Growing into God

A sermon preached at the United Parish of Upton, MA on August 16, 2015

Proverbs 9:1-6         Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. . . .

Ephesians 5:15-20   Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise. . .

What is it that makes life worth living? How do we find value in what we do with our lives? All of us would love to think that what we do makes a difference in the world, but that’s not where many of us end up. For every person whose research saves lives, there’s a pile of people processing mindless pots of paperwork for some faceless organization. And even in the most rewarding work in the world, there will be days when nothing goes the way we expect.

It’s not a new problem. From the very first, we’ve wondered what it is that makes life worthwhile. Is it money? How about a great car? A good-looking spouse? Any spouse? Well-behaved children? A powerful job? Fame?

If we followed that line of thought, we’d have to think that Tom Brady has the most worthwhile life of anyone in Massachusetts – all that money, nice car, beautiful wife, lovely children … and, oh yes, some problems with the NFL? Even the greatest sometimes have cause to wonder what’s worthwhile.

Back in the day, eons ago when the book of Proverbs was assembled, folks asked those same questions. They began to collect their answers, the words of wisdom which gave them comfort when everything else fell apart. They began to describe a way of life. Instead of getting, it focused on giving. Where we thought about life “me” first, it calls us to see the world as “we” oriented.

Folks began to collect ideas that worked for them.. . . the sorts of things that, today, would end up as Facebook memes: Trust in the Lord; raise your children in the way they should go; the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; pride goes before destruction; a soft answer turns away wrath.

All those proverbs are built on a foundation of intentionality, a sense that the good life, the wise life, doesn’t happen by chance, but is the result of deliberate choice. There is a structure to the wise life; it’s not hodgepodge, it’s not casual, happenstance, but – at it’s most powerful – it is a very intentional way of living.

There’s always a tension in life between me and us, between what we want and what’s right – for us, for our world.  We could say we often find ourselves captive to a desire to take the easy road.

Look at the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt. They were promised freedom. In Egypt they were oppressed by their captors, worked unto death, kept from raising their own children and generally treated as if they were unimportant, disposable, not-quite-human, slaves.

And then came Moses…. the secret son of two Israelites, raised in an Royal Egyptian household, a man who fled to the desert after killing an Egyptian — and a man supremely unsure of his worthiness for the job. And God called Moses to lead the people of Israel out of their captivity in Egypt, into the Promised Land of milk and honey, where they assumed that everything would be great.

It turned out, of course, that getting to the land of milk and honey was somewhat more challenging than walking from here to the Sooper. . . in fact, as it ended up, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before coming into their promised land. . . and Moses himself died before they got there. More than once in the journey, the Israelites pled to go back to Egypt. “Better to be a slave,” they said, “than to die here in the wilderness!”

Now you would think that this would have been a simple decision — stay in Egypt and be beaten to death or journey in the desert to something better — but the rigors of searching for the better made the bad look awfully good.

They wanted to substitute safety, comfort, the familiar, for the challenges, maybe even the prickly edges of the desert march.

The story of the Exodus is much more than just a literal history of the escape of a band of nomads from slavery – it is the story of each of us seeking to be free of what enslaves us, seeking our own land of milk and honey, of each of us seeking a life of wisdom.

Most of us are not in captivity to people who force us to make bricks without straw, at least not in the literal sense. At the same time, the story of those laborers, beaten because they couldn’t do the work for which they were unequipped, seems awfully familiar. We know what it’s like to be asked to do the impossible and then punished because we haven ‘t succeeded, and we know what it’s like to be caught in the middle between the demanding higher-up, and the underling who can’t produce.

Most of us aren’t in captivity to the desire to run back into the burning house, or even to a literal Golden Calf, but some of us know how challenging it can be to deal with an abusive personal relationship in a healthy way, and we know for sure how tempting it is to make ourselves substitute the outward signs of success for the inward reality of success.

We have our own Egypts, and we are in captivity to them as surely as the Israelites were in captivity to Pharaoh. Like those long-ago Israelites, we too are fleeing captivity and fleeing captivity isn’t easy.

