The One Right Way to Be Church?

The Congregational Church of Grafton MA UCC on January 28, 2018

I Corinthians 8:1-13 – Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up

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.


Have you ever gone into a meeting and heard someone puffed up on knowledge tell you how to do whatever, the right way?  Ever made your favorite dessert for a party and then had someone tell you, you did it wrong?

Knowledge puffs up.  I know a better way to make chocolate chip cookies than you do, and I don’t miss a chance to tell you that you’re using the wrong kind of fat – butter? Crisco? Margarine?  The wrong kind of nuts – pecans? Walnuts? None at all???  And don’t even go to what kind of chocolate… Nestle’s chips? Store brand chips? Custom chopped very very expensive chocolate?  Small cookies or dinner plate sized? Crisp or chewy?  And I bet you know lots of other variations…  Whatever you choose, mine is the one right way and all the others are not quite right.

And if I keep spouting off like that, it won’t be long before you don’t even want to have a cup of tea – no, not Earl Grey, but the one right kind – with me.

Knowledge puffs up.

Love says, wow you have a different way to make those cookies, and doesn’t judge them on how far they veer from my right recipe.  Love is open to new ideas, welcomes input from others.  Knowledge is about facts.   Love is about relationship..

Of course, we’ve all met the know-it-all who thinks they’re the authority on whatever…   Alexander Pope wrote:  a little learning is a dangerous thing, drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring,  and for sure, it’s dangerous to just skim the textbook.  But Paul’s advice to us is more than a critique of those who don’t know what they don’t know.

Paul is telling us that it is not knowledge which composes the foundation of our lives, but rather it is love.  That’s what he was worried about with the church in Corinth.  They’d gotten so fixed on doing things the right, the accustomed way, that they couldn’t do things in the loving way.

In today’s lesson, the immediate problem folks are facing is whether or not to eat meat…not because they all wanted to be vegans, but because in those days, all meat was ritually offered to a god before it was butchered, and eating the meat was widely seen as an act of worship to that god – not to our God, but to some deity or another in the community.

The Corinthian church has a strong faction of well-educated, well-to-do, relatively sophisticated members who believe that Christians should be free to eat meat offered to idols. The reason is very simple. Idols do not exist and, therefore, have no power, since there is no God but one, as proclaimed in the Shema of Israel. For such people, this is obvious to all those “in the know.”[1] And there lies the problem.  Those who know the right way think they are better and use their knowledge to put down others for whom eating meat that’s been offered to idols feels wrong.

In other words, in their day, the question is not all that different that whether or not to accept as a gift something that’s been stolen, or to deal with a business owner whose morals you find disgusting – or maybe whether or not to vote for someone who doesn’t always do exactly what you want.

But there’s another question in this text, because the Corinthians are not just wondering whether nor not the moral choice is Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump.  Some of them have “studied” the issue and know the right answer and so they’re lording it over the others, trying to cram their answers down others’ throats.  For Paul, that’s the larger issue.  It’s not who’s right, but how do you handle the conversation.

I’ll bet you’ve met people who know all the right answers, who are quick to tell you that they have the answer to whatever ails you.  Professor Kate Bowler, who teaches at Duke Divinity School, has stage 4 colon cancer.  It is incurable and she lives with the fact that she’s not going to live to be 90; in fact, she might well be gone by summer.  She writes that when she goes to parties, strangers come up to her with what they know is the right things to say:

Some people minimize spiritually by reminding me that cosmically, death isn’t the ultimate end. “It doesn’t matter, in the end, whether we are here or ‘there.’ It’s all the same,” said a woman in the prime of her youth. She emailed this message to me with a lot of praying-hand emoticons. I am a professor at a Christian seminary, so a lot of Christians like to remind me that heaven is my true home, which makes me want to ask them if they would like to go home before me. Maybe now?

Atheists can be equally bossy by demanding that I immediately give up any search for meaning. One told me that my faith was holding me hostage to an inscrutable God, that I should let go of this theological guesswork and realize that we are living in a neutral universe. But the message is the same: Stop complaining and accept the world as it is.  (Kate Bowler, NY Times, January 26, 2018)

All the good intentions in the world can’t keep us from occasionally putting our foot in it.

But that doesn’t mean that good intentions are worthless.  Far from it.

It’s our good intentions – intentions to not hurt people or whatever – which open our eyes to the way in which unintentional superiority can hurt the other, because superiority is not built on love.

