  We were not losers.  We were resilient; we were survivors.

Back in the day it seemed as though all you needed to do to be a successful church was to call an attractive pastor, preferably one with a wife, two children, a Chevrolet station wagon and perhaps a cocker spaniel dog.  And people came.  Every Sunday, new people came.  They brought their families; the Sunday schools bulged; there were wonderful, life-changing youth programs.  It made us feel like the winners of life.

But today we live in a different world.  It’s not just that hordes of new people are not breaking down the doors to get in –what success means has changed.  It’s no longer about having the best looking pastor, or the forty-member choir.  Today it’s more about how well we build community, how honestly we look at our own strengths and challenges

Who do we want to be?

When I was a small child, my grandmother first exposed me to an ancient Connecticut proverb.. I bet the older folks here learned it too.  Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.  That’s why I have a braided rug fragment that grandma made, using my mother’s wedding suit. 

Of course it’s about more than re-using clothes or recycling this or that.  It’s about how open we are to taking what no longer works and moving in a new direction, one more suited to our current needs.  When we hit a wall in one direction, we cast about for a new way to get to where we want to be, where we think God is calling us to go.

But you know, it doesn’t matter if that’s who we are, or who we can be, if we don’t know it.

For years and years, I had springer spaniel dogs.  You might know that springers get their name because they are capable of springing (jumping) straight up, maybe 3-4 feet, when they’re hunting, to catch sight of the birds.  This means that, at least in theory, most springers are more than capable of springing right onto a kitchen counter.

But they don’t know it.  If they see another dog do it, they’ll try, and succeed.  But even if you train them to jump, like in canine agility, they don’t generalize, and they don’t realize they could get on the counters (thank heavens).

Because they don’t know they can do it, they don’t do it.

St. Paul didn’t know at first that he was a great thinker, a great speaker, a great leader.  But faced with new opportunities, he took a chance, gathered up his courage, and grew into what was needed for this new time and place.

How are we doing that today?  What choices will we make, going forward?  How will we grow into what’s needed in today’s world  to help people learn about a this way of life?

How will we proclaim justice?  Practice mercy?  Live inclusively? Be open to new ways of understanding?  Share and spread God’s love in all our days?


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

Restoring Our Flavor

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on January 29, 2023

Isaiah 58:1-12 :  Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,  to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and [God] will say, Here I am. 

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,  if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,  then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.  The Lord will guide you continually,  and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. 

Matthew 5:13-20:  “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.   “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

In the middle of last month, I was reading the travel tips column in the Washington Post and came across an essay written by someone who flies, a lot.  He wrote:

Flying economy can be a nightmare. There are few, if any, ways around this. When you’re in the air as much as I am, you have to scratch and claw for every ounce of satisfaction — not to mention humane treatment.

With my frequent flier status on our side, even my traveling companion can benefit. We can enter the lounge together and enjoy a few drinks in a comfortable environment; we can check our bags for free; and we can board the plane early, securing invaluable overhead space. Sometimes, we can even both be upgraded to first or business class. But if there’s one seat available and I’m the next in the line, I’m sorry, but I’m taking the seat and leaving you behind in economy.

I’ll send you back a freebie drink or two if I can — I’m not a monster — but if there’s an opportunity for a lie-flat business bed, I’m jumping on it without hesitation and putting myself down for a night’s rest. See, I had to earn that airline status, and there’s no easy way to do it. I log hundreds of thousands of flight miles every year to climb that ladder. It’s my blood, sweat and tears (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration), which has me rocking double Delta Diamond and United 1K status, and I very much intend on using the upgrades I’ve amassed.

. . . . I empathize with your discomfort, I truly do. But that’s all the more reason I should alleviate my own instead of suffering beside you. There’s no honor in being miserable together for the sake of it.

[Jake Emen:   1/16/23]

Think about this:  He says — There’s no honor in being miserable together for the sake of it.  So, if I get a chance to better myself, I’m leaving you behind… hey, I’m paying for the tickets.

It’s times like this when I wish they’d bring back that British tv series “Walks With My Dog”…. just 45 minutes with some vaguely recognizable British tv star and his or her dog, walking around rural England.  It seemed like every episode ended with the two of them at the pub or the ice cream strand.  No fights, no arguments, just peaceful, quiet, low-key stuff, and the most beautiful photography.