Now, why is that? What makes it so hard to move from the bad to the good?

Well the Israelites make it clear that one problem is simply that the bad is familiar while the good is unknown….and that, no matter how bad the familiar is, there’s a certain amount of comfort there, and a certain amount of risk in leaving the familiar for the unknown.

Yet another problem is that, often, when we try to step out in a new direction, we have to leave behind something we loved in order to get somewhere we can only vaguely see. Change, growth, has it’s good side, but it also means losing something – often something we loved and cherished.

We trade in soft, snuggly, sleeping toddlers for challenging teens with their own ideas… it’s exactly what we want – children who are growing into thoughtful, perceptive adults, but it costs us the simple comfort of that limp sleeping child.

This way of wisdom is expanded upon by Jesus Christ. In his life, his ministry, we see the wise life lived out.

There’s a way of living prepared for us, the way of wisdom, personified by Jesus Christ. It’s a way which helps us move from finding value in what we have to finding it in who we are.

There’s no doubt that taking up the life of wisdom can be a challenge. Jesus himself acknowledged that when he called us to “take up our crosses” and follow him. There’s no 4 lane super-highway to satisfaction, as if we could just follow a map and get there, but there is a guide — Paul writes that we are called to let love be genuine, to hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good, and is outlining for us the true path of wisdom.

The Israelites moved to a new physical place, but for most of us, the journey to a life built on wisdom takes place right here and right now, as we re-focus our lives on a different set of values, on values which build a world of peace and justice, values which express a love for all of creation.

God calls us saying, don’t let the difficulty daunt, don’t let the lure of the familiar hold you back, but let go of that which holds you captive and step out in faith for the promised land, and I will be with you, guiding you with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. You will never be alone; you are my people and I am your God. Come, now, and follow me.

Amen.

What Does Success Look Like?

You’d think it would be easy to identify a successful church. Pews packed; parking lot overflowing; crib room stuffed to the gills, right? But. . . we who do interim ministry are all too familiar with the church which dramatically loses members after a beloved pastor leaves. It turns out that those pews were packed with people who were worshipping their pastor, and when he/she left — so did the parishioners. So, while successful churches are likely to be filled on Sundays, those packed pews are not the primary sign of success.

A few years ago, a colleague was called to a neighboring church as interim. The church was happy, and anticipated a brief and cheerful interim. But the interim named some things that everyone would rather had been swept under the carpet. A fight ensued, half the congregation walked out the door, the interim was fired. A failure, you’d say? Sure, except that the next settled pastor says the church would not be in the healthy place it now is, save for that interim’s naming truths everyone wanted to ignore. Sometimes, success looks like failure.

Recently I worked with a church which loves its secretary. You’d hope, of course, that every church would love its secretary, but I’m not so sure any more that’s a good idea. Loving has all those overtones of “my secretary, right or wrong,” And this secretary – a charming, kind-hearted person – was neither competent at the ordinary tasks of a church secretary nor reliably present at the appointed time and place. The church recognized her shortcomings but they loved her, and so covered her work themselves. But is loving our employees, even in their incompetence what God asks of us?

I’ve come to believe that success, church-style, is about more than happy campers, more than packed pews, more than a kindly acceptance of “good enough”. That’s not the kind of life to which Jesus calls us.

Jesus calls us to a life of courage; a life of vision; a life committed to giving our best at all times and in all places.

It takes courage to step into the new, to turn away from the habitual, to risk failure and condemnation.

It takes vision to recognize the ways the world has changed, and to imagine how we might adapt and adopt to serve our world.

It takes commitment to move from “good enough” to “excellence”, to recognize that it is not kind, not loving, to encourage mediocrity.

Sometimes that means folks won’t be happy, that the pews will thin out, but more often, it means that people will be focused, that they’ll be glad to be there, and energized by the opportunity to serve God.

There’s No Guarantee

There’s No Guarantee?