Knowing all the rules doesn’t bring us closer to God.

I wish it did.  I wish that all there was about following God was reading and even memorizing a rulebook.  The Bible’s a little too large to memorize, but there used to be a Manual for Congregational Christian Churches, and it wasn’t very thick.

Unfortunately, like most rule books, it is all about how to organize committees, and what parts there should be in a worship service.  When it came to guidance on how to live the Christian life, well, we’d be better off, much better off, memorizing Mary Oliver’s poetry.

Today’s lesson is all about falling into the trap of thinking we know the right way to do or to be, and then getting all hot and bothered when others don’t go along with our ideas.  And it’s all about the trap of thinking that because we know the right way, that we are closer to God than anyone.

In fact, God loves us when we don’t know the right answer.  God loves us when we don’t even know the right questions.  Moreover, God loves that person who doesn’t have the same answer, whose answer is wrong.  God loves them when they are wrong.  God loves us when we are wrong.

God’s everlasting, reliable, trustworthy love is something we don’t have to work for; it’s right there in front of us.  Right answer, wrong answer, if it comes with love, it is of God.

And from Mary Oliver:

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.

 

How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of the lambs.

How rivers and stones are forever in allegiance with gravity while we ourselves dream of rising.

How two hands touch and the bonds will never be broken.

How people come, from delight or the scars of damage, to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say “Look!” and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.[2]

Amen.

© 2018, Virginia H. Child

[1] Rigdon, V. B. (2008). Pastoral Perspective on 1 Corinthians 8:1–13. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B (Vol. 1, p. 302). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[2] Mary Oliver, “Mysteries, Yes”, Devotions, 2017, Penguin, New York City, p. 85

Getting Those Ducks in a Row

Congregational Church of Grafton, January 14, 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-10 – Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening

John 1:43-46 – Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

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.


Nathaniel asked, “can any good come out of Nazareth?”

Does kinda make you think there was something less than desirable about Nazareth, doesn’t it?

There’s nothing easier than blaming where someone’s from – it makes it possible to dismiss everyone who “comes from Nazareth”, but, you know, it’s just not Christian.

Jesus Christ came from Nazareth, the Haiti of his day, filled – according to his detractors – with lazy ignorant folks who weren’t ever going to be good enough to be welcome in the halls of power and government.  Those folks from Nazareth had nothing to offer, no love, no mercy, no grace and certainly no power.

Jesus Christ came from Nazareth.  He was poor, uneducated, didn’t wear fancy clothes, didn’t know all the current in people.  And no one in the seats of power thought much of him.

Things haven’t changed much.  It’s still ok to put people down because they come from whatever passes for Nazareth in our part of the world.  Sometimes it’s kinda vulgar, always it completely blows off what Jesus himself had to say about who is in, and who is out, in God’s world.

While there are some people who measure whether you are a “real Christian” based on what you believe, and some who measure it by whether you belong to the “right variety of Christian church”, I’ve always felt, and our denomination has always taught, that being a Christian is about how we live.  When I was a kid in Sunday school, I read that in my Bible, and it’s stuck with me:  It’s in Matthew, chapter 7 – “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits…every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Mt 7:15-17)

Later on in that same chapter, Jesus says, (in the Message translation): “Knowing the correct password — saying ‘Master, Master,’ for instance — isn’t going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience—doing what my Father wills. I can see it now — at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’

What we do, how we live, matters.  And when we ignore the bad, just hoping that if we keep quiet, it’ll go away, we’re actually giving the bad permission to keep right on going.

When we stand up for what is right, we are joining in the eons-long struggle to become the world God made us to be.  That’s what Jesus is saying in the passage from Matthew…every good tree bears good fruit.

This isn’t just about meaningless, harmless words.  When we condemn people, our condemnation is real.  When we say we don’t want people from this country or that to come here, we’re saying to real people – you, you are not welcome here.  Policies are never solely theoretical; they always are about individual people, real families.  So, we hear that our country ought not welcome people from Haiti, and what we know, here on the ground in Grafton, is that someone thinks that Daniel Gregoire, the pastor over at the Unitarian Church is unwelcome in this country.

But it’s not just about our friends, those Haitians (or people from Nazareth) whom we know.  It’s about a whole class of people, worthless because they come from a worthless place.  And when we condemn a class of people, we offer permission to put those folks down, to cheat them, treat them like dirt, to lock them out of the fullness of life.