No one on Walks with my Dog ever says “me first” and I’ll share if there’s any left over (well, maybe the dog thinks that…..)

But Walks with my Dog isn’t real life, is it?  I don’t know that it ever was life, but if it was, it’s not these days.  These days, our world’s more like the one the traveler describes…. I’ll take care of myself, and if there’s an extra bag of peanuts, I’ll pass it back to you.

There’s such a strong temptation to just close our eyes to what’s going on.  It’s tiring to live with endless selfishness, with constant conflict, and just one thing after another.  We can close our eyes, we can unsubscribe from the news, but it’s still there.  Turning our backs doesn’t solve anything.

Now, I’m not talking about the respite times we all need – the 24 hours without media, or the day trip to the beach, or time with a good book.  Those times are intended to help us regroup, recharge and re-enter the struggle.  But sometimes we just want to step away, not just for a moment, but forever.  And if we step away, it means the meanies in our world win.  

So, today I want to remind you that what we’re doing is the most important thing in the world.   

We are engaged, as Christians,  in the struggle to loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free… to house the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and strengthen our family and community ties.  And in the doing of that, we are the salt that brings savor to all of life.

We’re working to make a difference for people who have no power on their own.  We’re working to build a community based on God’s love for all the world.  We’re working to end hatred and war; we’re working to bring justice to our land.

This is hard work.  It’s tiring.  Sometimes it feels as though we’re making no progress at all.  But it is absolutely worth our time and effort.

Here’s the second thing:

What we’re doing is making a difference.  Sure, we can’t see it all that well, and yes, sometimes it feels more like we’re headed backwards.. but that’s only true if we see things in the short haul.  When we look back and remember where we were not all that long ago –we can begin to see that we do indeed make change.  Just think about the changes we’ve made here in Middletown:

Today, we care about issues of racism, and we act to change the way racism still affects our society.  Fifty years ago, we couldn’t bring ourselves to act to change the restrictive real estate practices of our city.

Today, we are a fellowship based on our common commitment to build community and change the world.  Fifty years ago, we were a place to see and be seen.  Then, belonging to this church said that you mattered; today it says you love God and want to make a difference.

Our lives as Christians are built on a platform of love.  

As Christians, we are called to live lovingly. 

We are called to turn away from anger, to reject contempt.

We are called to actively stand up for love.

We are called to know the truth, for with the truth, we will be free.

Go now, in love.


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

What Makes a House a Home?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on January 29, 2023

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same

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.

Did you ever hear the story of how your parents met?  Maybe they met in the hospital nursery where they were born?  Or took a class together in high school or college?

Mine – and this is so stereotypical – met at a wedding.  His cousin was marrying her friend.  They were both in the wedding party, and the rest is history….  not so important to many, but immensely important to my brother and to me – because it was the beginning of our family, the foundation of our home.

Homes are so very important to each of us.  It might be a childhood home, or a grandparents’ place – or a summer cottage on a lake somewhere.  For some of us, maybe those of us who moved over and over as children, the home of our hearts is a place like Silver Lake, or a college or grad school. Sometimes that home is our church.  And sometimes terrible things happen to our homes.

In April of 1967, for the members of South Congregational UCC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, home was a yellow brick building on the corner of Madison and Alger.  It was built on the same plan as Faith Lutheran Church, up on Washington St.  Freshly built, they’d poured their hearts into it.  And then one night, while the youth group was meeting in the basement, a tornado came through.  You can see what happened to their home on the cover of the bulletin.  It was a devastating experience for them; it wasn’t just the worship space that was destroyed.  When I came as their pastor in 1999, they were still struggling to deal with it, even though they had completely rebuilt the structure immediately.  Thirty or more years later, they lived as though their home was dead.

When my seminary sold its campus in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, and moved to New Haven, Connecticut to nest in with the Yale Divinity School, for a lot of the alumni/ae, it felt as though the parents had sold their home out from underneath them.  We were deserting Massachusetts, choosing New Haven over Boston… how could that be?  For oh so many reasons, people were really angry.  As someone whose parents moved often enough that I attended three high schools in four years, I totally understand where they came from.