A sermon preached at the First Church of Christ, Congregational UCC, Bethany CT on Nov 2, 2014

1 John 3:1-3

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are

Matthew 5:1-12 — You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.  You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘carefull,’ you find yourselves cared for. You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable.  You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

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.

Really this day is all about what’s really important.  That’s it, nothing else.

What’s more important?  that we be wealthy, or that there be peace on earth?

What’s more important?  that we have nice new clothes every year, or that our children go to college?

What’s more important?  that we be comfortable, or that no one gets chased down the street with a baseball bat because of their race, or who they love?

What’s more important?  that we have, or that we give?

What’s more important?

I don’t know how many funerals I’ve done over the years, but a lot.   I’ve done funerals for folks so poor we all just contributed – even the funeral director took no fee. And I’ve done funerals for folks with enough money to visit the Antarctic every year.  In all those years, I have never heard anyone eulogized for the amount of money they earned, or the size of their home, or the number or model of their cars. No one praised them for being Yale grads, or sending their kids to the Hopkins School or maybe up to the Taft School. At a funeral, we don’t talk about that kind of thing; we talk about the love that was shared. We talk about the joy given; we talk about generosity, kindness, creativity; we talk about love.

In our Gospel reading, we heard Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. He said not a word about being blessed when we put aside for ourselves, or indulged our own desires. He said we are blessed when we are content with who we are.  We are blessed when we care.  We are blessed when we’ve worked up a good appetite for God.

What’s more important?  What we have? Or what we give?

This is an enormous comfort:  few of us have the resources to make that sort of big, spectacular difference in the world that we imagine would be mentioned at a funeral, or that we read about in an obituary. But all of us have the resources to use our life up in love, in faith, in kindness, in generosity.

Today is Ingathering Sunday; this is one of the opportunities God gives us, both to give of our substance, to pledge our financial resources to the support of this outpost of God’s church.

This church is an essential part of our community.

When people are in need, we are here.

When people mourn, we are here.

When people are in despair, we are here.

When we need strength, guidance, love, time with God, we are here.

This church is important.

It’s not about history; sure, this is a historical building, but it’s not our history that makes us important.

It’s not about beauty; sure, this building is beautiful, but it’s not our beauty that speaks to those in need.

It’s not about our beloved memories; sure the building is filled with them. You all look over where Bernie Mozealous used to sit and it’s as if she’s right there, but it’s not our memories that makes us important.

More than a pool of memories or a picture of olden times, this church is a living, breathing fellowship, made up of people who have pledged their lives and their resources to sharing God’s love with Bethany and the world.

We are not about yesterday; we are about tomorrow.  And your money makes tomorrow happen.

Giving our money to this church doesn’t convey any guarantee.  It won’t give you a perfect life.  It won’t insure there’ll be no terrible snow storms this winter.

We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. But what we can say is that, with God, your gifts, offered generously, offered hopefully, offered lovingly, will allow us to continue in a path towards whatever will be.  Your gifts are tangible signs of love.

And love is what is most important.

What matters most?

Faithfulness.

Presence.

Energy.

Money.

Hope.

And above all, love.

Because we are, when you get right down to it, the adopted children of of a loving God. We love, because God first loved us. Beloved, let us love our world.

Worship Resources

When I look for worship resources, I’m particularly drawn to those created by other denominations.  Along with the actual content, they give me a sense of other ways to live out our common faith.  Lately, I’ve been using BOOK OF COMMON ORDER from the Church of Scotland.  It’s filled with lovely Celtic prayers, and gives a good sense of Scottish Presbyterianism.

I’ve also been studying the ELCA’s EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN WORSHIP: PASTORAL CARE.  It’s a collection of worship services and resources for Communion, Baptism, Ministry in Sickness and Health, Ministry at the time of Death, Marriage, and miscellaneous other pastoral occasions.  As well, it has a collection of Bible readings and psalms, all NRSV.

Both books are well-made.  The ELCA is a flexible faux-leather book with ribbon markers.  The Scottish book also has ribbon markers, but is a more traditional hardbound book.  Both are pocket-sized.

