Gratitude: Looking in the Right Direction

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

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

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

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

1 Samuel 13:  1-13  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is good news.

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

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

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

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

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


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

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

Gratitude: It is Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

…the wisdom to know the difference…

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

Scripture:Matthew 17:1-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

Choices, Choices

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

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

1 Corinthians 3:1-3

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

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

St. Paul was a loser.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are we?

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

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

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

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

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

Who do we want to be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

Restoring Our Flavor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Jake Emen:   1/16/23]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the second thing:

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

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

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

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

As Christians, we are called to live lovingly. 

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

We are called to actively stand up for love.

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

Go now, in love.


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

What Makes a House a Home?

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

Matthew 5:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

Waiting, Not So Patiently

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on January 15, 2023

Scripture:                                                     Psalm 40:1-6 (The Message translation)
I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked; finally he listened.
He lifted me out of the ditch, pulled me from deep mud.
He stood me up on a solid rock to make sure I wouldn’t slip.
He taught me how to sing the latest God-song, a praise-song to our God.
More and more people are seeing this:
they enter the mystery, abandoning themselves to God.
Blessed are you who give yourselves over to God,
turn your backs on the world’s “sure thing,” ignore what the world worships;
The world’s a huge stockpile of God-wonders and God-thoughts.
Nothing and no one comes close to you!
I start talking about you, telling what I know, and quickly run out of words.
Neither numbers nor words account for you.
Doing something for you, bringing something to you—that’s not what you’re after.
Being religious, acting pious—that’s not what you’re asking for.
You’ve opened my ears so I can listen.

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

In 2018, the Hartford Courant ran a story about our celebration of twenty-five years of being an Open and Affirming Church.  In it, Wally Many, that long-time, well-loved leader of our church, said:  

“I hope the people who are gay and lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, whatever, they feel free to come here and see what we’ve got to offer,” said Wally Many, who led the church’s original effort in the late 1980s and early 1990s to become Open and Affirming.

When I read this psalm, I think about the people who, like Wally, worked so hard, so persistently to make a vision of inclusivity come true.  

I didn’t know Wally at all well.  I was friendly with Dody’s wife, Selena Blackwell, and so I heard of him, and saw him at various Connecticut Conference meetings in the years I was active in the Conference.  I’m grateful for the words of Bill Roberts, reproduced in this Sunday’s bulletin, to give us a wider picture of Wally and the gift of his life for all of us – not just here in First Church, but to Connecticut and all the world.

Because Wally, and other brave people like him have changed our world.  And the patience of God was one of their most effective tools.

I want to remind you today of what the world used to be like, so that we can all appreciate what’s changed and how Wally and those who stood with him used patience and persistence to make a better world for all of us.

Fifty or so years ago, you could not easily, and in many cases safely, live openly as homosexual people, much less be openly transgendered.  There was a time when – at least in California –  if you were discharged from the military for being gay, you were automatically reported to the police as a sex offender.  That meant that, anytime a child disappeared or was attacked, you were hauled in by the police as a suspect in the crime – not because you had any history of pedophilia, but because you were gay, lesbian, whatever.

The very thought of gay marriage, gay people adopting children, gay people being normal, not people to fear… that which now exists in some part of the US, existed everywhere, even in our liberal New England states and churches.

Fifty years ago, we all lived in a world where men were men and women weren’t.  We knew that men were smarter, stronger, absolutely leaders – and the taller the better, the whiter the better, the straighter the better.

It took patience, it took courage, to step out to share the truth.

Now think about patience.  It’s one thing to have the patience to wait for dinner, but it’s quite another kind of patience to work to change the world.  And our psalm reading makes it clear that if we are impatient, we’re not the only ones.  The writer says, “I waited and waited and waited….”.  

I think we all know how hard it is to wait, how hard it is to see any progress when we’re in the midst of change.  That’s one of the reasons it’s important to remember Wally and the others who, like him, worked so hard to make those changes.  We respect his courage, and learn from him what change-making requires of us.

Like the psalmist, we learn from our companions on the way that patience and persistence are the essential elements of change.  Not the only elements in change-making, but essential all the same.

The psalmist reminds us that, in the in-between times, we are not alone.  That when we rely on God, we are standing on solid rock.  That solid rock sustains us when we’re struggling.  That solid rock points us  in the right direction, gives us the courage to go on.

Now, of course, while the psalmist talks about rocks, they’re not talking about rocks, like East Rock in New Haven, or Mount Mansfield in Vermont.  The psalm is saying that God is like a rock, that when we’re in the presence of someone who is leading us on, we grow in our own strength, deepen our own courage.  Wally was a rock for us and for those he met through the United Church of Christ, in the same way Martin Luther King, Jr. was a rock to all the world.  

I think, every time I look back so far as the sixties, I’m shocked at how much our world has changed.  I’ve mentioned the book Bill Roberts recommends in his essay in today’s bulletin – and it reflects a stuffy, buttoned-up, world where everyone knew their places and the world was built to keep us there.

It was not easy changing that.  Neither Wally nor Dr. King stood up one day and spoke freedom to folks who waved and cheered and immediately changed.  Right here in this church, nasty words were spoken.  People got angry with Wally and with one another.  Dr. King was spit on, jailed, and eventually murdered because he spoke truth.

So there are those times, when we are speaking truth – or when we are hearing it, willing or unwillingly – when we need that rock.  