This is about life and death, and we are always, always on the side of life.  That’s a call, a message, that isn’t always easy to hear, or easy to act on.

When God called Samuel, Samuel heard him, but didn’t understand him… he kept thinking that it was Eli who was calling him. At any rate, the third time Samuel came to Eli, Eli realized that God was calling Samuel, and told him to listen.

Now, Samuel didn’t like the message God gave him.  Because God didn’t praise him or promise him all kind of good things in his future, but instead foretold the destruction of Eli’s family, and said it was to be Samuel’s job to tell Eli.

Samuel didn’t want to do it, saying the words was a struggle for him, but the story came out.  Eli accepted God’s judgement.  But that’s not the end of this story; it goes on to say,  “…all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.”.

Samuel knew what was right and did it, even though he knew it would be hard.  He lived out his commitment to God, and he was known as a trustworthy prophet.

It is by consistently listening to God that we become trustworthy God-followers.  So what does God tell us, on this weekend dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr?

Good comes out of places like Nazareth.

God loves everyone, no matter where they come from, no matter what they look like, no matter what language they speak, no matter what.

Whoever we are, wherever we are on life’s journey, God loves us.

And we are called to share that good news to our world, to be witnesses to God’s inclusive love.

We are called to confront the forces of evil which would proclaim that some people are better, more acceptable, than others, that some people don’t deserve the necessities of life.  We are called to model the life of Jesus Christ, who healed lepers, spoke to women, served the poor, came from Nazareth to save the world.

We are called to be Christians.

Amen.

© Virginia H. Child, 2018

 

Christmas Is Over and Done

The Congregational Church of Grafton UCC, December 31, 2017

Galatians 4:4-7  So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

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.

Christmas is over and done.

Trees are already down, pulled out to the side of the road, done shedding needles in the carpet, except for that pile that’s worked its way under the doormat.

  • The egg nog is almost gone, unless you’ve saved some for tomorrow night.
  • Wrapping paper – it’s out in the trash.
  • New toys – some are already broken.

New books – my favorite present – already started and one’s already been read and moved to the pile to go to the library.

The Holiday stream on my internet radio station is still going strong, but yesterday for a while, it looked like we were working our way through a playlist of Latvian carols, or at least the less familiar… really… isn’t it time to let the music go, and put “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” away until next year?  Time to go back to the Peer Gynt Suite and other non-holiday pieces!

Christmas is over and done.

The meals have been served, eaten, cleaned up after… we’ve demolished the remains of the Christmas turkey, or ham, or whatever. The pot pies are gone, even the turkey soup has dried up.   And now the Christmas cookies are about gone.

Christmas is over and done.

But you know what?  Winter is still here.  No I don’t mean that cold stuff outside the door.  Not that kind of winter… but the winter of a soul that cannot see spring, that is blind to good, that thinks that all the world is broken and worthless.

And because we live in a world where there’s always some winter… I think we need to hold on to Christmas a little longer.  Not the cookies or presents, not the music or the parties, but Christmas, that spirit of love and joy and caring.

It’s winter at the Thursday Café – the one that’s at All Saints Church in Worcester, serving lunch and offering a warm, indoor place to schmooze for the homeless of Worcester.  It’s always winter when there are homeless people.  Poverty, soul-destroying, heart-aching, hunger-filled poverty is one of the surest signs of the kind of winter I’m talking about.

It’s winter for those Puerto Ricans who’ve fled their destroyed Island for the likes of Worcester and New Bedford.  I love both places, but how bad does Puerto Rico have to be that New Bedford is an improvement?  There are 351 municipalities in Massachusetts.  New Bedford is number 346 in per capita income and almost a quarter of the population lives below the poverty level.  And it’s cold in New Bedford, right around 18 today.  It’s in the 80s in Puerto Rico.

But it’s always winter when you’re driven out of your home – whether because of storm damage, or because there’s a war going on outside your door, or because the drug lords of Central America want your kid to work for them.  That’s the winter of fear, and we need to keep Christmas to push that fear away.

And it’s winter for those who live alone, for those who had no celebration this year because there’s no one to celebrate with.  No presents, no dinner, no family games, just another day, another tv dinner.  That’s the winter of loneliness.

So, there’s still winter, and wherever there’s winter, there’s a need for Christmas.  Because Christmas isn’t really about the tree or the decorations, it’s about changing the world.