Planning Worship

I spent the morning in the office, mostly working on the usual Monday morning suspects:  passing messages on to Susan, our secretary, making sure we’ll have certificates for our Scholarship recipients next week, and visiting with parishioners who stopped in the office.  And, by the end of the morning, I had the worship bulletin for Saturday’s memorial service completed and approved by the family.  Email sure makes doing that so much easier!

This afternoon, I worked on planning out the worship services for the rest of June, July and August.  I now have scriptures chosen, titles for all the sermons, hymns to go with them (did that last week!), and services roughed out.  And the services for the next two weeks are completed.  All that took up about four hours.

This is the sort of work best done at home, where I have all my books and other resources.

 

A pastor’s work is . . .

I’m part-time at the church I serve; we plan for me to be there on Sundays, half-days on Mondays and Wednesdays, maybe a half-day on a Tuesday, and a full day of writing and planning done at home.  It’s a nice plan, but this was a week where the plan didn’t really work out at all.  And Monday was Memorial Day!

After church on Sunday, I went to visit Ernie and his family at the CCU of our local hospital.  He’d had a bad heart attack… and died on Tuesday evening.  Tuesday afternoon, I attended a planning meeting for an ecumenical Vacation Bible School, and we began talking about an ecumenical service for the 10th anniversary of 9-11.  On Wednesday, I arranged for a substitute to attend a board meeting in my place, visited with Ernie’s family and then attended a meeting of the Search Committee and after that meeting, helped a couple of members find our new web site.  On Thursday I had several conversations with members of another family, planning a memorial service for their mother, for later in the month.  It was late on Friday before I was able to get to studying the texts for Sunday.  Saturday, we had Ernie’s memorial service — a wonderful service for a wonderful man.  In the meantime the guest speaker who was to lead a program on Sunday was interviewing one of our members and studying our historical records.  I finished my sermon about 10pm Saturday night.

Not all weeks are so full.  Usually I get worship planned by Monday, and the sermon mapped out by Wednesday.  But this has been one of those times which happen from time to time in all churches — Ernie’s was the third funeral in about a month and we still have three parishioners in varying places of needing pastoral care.  Taking care of those more urgent needs puts a pastor behind on the more administrative-looking stuff.  Getting everything in, while keeping to a part-time calendar can be a challenge.

Oh, and did I mention the molar which suddenly needed dental attention?  Or the sore shoulder which is resistant to the urging of my physical therapist? Or that dratted trigger finger — both annoying and painful?  Any one is no biggie – but all three at one time?  Well, let’s just say that when you can’t use your left shoulder or your right hand, some things become more challenging!

Through all of this, I’m impressed by the way in which our fellowship extends its love to those in need.  And by their flexibility when the less urgent just doesn’t get done.  That’s one of the great characteristics of the small church, I think.  We’re less likely to be consumed with delusions of perfection.  And I’m grateful for the rest of my life — for the time I get to spend in study and fellowship  with friends from the church where I have my membership, and for the time I spend making music.

God has blessed our church, and God has blessed me.

The Last Full Measure . . .
A sermon preached at the Congregational Christian Church of Somerset MA on May 29, 2011

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 I want to talk about death and dying, about heroes and the rest of us — about the real importance of life and why we remember on Memorial Day.

But to get there, I need to step back a little and put “me” in context. As a child I lived in southeastern Pennsylvania and every day on the school bus we passed a historical marker that proclaimed that the Battle of the Brandywine had been fought there on September 11, 1777. I lived on that battlefield. Our house had been there; my father’s boss’s home was General Howe’s headquarters. The battle was fought in two locations along the Brandywine — first near the Quaker meeting I attended, and second on the grounds of my elementary school in Chadds Ford.

The pews of our Quaker meeting had strange dark stains on the wood and we all believed they were from blood shed when the meeting house served as a hospital for soldiers – British and American – who were wounded in the battle. We thought the blood of the Marquis de Lafayette, who had been wounded and treated there marked the wood. And we knew that not every soldier treated there made it home. There was a mass grave behind the Meeting House for those who died that day.