That rock is the foundation of our community.  It is built out of our love together for God, our love for one another, and the witness of those who have gone before us – not just the world famous, but people like Wally; that’s why those who knew him in real life so honor him; that’s why we’ve told his story today – to honor and continue to remember his witness.

We will struggle from time to time, for sure.  It’s not always easy to discern where we are being called to go.  There are times today, there will be times in the future, when we’ll need to remember that our God is like a rock in a weary land.  Listen for God’s voice, and answer God’s challenge, blessed with the solid rock of God’s love.


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

We’re Going to Hell in a Handbasket?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on January 1, 2023

Revelation 21:1-6
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth;
for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,
and the sea was no more. 
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” 
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 
Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

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

I’d bet that everyone here knows that ministers go into church hibernation between December 25 and January 2 (or 1, if you have to preach this day)…. 

It’s not that we do nothing during that week, but more that for seven days, we set aside Bible studies or theological books and instead, spend time with our families, do endless piles of laundry, re-stock the freezer, and take lots and lots of naps….

So, there I was, napping, when the doorbell rang.  and when I answered it, there were three women – a girl, her mom, and the grandmother – mom with a Bible in her hand, ready to ask me if I thought that the world was going to hell in a handbasket…and she did so, before I could stop her.

I was not quite as hospitable as I try to be to the pleasant Jehovah’s Witness missionary who visits me monthly, often right as I’m doing my sermon… 

This time, I simply said “no thanks” and closed the door while the mother was still talking.  So I don’t even know if they were also Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons, or from some other variety of church.   All I know is that they think the world is not going in the right direction.

And so far, right now, I think we’d have trouble disagreeing with her.  Between inflation, the horrifying snowstorm in Buffalo NY, war in Ukraine, the disaster that is Southwest Airlines – when you list them like that, COVID isn’t actually even in the top five, but still…. 

Here we are at the beginning of 2023, and we might be excused if we find it hard to smile.  But we’d be wrong.

. . . and so was that woman at my door, suggesting that the world is going to wherever, as fast as possible.

One of the books I’ve been dipping into is a social study of Middletown, conducted in the sixties, and focused on the integration of housing.  It’s set in that hard time, not actually all that long ago, when segregation, whether formal, as in the South, or informal, as it was here in Connecticut, was the rule of life.  No white person willingly sold their home to a black family because it would ruin property values… or at least that’s what folks thought.  The book reports on a campaign here in Middletown to open our housing stock to peoples of all backgrounds.  The campaign did not go well, and received very little support from the clergy or churches of this city.  

Now, look at us today.  Today, our churches are united in our commitment to racial justice.  We’ve not achieved it – I’m not even sure it’s something we can “achieve”, at least in the sense of “getting there” and not having to work on it any more, like graduating from high school.  But that aside, we have changed enormously in the past sixty years, and not just about race.  That’s good news.

On New Year’s Day, the lectionary offers us a set of readings that talk about newness and describe what it looks like when we get there.  We begin with an ending – the ending of the Book of Revelation.

Revelation, a book of prophecies about the end times, isn’t often part of our worship.  It’s too lurid, perhaps too specific, maybe even too pointed, for us to be comfortable with a book which condemns lukewarm Christians.  Mostly, though, I think it’s just too too obscure, too hard to understand.  That said, there is something important for us in today’s reading and it is this:  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.’”

See, the home of God is among mortals.  God will be with us, wiping away every tear.  

. . . and what sort of place is this to be where God is with us?  That’s what the Gospel lesson from Matthew describes… it’s a place where we welcome the hungry, where we give something to drink to the thirsty, where the stranger is welcomed, where the naked are clothed, people in need are visited.  

Now the signs of God’s community are clear, and we can see  how much more we live into that vision than we did in past years.  We can see that, for God, it’s how we live in community that matters, more than anything else.  After all, Matthew doesn’t write that the Son of Man will ask where we stand on the authority of bishops or infant baptism.  Matthew says, listen up, poor people matter.   Listen up, no one is supposed to be hungry.  Listen up, everyone gets a decent home – at least in God’s world, they do.  

And we can add, if God is saying those who are scorned matter, then gay people matter in God’s eyes.  Trans people matter in God’s eyes.  Homeless people matter in God’s eyes.  

This is all because, in God’s eyes, it’s our love for one another that is the foundation of the world.  God made us to build community, to accept one another, to figure out how to compromise when we can’t get everything we want.  That’s how we live our love for one another.

God made us to live out forgiveness in our daily lives.  Professor Mark Heim, an American Baptist at the Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, teaches that the ability and willingness to forgive is one of the essential marks of being human.  We are most fully human when we can do so, when we can be love.  

That doesn’t mean, by the way, being patsies or being taken advantage of.  It means not holding grudges that break relationships.  If things are toxic in your circumstances, it may mean stepping as far away as you can – but that’s only about a particular time/place/set of people.  For all of us, together, forgiveness is essential to being Christian, to being human.

Yes indeed, the world around us may be falling apart.  The Yankees have Aaron Judge, but the Red Sox lost Xander Bogaerts.  The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.  In the midst of so much that is so wrong, let us remember that our hope is not in unending worldly successes, but in exemplifying God’s love in our lives.  

Let us be the people God has made us to be.  Let us bring salvation to our world.


In Everything, Give Thanks

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

First Reading:                                                                                    I Thessalonians 5:12-22

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

Gospel Reading:                                                                                            Matthew 1:18-25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every person matters.

We live hope.

We love our world.

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

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

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

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

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


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Good News is Coming!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

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

[2] Ibid.