It’s about pushing back the cold of homelessness, the chill of loneliness.  It’s about the warmth of solidarity with those who are oppressed by war or hatred or discrimination.

The reading from Galatians puts it another way.  It’s a short and sweet Christmas narrative – in the fullness of time, God sent his Son… and because that Son came, we have been permanently, lovingly adopted into the family of God.

Because of Christmas, we have a name; we are Christians.

Because of Christmas, we have a purpose; we are Christians.

And Christians are, that change might happen.

The work of Christians, our work, is to bring spring to be where there was nothing but winter.  We don’t have to stand at the side of the snow bank, waiting for someone to come and clear things away; we are God’s beloved children, and together we have what it takes to make a difference, to bring warmth and love and light to those in need, indeed to bring it to our own lives.  Because we are beloved children of God, we too deserve warmth and light and love.

Yes, this is the last Sunday in the Christmas season.  And if your tree isn’t down yet, I bet it will be by next Sunday.  You’re probably not listening to Christmas music any more, but I hope Christmas is still there in your heart.  And let’s keep bringing tidings of comfort and joy to all the world, at all times and in all places.

For whoever we are and wherever we go, we are God’s beloved children.  We have a name, we have work to do, bringing Christmas to our world.

Amen.

 

Do We Need a Savior?

A Service of Lessons and Carols

First Lesson:  Do We Need a Savior?  Genesis 4:2a-9

Do we need a Savior?  The median net worth for non-immigrant African-American households in the Greater Boston region is $8, according to “The Color of Wealth in Boston,” a 2015 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Duke University, and the New School. The household median net worth was $247,500 for whites; $8 for US blacks (the lowest of all five cities); $12,000 for Caribbean blacks; $3,020 for Puerto Ricans; and $0 for Dominicans (that’s not a typo either.)

 Do we need a Savior? 

Hurricane Harvey, in late August to early September, was the costliest tropical cyclone on record, inflicting nearly $200 billion (2017 USD) in damage, primarily in the Houston metropolitan area.  Two weeks later came Hurricane Maria. At least 500 people have died because of the storm and it might be as many as 1000.  We don’t know because the damage to infrastructure was so complete. Most of the island will get its power back by the end of next February, but some will not get it back until May.

Do we need a Savior?

As of early November, somewhere over 200 people had been murdered in mass shootings this year, 58 in October in Las Vegas, last month 26 in Texas.. and it is the 5th anniversary of the shooting of 20 little school children right over in Newtown CT.  And what have we done about it?

Our world is struggling, and this struggle is nothing new.  Hear this story from the book of Genesis:

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.  In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions.

And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.

The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

Second Lesson:  How shall we live?  Micah 6:6-8

Micah writes:“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”  He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you  but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

 Yes, there is a lot that is wrong in our world.  But there is good news as well.  Last January, when Victoria Islamic Center, a mosque in Texas, burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances, churches and synagogues offered space, money, and helping hands—raising more than a million dollars for the mosque’s rebuilding. They broke ground in May and by September they were distributing emergency supplies to victims of Hurricane Harvey.

In 2017, Church World Service, our agent of emergency assistance in the world, distributed 150,000 hygiene kids, about 25,000 school kids and almost 2400 cleanup buckets throughout the world.  In Puerto Rico:  working through the American Baptists, CWS shipped over 22,500 hygiene kits, almost 9,000 bungee cords, 2,550 school kits, 330 tarps, 200 cast iron stoves, and 50 propane tanks.  Through the UCC, they are sending 5000 more hygiene kits, 1000 water filters and another 500 tarps.

There’s no way to count of good deeds, done in the name of Christ, all around our world.  Love comes quietly, without much fanfare.

We will never know how many people turned what they heard in church into deeds at home.  We will never know how many men didn’t harass a woman, how many people held the door open for a person coming after them, how many people made the day easier for a mom with a toddler, how many people stood up for the poor or dispossessed.

But we know that love was shared, Christ followed. For what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Third Lesson:  What are we looking for?  Isaiah 61:1-4

When Jesus began his ministry, as people listened to and became excited by his words and deeds, they began to look back into Scripture to find there the foundation of what he was proclaiming.

It was because he so modeled the words of the prophets such as Isaiah, that people began to proclaim him as the Messiah, as the one who would change their world.  And even today, when we hear these words of the prophet Isaiah, we hear the message of Jesus to us all.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. 