And when I went to school, we all looked forward to recess because it wasn’t that uncommon for us to find bullets in our playground during elementary school recess, or maybe a uniform button. Our school overlooked the banks of the Brandywine, just above the ford. That battle — and it’s cost — were part of our day to day life.

My first lesson was that war kills.

[for more info on the Battle, go to http://www.ushistory.org/brandywine/thestory.htm and here’s a link to my Friends Meeting: http://www.birminghamfriends.org/%5D

No school child in southeastern Pennsylvania goes without trips to Valley Forge, and even Gettysburg. And it’s not possible to visit Valley Forge — to stand in one of those miserable little huts — and not realize how bitterly cold and unpleasant service there must have been. We heard about he Battle of Trenton, and then drove through Trenton. The history of war in our country was not academic to us; the ground on which war was waged was familiar territory.

Later I served as a recruiter for the US Marines in the commonwealth of Virginia; as I traveled over the state, I kept bumping into the Civil War…. the road sign that said “Welcome to Appomattox” startled me one day; the next I might pass a church in the Shenandoah Valley that still had bullets in its walls.

Now, Virginia is one of our most beautiful states (and I don’t say that just because I was named for the state). Driving its roads was a privilege and pleasure, so you can understand that I was shocked one day to come across a bare and barren section — it looked like the least profitable and most unthrifty land I’d ever seen, just scraggly bushes and thin trees. As I drove down the road I saw a historical marker – “This is the site of the Battle of the Wilderness”. And a wilderness is what it was. Almost 30,000 soldiers, Union and Confederate, died there in three days of fighting in May of 1864. I was told that even today, wanderers on the battlefield come across the skeletal remains of soldiers. The land has never fully recovered. [http://www.civilwar.org/photos/galleries/wilderness/wilderness-battlefield.html]

You can see the same kind of deadness in the land at forts along the trench lines in France, still recovering almost 100 years after the end of World War I.

War kills more than just the people who fight in it.

Now the Civil War was part and parcel of my family’s store of stories, mostly because my grandparents, who were born in the 1880s, knew people who’d fought in the war. Some of those folks lived long lives. When I was no more than 8 or 9, I met my aunt Florence Paine; she must have been over 90 then. But what impressed me was that she was the widow of a Civil War soldier. Later, when I heard the rest of the story, I was even more impressed. Aunt Florence’s husband was just over 20 when he went to war; captured, he was imprisoned in a vile place in Richmond, Virginia. At war’s end he was released and went home to Connecticut, seemingly unaffected. But in 1910 or thereabouts, newly married to Florence, his doctor delivered bad news. His blood pressure and heart were now so bad, he could not ever leave his house again. He was to be in bed confinement for the rest of his life. John left a note; he could not face another confinement and so he walked out one more time into the fields and shot himself.

I learned that war kills, but not every victim dies on the battlefield.

I spent seven and ½ years in the US Marine Corps, working most of the time with men who’d fought in places like Guadalcanal or Iwo Jima, men who’d make the hard march back from the Chosin Reservoir. They never talked about their wars, never boasted about their Navy Crosses or Bronze Stars. The only medals they ever talked about were what the Korean War vets called their “Chinese Marksmanship Medals” — their Purple Hearts. Every once in a while some civilian would ask about what they’d done, or call them “killers” as if they were complimenting them, and my colleagues would treat them with the condescension such insensitivity deserves.

Many came home from those wars relatively unscathed, like Don Gray, whom I buried yesterday. But everyone offered their lives, just as those who died did. They knew no more what that might mean, what the pain and horror of war was, what it did to them to kill someone, but they went and served, and died, all too often.

My friends and fellow Marines would have cringed in embarrassment to be called heroes, for they thought they had done nothing more than their duty. Over the years, I’ve absorbed their attitude. It’s not that there aren’t genuine heroes around. There are. But serving your country isn’t a privilege of the heroic; rather it is the responsibility of the everyday citizen. Heroes exist to inspire us — in an odd way, if we say that simple service makes one a hero, we flatten out the truly heroic — and lose the inspiration they can offer us. The real bravery is that, heroes or not, men and women sign up and go off to serve, to run the risk of death.