My classmates didn’t think that home could be anywhere other than on a steep hill in Newton, MA.  But over the past five years, as we’ve moved and settled in, we have all learned that while the buildings are different, the community is the same.  We’ve learned something I don’t think the folks I knew in Michigan ever really were able to get comfortable with.  We learned that it wasn’t the place, as much as we loved it, that really made us who we are; we learned that it was the community.  And the community continued.

The place changed, the people changed, but the community was the same.  It was still our home, but now in a new and different house.

Building community is what we do.  It’s the call of Christians everywhere.  The scholars tell us that building community is one of the necessary components of human life.  Without community we would not be human.

But what does it mean to be that community?  What does it mean to make a home?  What makes a house a home?  And, what makes a church building become a community?  The theologian Miroslav Volf describes what makes for community in his recent book The Home of God….   He’s trying to describe the place God resides, what we might call heaven, and ends up describing what we mean by church.  I’ve pasted part of his explanation in the bulletin; if you like it, and want to read more, the book’s available on Kindle as well as in bookstores.

Now, Volf is a theologian, and he’s talking about God, even so, what he’s talking about makes sense for us as well.  He says homes are places where we have  resonance with one another, where we build attachments with one another, where we feel as though we belong, and where there is mutuality of relationship.

In my first church, in Raymond, Maine, we had a member who always greeted people at the door.  Horace was maybe the most extroverted person I’ve ever met; for sure, he had a real gift for getting to know people in a minute or two.  But he didn’t stop there.  Once he knew you were from Chicago, he’d find someone in the church who was also from there – or had a child living there or some other connection and he’d introduce you to each other.  He was a genius at making connections between newcomers and long-time folks.  That’s resonance, the first step in building community, in turning the house into a home.  

Now, we all know it’s not enough just to know that other people in the room share your love for whatever.  That’s a beginning, and the next step builds on that.  You love ballet, I love ballet, let’s go together to the ballet.  Or in church, you want to be in a welcoming church , I want to be in a welcoming church, let’s work together on making that happen.  Let’s have lunch and talk about life.  Let’s take those beginning connections and build a friendship.  That’s Volf’s attachment.

Let’s build a place where all belong.  We’ve sung the new Marty Haugen hymn, All Are Welcome:   “Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live….”.  Belonging, Volf says, is a major part of building a random group of people into a community.\

Belonging means this is my place too.  It’s not someone else’s community where I’m welcome.  This is my community, and yours, and ours together.  Maybe, in church, that means we know where we’re going to sit each week, and we leave a back cushion there, or hide a cache of cough drops in the pew cushions.  But it always means we know a place, a physical space, where we are known, welcomed and where we belong.  

But there’s more.  Community means looking out for one another, keeping an eye out, offering a friendly smile, protecting one another from nastiness, and so on. The final category, mutuality, means that we all take part, that we are a place, a group, where all participate.  It’s not all you give, I take, not organized just for the benefit of one group.

You can build this community anywhere.  You could build community into the Chester County Dairy Calf Club – the 4H group I belonged to when I lived in Pennsylvania (and we did – girls sitting together and planning our feed program for our calves during lunch hour), but we here are trying to build a different kind of community.  Our community is based on, built out of, the principles of the Beatitudes, of today’s lesson.  Our community is intended to be a place where we care about the poor, those who are struggling with physical, mental or spiritual issues.  We’re working to be a place which comforts those who mourn, who work for justice.  We aim to be peacemakers in our world.  And we are determined not to allow the persecutions of this world stop us from doing what we can to make this world of ours a home, not just a house, but a home, for all people.

When we do this, intentionally, we make this place, this gathering of people, into a home with God in our midst, and when we do that, in the joy it gives us, in the comfort with which we are strengthened, we become a little outpost of heaven, we become what God has truly made us to be.

When we do this, intentionally, we become a place we can bring our pain or confusion about what’s happening in our world.  

When we do this, intentionally, we become a place where our strength is gathered to reach out into our community.  

When we do this, intentionally, we become a little out post of God’s intended world.  We become  home for one and for all.


© 2023, Virginia H. Child