Fourth Lesson:  Who will show us the way?  Luke 1:26-38

One picture is worth a thousand words; meeting one good person can change a life.  We’re not very good with abstract concepts; we all need pictures to help us imagine what life can be, to help us believe that life is more than Wordsworth’s “getting and spending”.  And every really good picture has a backstory, something that will give it even more power, tell even more truth.   Here’s part of Jesus’ backstory:

If you were God, if you were going to send your Son to change the world, how would you do it?  Send him to a prosperous family?  One with a passion for education?  Money for good food?  Enough prestige to give his ministry a head start?  But who did God choose?  And what does it say about how God saw Jesus’ mission, Jesus’ work, that the Savior of the world was born to an unmarried couple, refugees from political oppression?  Listen to the beginning of the story of Jesus and think about why he was to come in this time, this place, this way.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Fifth Lesson:  Jesus comes to live as one of us  Luke 2:1-20

Born poor, homeless, soon a refugee fleeing to Egypt..

 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galileeto Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary,to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Sixth Lesson:  They Went Home By Another Way  Matthew 2:1-12

The first glimpse we have of Jesus’ power to turn the world upside down lies in this story of “wise men” (scholars, maybe, or Zoroastrian priests), who tactlessly told the current king, Herod, that his replacement had been born.  The government was relentlessly corrupt, and, in the end, the wise men, refused to cooperate.  They went home by another way.

 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another [way].

Seventh Lesson:  What Does “Right” Look Like?  Luke 10:25-28

In this story, Nicodemus asks the golden question, the one each one of us must ask of ourselves and of God. How will we live, which path will we choose, who will we follow, who will be our role model?  What does “right” look like?

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” [Jesus] said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

And [Jesus] said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

Eighth Lesson:  Light shines in the darkness  John 1:1-14

And so, our Savior is born, bringing us a message of hope and light, a message with the power to change our world.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

May you have a blessed Christmas!

 

Making the Invisible, Visible

Congregational Church of Grafton MA UCC, December 3, 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9:  You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

Luke 1:39-55   He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 

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.


Have you ever noticed how hard it is to see in the dark?  The last few night have been pretty bright, true… but how about those nights when it’s raining . . .and there are no white lines on the road . . . ?  It can get so difficult that you just don’t want to get out there.   Even though the lights on your car do work, it can feel as though they are simply not doing anything.

Christ came to be with us because living our world is often like driving on a dark, rainy night with no lines on the road.  We struggle to see our way, worry about driving off the pavement.

Sometimes, we just plain give up.  I know I’m very cautious, reluctant to take a chance, on those proverbial dark and stormy nights.  When it’s dark and hard to see the way, we move ever so tentatively.

Listen to one reaction to being caught in the dark – from Isaiah 64 —

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!   When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.  From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.  You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.  We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.  Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. 

Do you hear it?  The author’s complaining to God:  You hid yourself and we transgressed.  It was dark, and we couldn’t see the way, and so we stumbled.  Please don’t yell at us; we couldn’t tell what to do.  Help us, for we are your people.

It was a dark and stormy night.  And who here today does not think we are living in dark and stormy times?  How many of our admired leaders seem to have gone wandering in a place where they can’t tell right from wrong?  How often have we struggled to see the right thing to do?  Even when the sun is full out, there’s a darkness in our world.

And in this month of Advent and Christmas, comes Light into the World.  Light comes to help us see in the darkness.  In the lesson we heard this morning, Mary sings about the Light and what it does for us, when she says:

[God’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. [God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. [God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 

Light shines in our world when we see those things happening.

When the proud lose all that gives them pride, when the powerful lose their power, light is beginning to shine.

Most of all, when the lowly are raised up, respected, loved and sustained, God’s light shines upon all of us.

When the hungry are fed, there is the spirit of God.

When the rich don’t take the largest portion, while leaving nothing but the dregs for everyone else, there is God.

That’s why Jesus came.  That’s why we call him the Light of the World.  Because with Jesus, we can see the way forward.  With Jesus, we can tell when we’ve gone off the path, veered off the road, when we dragging our car too close to the brush and scarring up the paint job.

In our public life, Jesus shines a light on the disgraceful cupidity of public officials, of those who have the power in their hands to make life generous or hard.

In all our world, Jesus shines a light on our personal behaviors, helping us to see the other as real and worthy of respect.

And in our private lives, Jesus gives us direction, helps us know right from wrong, keeps us company on our daily grind, gives us strength to continue to be witnesses for love and justice.