Memorial Day is a time set aside to honor those who gave the last full measure of devotion. (Abraham Lincoln) We are here in church to honor them in our faithful living — not with flags or pledges of allegiance as will be done by our Town ceremonies. Those ceremonies are important, but they are not our part of the observance. Rather it is for us to remember that every life is important, that the best Christian response to the horror of war is the building of peace.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” and the author of First Peter points out that if you suffer for doing what is right you will be blessed. I take it from those two lessons that our actions may be right — or not — and that love is essential to faithful living. So we are all witnesses to the importance of peace.

We fight when we must; we honor those who die in our protection and we struggle to remove the causes of conflict, knowing full well that it is not always going to be possible. And yet we try. because war kills people. War kills the land. War destroys civilizations.

No soldiers dies to make more war. Every Marine dies to bring peace. Let us therefore honor their sacrifice by continuing their struggle. Let us re-dedicate our lives to the spread of peace everywhere.

As Abraham Lincoln said:
…with malice toward none,
with charity towards 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 orphan
to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasing peace among ourselves
and with all nations.
[Second Inaugural Address 3/4/1865]

Amen.

© 2011, Virginia H. Child

Fools Rush In

A Sermon preached at the Congregational Christian Church of Somerset UCC, Somerset, MA, on February 6, 2011

Scripture Readings:  I Corinthians 2: 1-12; Psalm 112: 1-9; Matthew 5: 13-20

. . . .among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish.  But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.. . .

“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.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is one of those pieces of Scripture which looks to have depths of meaning — all that talk about the wisdom of God and the foolishness of humanity — tells us there’s more to this being a Christian than is easily apparent, or commonly accepted.  And so there is.

God calls us to a life of holy foolishness, to a life of doing things that others consider foolish or odd.  Taking your money and giving it to this church — now that’s something many outside our doors would think foolish.  And then taking that money and giving a goodly part of it to people in need.  Even more people would think us foolish to give away what we could so easily use for ourselves.  But we believe God calls us to such foolishness.

Most of my music friends think I’m foolish to get up on Sunday morning and go to church.  They think it makes much much more sense to sleep late, read the paper, maybe, maybe go to the local coffee shop, eat brunch with their friends, take the day for themselves alone.  If they think of God at all, they figure God will understand how stressful their lives are and how important it is for them to take care of themselves first.

And I think they’re foolish– but they think I am.

The foolishness of God leads us to do things our friends and neighbors think distinctively odd.

Of course, some of us who follow the Christian way do do things that are at least odd.  Young people who could be lawyers and make good money hear a call from God to go into a ministry where they’ll be lucky to be able to send their children to their own alma mater — or older folks, hearing the same call, use their retirement fund to pay for their seminary education and contemplate and old age with very limited options.

That can look foolish to not only our friends, but to us, I guess.  I’d bet that at least some of the first missionaries to go overseas from here had family members who thought they had made some odd decisions.

Those folks who choose to follow God full time, however, are not the run-of-the mill oddities of the Christian way of life.  We do what we do, and it is necessary, but it’s not the core of the faith.  If there were no clergy there would still be a faith, and a church community, and it’s in that community that the most foolish actions of our Christian faith take place.

The most radical practioners of the Christian way are ordinary, every day people doing what seems right and proper in their eyes, putting aside their own needs and wants to help others, or offering a hand when its needed. . . . and of all the radical things we do, individually, and as  church, none is more radical than the one we are about to do this morning.

in communion, we make visible God’s welcome of everyone:  no matter who you are….or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.

It’s not the eating that’s radical.  It’s the part where everyone is welcome.  This is the real hidden mystery of our faith:  everyone one welcome.

Think about it.  We all have friends who like us, and welcome us into their presence.  And I’d bet we all have people know who don’t much like us (and whom we don’t much like) in whose presence we (and they) would be uncomfortable.  Nice enough folks, in their way, but their way isn’t our way.  Maybe it’s just that they’re Yankees fans in a Red Sox world, or the only Democrat in a family of Republicans and  — in either case — seem to think that it’s needed that everyone agree they’re right in their fixed opinion.   No matter, you might invite them to dinner, but you wouldn’t expect to enjoy the experience.

And then there’s the next level — those folks in whose company you’re uncomfortable for a good reason… loud mouths, filthy conversation, convicted thief, mistreats a parent, cheats on a spouse… or those folks around whom we’re uncomfortable, and uncomfortable that we’re uncomfortable — the homeless, those who don’t have clean clothes or opportunities to bathe, maybe someone whose speech is not understandable, or who has what we think of as an communicable disease.  And finally there are those folks who for reasons known only to you are not welcome at your dinner table.

But all of them, all of them, are welcome here.  You might think that God would only welcome those who show the outward signs of effective faith — those special people we all admire for their love, their generosity, their devotion.  But God does not restrict that welcome only to the “deserving” faithful. God welcomes those who know all the answers and those who are sure there are no answers.  God welcomes those who trust and those who doubt.  God welcomes everyone to this table.

In the old movie “Places in the Heart”, it’s Depression-era cotton country Texas, a land filled with bigotry and the Klan.   The first thing that happens in the movie is murder of the white sheriff by a young black man who is then lynched by the citizens of the community. In the last scene, we’re in church on a communion Sunday.  The tray of bread is passed from hand to hand.  The grieving widow offers the tray to the black hired hand who helped save the farm and he passes it along to the blind guy who rents a room.  The betrayed wife offers the bread of heaven to her cheating husband.  And, in the back of the room, the dead sheriff offers bread to the man who killed him.

God welcomes everyone to this table.

And that’s the radical core of our faith…. that everyone is welcome.

Amen.

© 2011 Virginia H. Child

 

 

 

 

Living Our Faith

Scripture Readings:  Micah 6: 1-8, Psalm 15, Matthew 5: 1-12

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.

Living our faith is about our deeds, not our dreams.

Living our faith is about our actions, not our money.

Living our faith is not about yesterday, and it’s not really about tomorrow; it is about today.

One day a long, long time ago, I flunked out of college.  My last grade report from the University of Florida said I had a perfect 1.0 average… and I was toast.  Expelled permanently for violation of academic probation, the only way I could get back in was if I petitioned the University Senate for re-admission — and the very thought intimidated me.  My academic life was over and I was barely 18.

Well, here I stand before you, a college graduate, with two masters degrees and a doctorate.  Clearly something happened.  Well, nothing happened for a good long time.  By the time I came back to education, I’d been in the Marines for a couple of years.  In those days, you could take correspondence courses, and I signed up for one.  Then I took an extension course offered at my base by a local college.  But in those days, what I was doing was more like idle recreation; it was definitely not the pursuit of any organized education.

In fact, I was out of the Marines before that happened.  First, I signed up for a local business college, because I wanted to get a job.  It went awfully well, and I began to re-think the picture I had of myself as someone who couldn’t do “education”.  I began to think about going back to college.

There still were a lot of roadblocks…. I didn’t really think anyone would want me; I actually  thought the only school I could go to was the University of Florida, and only if I petitioned that University Senate, whatever that meant.  But there was a professor in our church, a man I sang with in the choir, and he helped me understand that just because I’d been expelled from one school, didn’t mean I couldn’t apply to another.

Well, then I thought, how will I ever complete a degree — if I transfer in my courses from Florida, I have to transfer that 1.0 gpa — and it is almost impossible to bring that low a gpa up to a graduation-eligible level.  But my professor friend persisted; the school where he taught — Castleton State, in Vermont — would transfer courses, but would not transfer the grades.  So, if I went there, I’d start off with no gpa at all, and could re-build my record.

And there was one final roadblock.  I kept thinking, gee whiz, it’s going to take forever, if I do this while I’m working.  Why, I’ll be 40 before I finish.  Then, one day, it occurred to me — hey, I’m going to be 40 anyway, some day, and would I rather be 40 with a college degree, or 40 sitting around waiting for something good to happen?