All this month, we’ll party, celebrate, give and receive gifts.  Sometimes, the gatherings will be with friends, sometimes family, sometimes work… and I know that some of them will not seem to have anything much to do with a Light coming into the world and turning everything upside down.  After all, we’re also celebrating the longest night of the year this month.  And when it’s dark and cold, gluttony can feel pretty good.

But underneath all that self-indulgence, all the office parties, and whatever, lies a truth that the darkness cannot hide.  Jesus Christ, the light of the world, has come to live with us and everything has been changed.

Power, gluttony, greed, misbehavior may seem to rule for a time, They will harm many, help no one, except those who revel in that sort of thing.  But their power is fleeting; it cannot change the inner reality of our lives.

In the wonderful book, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis creates a world ruled by a White Witch, where it is “always winter and never Christmas”.  The White Witch confronts Aslan, a lion and a representative of Jesus Christ. Aslan’s power changes the world… a prisoner of the witch, is racing along in a sleigh with her when he notices that the witch’s powers are declining:

Now they were steadily racing on again. And soon Edmund noticed that the snow which splashed against them as they rushed through it was much wetter than it had been last night….

Emilie Griffin writes:   After a few moments Edmund realizes that the White Witch’s spell has been broken.

All around them, though out of sight, there were streams chattering, bubbling, splashing and even (in the distance) roaring. And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realised that the frost was over. [Lewis]

Patches of green grass and green tree-branches were beginning to appear throughout the forest. Aslan had broken the White Witch’s power. [Griffin]

Though the Witch fights it every step, Edmund can see more clearly than she. Her slave the Dwarf holds Edmund hostage and keeps yanking on the rope that binds him. But Lewis writes:

This didn’t prevent Edmund from seeing. Only five minutes later he noticed a dozen crocuses growing around the foot of an old tree—gold and purple and white.

It’s a simple but powerful metaphor: winter cold suggesting the deathblow of evil in human lives; and springtime to suggest personal transformation and the redemption of the whole human race.[1]

Well, here we are in winter; it’s not as cold as it might be, but it’s cold enough in our world for the homeless to freeze, for the hungry to go empty away.  It’s cold enough in our world to take from the poor and give to the rich.  It’s time for light, real light, everlasting light.  It’s time to make the invisible, visible, and so we welcome the Son of God, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.

Amen.

© 2017, Virginia H. Child

[1] http://www.explorefaith.org/lewis/winter.html

An Unexpected Gift

A Meditation offered at the Congregational Church of Grafton (MA) UCC on January 1, 2017

Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

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.

I cannot begin to imagine how disappointed Joseph must have been. Engaged, looking forward to beginning a life together, making plans, anticipating the joy of companionship, and then. . . the news that his fiance, the woman he had planned to marry, the heart of his life, was pregnant.

An unplanned, unexpected pregnancy is always stressful, even when it’s a gift of joy, but not so much when the parents-to-be are not yet married – and hardly ever, when the father is someone else. It would be a disaster in the here-and-now. Back then it was even worse – even life-threatening for Mary. The news, it’s fair to say, shattered Joseph’s hopes for the future.

And somehow I find it hard to believe that the idea that God was the father of the child was any more believeable or acceptable or comforting when Mary offered her story, back in those pre-scientific days, than it would be today.

We don’t often talk about disappointment and the Christmas season in the same breath, but all too often this is a time of the year when the disappointments of the last twelve months come more readily to mind, and so it’s worth remembering that, at least for Joseph, Mary and their families, this story begins with deep, unremitting disappointment. It is for us a sign that even in the best of families – and what family could be better than Joseph’s and Mary’s? – even there, things do not play out the way they were expected or planned; even there, there is disappointment.

Have you ever been disappointed? Has there been a time in your life when things didn’t play out the way you wanted, expected, hoped? Have there been times when you felt like Joseph?

Has it ever turned around?

It did for Joseph. Now, you know and I know there are realities that can’t be changed. And the facts didn’t change for Joseph either. Mary was still pregnant. He was still not the father of the coming child. He still couldn’t see how he could marry her.

In the midst of all that, however, Joseph made a choice which changed everything. He chose to treat Mary with grace. He could have condemned her publicly. He could have destroyed her. Instead, as the story goes, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace”, he planned to dismiss her quietly. That quiet choice of grace changed Joseph; changed Joseph’s world.

With that choice, Joseph made it clear that he was a man of love, and not a man of hate. He made it clear that in the midst of the deepest disappointment, even disgrace, he would not turn away from grace. And his openness to grace, opened him to God’s grace, to the rest of the story. His choice of grace made everything else possible.

If Joseph had chosen anger, had chosen revenge, what would have happened when the angel came to him in a dream? Would an angel even come to a hate-filled Joseph? But Joseph chose grace, and an angel told him the rest of the story.

The rest of the story – that Mary was telling the truth, that he could still marry her, raise the child – that his hopes were not destroyed – well, we know how that turned out. They married, raised Jesus and their other children, made a home filled with love, grace and a sense of purpose and laid the foundation for a new way of living.

Let’s not forget, in the joy of Christmas, that the birth of that child began in disappointment.

Let’s not forget, because it helps us understand the disappointments of our own lives.

Let’s not forget, because it helps us remember that we don’t yet know the rest of the story.

God gives us the choice; we can live in our disappointments, we can continue to be frustrated, angry, distrustful about the things which haven’t worked out the way we wanted or hoped. Or we can look ahead with the grace of Joseph, seeking the best way, God’s way, trusting that there’s more story to come, that we don’t know the rest of the story.

This is the first day of a new year, and with the new year, comes the opportunity to step beyond the disappointments of 2016. In this new year comes the opportunity to be unexpected gifts of grace to our world, to step away from the stuckness of pain and anger, and to step out into the world.

How may we be unexpected gifts to our world?

How can we be good? How can we model grace? How can we show love and trust, in the face of disappointment, discouragement? It won’t be easy, it never is, to move beyond that bad stuff, but Joseph tells us it is possible, with grace and determination. Joseph tells us there’s more story yet to come, when we determine to follow God’s way, to live in hope.

Come forward this morning to the table of the Lord, and there dedicate yourself to be, in this new year of 2017, a person of hope, a person of determination, a person who will seek to follow the way of Jesus Christ, not just today, but throughout the year. Then take away with you the everylasting love of God, to be with you and guide you, each and every day.

Amen.

© 2017, Virginia H. Child

You Get What You Expect

Congregational Church of Grafton UCC, November 19, 2017

Matthew 25:14-30 – so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.

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.

Three slaves, three servants… and one master, one CEO.  The big cheese is going away, but he wants the business to keep going, so he gives each of three people a share of the action.

One guy gets 10 talents – a talent is an ingot of gold, weighing 75 pounds, and each ingot is worth, at today’s prices, $1.5 million.  So – 10 talents of gold is right around $15 million dollars.  The next guy gets 2 talents of gold, about $3 million.  And the third guy is given one ingot, $1.5 million.

The boss tells them to take good care of the money, and leaves on a trip.  Years passed, then the boss returns.  They all get together to go over the accounts, and for a while, all goes well.  The first guy doubles his money, and the boss is really well pleased.  The second guy doubles his money too… and all continues well.

But now here comes the third guy, the one who had the one talent of gold.  The boss says, “so how did it go for you?” and the man responds, “I knew that if I did anything wrong, if I lost any of your money, you’d blame me and deal hard with me, so I did the safest thing I could imagine – I dug a hole in the back yard and buried it.  So, here it is, I’ve even cleaned the dirt off – I’m bringing your ingot back just as you gave it to me.”

His boss went ballistic.  “You thought I’d be hard on you if you lost anything?  You could at least have deposited the ingot in the bank and gotten interest!!  You had what it took to try things out, to take a chance, to experiment and instead you chose to bury your talent in the back yard.  Get out of here and leave that ingot behind.”

Don’t  you wonder, at least just a little, whether or not that boss is justifiably angry.  Sure, the one ingot guy’s afraid of him, but is he really such an ogre?  Or is the one ingot guy reasonably afraid because he’s done absolutely nothing with his big chance?

The other two guys had no problems taking chances with their money.  They went out and traded and invested and each of them doubled their money.  It could have been otherwise, you know.  Investment and trade are both risky; in fact, there are very few sure things in this world, except maybe, if you bury your gold in the back yard, it’ll still be there when the boss comes home.

The two successful guys were not intimidated, not hiding in fear.  So, is the master really so terrible?  Or is the third guy’s fear based in his own view of the world?  Is his fear, and consequent refusal to use his gift, reasonable?  Or does his fear paralyze him into immobility, and does it make his picture of the boss come true?