So I went back to college, and graduated when I was 33, on the President’s List, with a BS in business administration, and went on to Andover Newton and all the other degrees.

All because I was able to change my picture of myself from a person who could not learn, into a person who wanted to learn.

Living our faith is about our deeds, not our dreams.

Don’t get me wrong; dreams are very helpful.  But if we live only in our dreams, we’re like the person who bought a whole closet full of new clothes to wear to parties, except she never went to parties.

Micah wrote to a people who’d gotten themselves mixed up in a similar way.  They thought that the only deed they needed to accomplish to realize their dream of good living, was to fulfill the outward requirements of religion.  They wanted to build a Potemkin village of faith — you remember the story about the Russian bureaucrat who’d put up false front villages to fool the Empress?  Well a faith that’s all about outward signs is nothing but a Potemkin village.  Real faith is about deeds of love and mercy.  Real faith is about doing justice, and loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.

Jesus might well have been reading off Micah’s page when he offered the disciples the Beatitudes.  You’ll note he doesn’t say, “blessed are those who believe this, or pray that way” but “Blessed are those who…. are poor, who mourn, who are meek, who are merciful, who are pure, who make for peace, who are persecuted…”   All… all are ways we live, all are about the qualities of our lives, all are firmly anchored in the hear and now, not the dreamt of tomorrow, or even the beloved yesterday.

Living our faith is about today, not yesterday, and not to be put off until tomorrow.

This is a Christian church.  You knew that, right?  <smile>  But I mean by that is, we are Christian in background, not Congregational…. we were formed by people who had had it with lengthy tests of faith, who weren’t comfortable with creeds, or catechisms, who really disliked the idea that some one could claim to be a believer on Sunday, and then not allow that faith to govern their daily living.  That’s why our Christian ancestors, when they organized, said that one of the sure principles of the denomination was that “Christian character is a sufficient test of fellowship and church membership.”  How you live is more important than the theological details.  Or to put it another way, theology follows faith; it doesn’t drive it.

I don’t mean by this that theology has no importance; I only mean that the particulars of our beliefs are secondary to the living of our lives.

That’s a long introduction to the heart of this sermons:  so, if living out our faith is about our deeds, not our dreams, how are we doing?

Are we actually doing?

Are we extending mercy to those who don’t know it?  Are we building peace — here in our fellowship, in our community, in our world?  Are we kind and gracious to our neighbors?  Or are we offering lip service, letting the members of the SAM Committee and our pastor do the real work of ministry?

Is it possible that when we think of “doing something” for others, that our imaginations are restricted by our grasp of our limitations?  That like me, when I thought of going back to school, all we see are the obstacles and not the pathways?

Of course, I’m posing a question I can’t answer.  I can’t answer it because it’s your question to answer.  And, I’d bet you aren’t ready yet to answer it, if only because we’ve been going along, doing what we’ve always done, and trying to do that as well as we did it before.

The challenge before us is simple.  The world for which our current picture of what ministry is, what service might be, that world doesn’t really exist any more.  Think about it:  When we put those models together, Fall River was prosperous, the mills were still running, and every high school grad who wanted one, could get a job there.  When we put those models together, veterans of World War II were raising their 10 year old children. When we put those models together, everyone belonged to a church; you really had to go to church to be seen as a respectable person.

And none of that’s true any more.

In the Boston Globe this week, Fall River was the 7th poorest city in the state, only because New Bedford beat it out for sixth place.   Our World War II vets and their spouses are increasingly leaving us. Being a part of a church is an option these days, not a requirement, and in some groups, a distinctly odd thing to do.

But in that new world, there are still needs, still opportunities for us to serve God and serve our community.

There are still opportunities to make the truths of the Beatitudes real in someone’s life.

What are the needs you see in our community?  Where are our ministry edges?  How can we best serve God and our world?  Let’s talk about what you see and hear and know, and let’s pray, that out of all that, we will see our way into the future.

Amen.

© 2011, Virginia H. Child