 

We all know that, from time to time, fear does paralyze decisions.  In the early days of our Civil War, Union generals nearly lost the war by letting their fears control their decisions.

Too often, that happens in our daily lives as well.  It’s as simple as worrying about how to put the table together for Thanksgiving, or as challenging as choosing a college, or taking a job.

Or as serious as whether or not to report the boss’s harassment, or whether or not to make a public comment about some local issue.

And fear can warp reality.  That third guy, the one with one ingot, had let his fear of failure warp the reality of his boss.  The boss, in giving him the talent, had given him permission to take chances, to use the talent…but his fear told him the boss was mean, greedy, and vindictive, and that picture pushed reality right out of the picture.

 

If we have talents, we have permission to use them.  That doesn’t mean that figuring out how to use our talents is going to be simple or clear.  Last Sunday afternoon I went into Boston, to Jordan Hall, to hear a concert by the Thomanerchor, a chorus of boys and young men between the ages of 9-18 from St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, Germany.  It was a great concert, lovely music beautifully presented – and parts of it were like being in heaven.

The Thomanerchor has been singing together for 800 years… yes 800… much of the great German church music over the centuries was written for them… music by Heinrich Schutz, by J. S. Bach – who led the choir for over 25 years — music by Mendelssohn, and it was that music they sang on Sunday.

I thought it was wonderful, and then I read a review of the concert.  The reviewer recognized the quality of the singing, but asked whether they were really using their talents as they sang the same kinds of music they’d been singing for at least the last 500 years.  Yes, what they were doing was/is beautiful, but does singing the same music in the same way for all that time, restrict their growth?

The Thomaner Chor is really good at what they do but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to deal with that question.  Just because we’re good at what we do, and we’ve been doing it since forever, doesn’t mean that we’re using our talents well in this time and to the needs of this world.

Now we all know that it’s much easier, and often more immediately rewarding to continue doing well what we’ve always done well.  That’s the safe thing, the one which runs the least risk of making people angry.  Stick to the familiar, keep singing the same songs, offer the easiest answers, concentrate on making things look good, all the while avoiding anything the least bit anxiety-producing.

 

I’ve mentioned before that I once served South UCC in Grand Rapids MI.  In the 70s, South had been a large church, over 1000 members, almost 500 children in the church school.  By the time I arrived in 1999, they had fewer than 200 members, and about 10 children in the church school.  They were still in the same building; there was a fully-equipped church school classroom for each of our students.

As I tried to understand what had happened to South, I began to realize that at some point, they’d decided to bury their talents.  In the 60s, they’d been asked to host a meeting  at which Martin Luther King, Jr would speak.  They’d declined out of fear that all “those” people would damage their church building.  Over the years, they had routinely refused to try out anything new their pastors’ suggested, and gradually, those pastors stayed for shorter and shorter periods of time.  Church school had to be the same as always, programming had to be for their kind of people, everything had to be the same as it had always been.  And so, on September 9, 2001, South Church closed.

Why?  Why do people take that path?  Why do they refuse to try anything new, refuse to let go of the tired past?

I think a lot of it has to do with our fear of failure.  We’re afraid that if we try and fail that we’ll be the laughing stock of our world, or that we won’t be loved or accepted by God, or our families, or the world around us.

 

Our response to the opportunities to use our talents has a lot to do with how we see our world.  If we envision our world as a place where failure is the ultimate disgrace, if we think of God as out to get us, then we’re going to be really really risk averse.

It’s hard to imagine trying when we know that every attempt which falls short of perfection will make us look like fools or make us feel unacceptable everywhere, but is that really where we live?  Is that the world we live in?

No, we who have chosen to follow the Christian way live in a world where the only disgrace is to not try, where every attempt is worth the effort, whether or not it completely succeeds.  Our world lives under the loving watch care of God.

It is our work to create and sustain a community where trying is encouraged, where failure is not condemned, where love is the order of the day, and where we recognize that this world is imperfect.

In order to do that, we try it out for ourselves.  So we try new foods, Sing new hymns, experiment with different ways of doing worship come up with different ways to do mission outreach.

We do the work necessary to understand the needs of today’s world, rather than trying to apply the responses which spoke to the needs of 1950.

In all we do, we seek to model God’s every-welcoming love to a world that is fractured by a drive to perfectionism, an intolerance for falling short of the glory of God.

We are risk-takers for God.

Amen.

© Virginia H. Child, 2017