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.

Amen.

© 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.

Amen.

© 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.

Amen.

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!”

Amen.

© 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.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child


[1] David Lose, In The Meantime blog, http://www.davidlose.net/2016/12/hallowing-creation/, retrieved 12/10/16

[2] Ibid.

Who Matters?  Why?

A sermon preached at First Church, UCC Middletown, Connecticut, on December 4, 2022

Isaiah 11:1-9

licensing for all music is on file in the church office

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, 
the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, 
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. 
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; 
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, 
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, 
the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; 
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, 
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; 
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 

Mt 1:1-17

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar,and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. 

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriahand Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. 

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel,  and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, 
and Matthan the father of Jacob,  and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; 
and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; 
and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations. 

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.

When life gets stressful, I start reading cozy mysteries.   They’re really fun, for me – no one gets hurt badly, or permanently, or on-stage…. the deceased is often someone no one knows, or likes, often never really becomes part of the story….   and usually, even though they are low stress, the best of them have well-drawn characters who are not ignoring today’s society.

Well along those lines, some years ago, I found a series by Ann B. Ross… definitely a cozy, though not a mystery.  Ross’s protagonist is a Southern lady, a widow in a small North Carolina town.  Her name is Julia Springer, and in the opening book, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind, we meet a lively, sharp-tongued and proud woman in her middle 60s, recently widowed.  They’re not perfect, but they’ve been a lot of fun over the years.

Miss Julia, as she is known, is the social leader of her town; she believes that everyone looks to her to know the right thing and to be the town’s model of decent behavior.  Decades of marriage to the super-perfect and demanding Wesley Lloyd Springer trained her to be swift, sure and unimaginative in interpreting what the right thing is in any circumstance.  She has built her life on being, and being known as, the most righteous person in town, in the most righteous marriage.

Then her husband dies – suddenly, and with no preparation.  He had a fatal heart attack in the front seat of his new car, parked in front of the house after coming home from a late meeting one Thursday night.  She discovers him the next morning, and her world begins to change.

It turned out that the man she’d lived with, and not always easily, was not the paragon of virtue she’d thought.  Her late husband was a usurious banker, a mean-spirited landlord, an exploiter of other folks’ problems, and in the final insult, and kept a mistress with whom he had a son.

It was devastating.  Every single thing she’d built her pride on: her husband’s honesty, competence, compassion – and now his basic decency – was gone, and along with it, her social position.  She was humiliated all the more when it turned out that every one of her friends had known about the mistress and the son.

Julia’s picture of herself is destroyed by the truth of her reality.  There’s a whole series of books about her; they’re light reading and pretty funny.  But they are also the story of a woman who, after facing the truth, rebuilds her life.  Her basic honesty about what has happened changes her world.  Instead of living in the midst of secrets, she takes the mistress and her son in.  She learns to trust, makes stronger friends, and practices a faith which is built on the idea that “no matter who you are, you are welcome here” (though she doesn’t put it quite that way.  It’s not easy; she struggles throughout the series with her habitual assumptions – men are untrustworthy, for instance, or poor people are trashy.  But in book after book, she moves deeper and deeper into a better life.

I hope you’re wondering what Miss Julia has to do with that interminable genealogy I read!  Well how about this:  the genealogy is there to tell us that Jesus is a direct descendant of King David, and through King David, a descendant of Abraham.  And the author throws in the tidbit that each section represents 14 generations, which to the Jews of that time would have been an auspicious number.  Any number that’s a multiple of 7 has both literal (it really is 14) and figurative “wow, 14 reminds me of the 7 days between sabbaths, or the seven days of creation, or whatever.

All that’s nice, but there’s more in that list than sets of seven, or even proven descent from David.  That’s because hidden in all those names of dads are four, and only four women.  You all know that the Bible rarely mentions women, right?  Back in the day, we weren’t all that important to history.  Let’s be honest; it’s only been in the last fifty years or so that our world’s gotten more committed to remembering the names of women.  So, it’s important that in this long list of men with hard to pronounce names, there are four women.

Tamar.  Rahab.  Ruth.  The wife of Uriah (we know her as Bathsheba, but Matthew didn’t apparently want to name her).  Four women.  There were other women, of course, but only these four were remembered.  

Here’s the thing.  Every one of those women had something “wrong” with her.  Not one of them had an unspotted record, not by the standard of their time, and mostly not by ours either. 

Tamar’s first husband died and left her childless; her second attempt at marriage left that husband dead as well – and still no child.  Everyone thought she was cursed.  No one would marry her.  But she wanted a child and she wanted that child to be able to be her father-in-law Judah’s heir.  it’s a complicated story, but in the end, she is pregnant, Judah is the father, and there’s lots of scandal.  Tamar was daring and smart and scandalous.

Rahab kept an inn in Jericho.  Our Bible makes it clear she offered more than rooms and bed.  Her reputation was only saved by the way in which she helped Joshua win the battle of Jericho by giving safe space to him and his spies.  And she’s not Jewish; she’s Canaanite, an outsider.  Rahab was daring and smart and of ill-repute.

We all know Ruth.  She’s a fixture of sentimental readings at weddings even though that beautiful passage is about a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law.  Now, unlike the other women in this list, no one suggests that Ruth is immoral, but everyone knows that Ruth is the fullest of outsiders.  We remember that Ruth was daring and smart and hard-working and loyal – and not a Jew.

Finally there’s Bathsheba.  I think we all know enough of that story that I don’t need to go into detail.  We know Bathsheba and we know she committed adultery.  

Not one of these women was fully acceptable.  And that’s the point of our conversation today.  Miss Julia thought that her position came because her husband was so impressive.  It was only later, after his death, that she began to understand that in the sight of God it’s not our money, or our position, or our public acceptability that really matters.  As she begins to move out from behind her husband’s assumptions, she discovers that what really matters is welcoming the stranger, loving those who are unimportant.   

As we study the Scripture, we discover that in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, are embedded the names of four unacceptable women.  That list is not a list of the greatest women of all time, or the greatest men.  It is a list of people who are a mixture of good and bad.  And in there, not one entirely impressive woman; not one woman who, back in the day, would have been easily welcomed in any home.  

Life is hard.  As Wendell Berry writes, “we live the life we’re given, not the life we planned” or expected, or wanted.  Doing everything right, getting to where our goal pointed us – that’s not always going to happen.  

No matter how hard you study, no matter how good your grades, if neither of your parents went to college, it’s going to be harder for you to go and succeed than it will be for someone whose parents went and graduated.  

No matter what your goal in life, if you get addicted to alcohol or drugs, your life will be harder.  If your spouse moves out… if the place where you work goes bankrupt… if, if, if… then …..

And when “then” happens, who are you?  Are you less welcome in God’s world if you’ve been arrested?  What does this story say to you?  Are you less welcome in God’s world if you’ve been divorced?  Or if your parents abused you?  Or if you’ve had trouble holding a job?  Or if you’re feeling overwhelmed by all that’s on your table?

What does the Gospel tell us today?  It tells us that we live in a world, a faith-world, where you are welcome, as you are, with all your past.  If those women, immoral and unwelcome, can be celebrated as the ancestors of Jesus Christ, how can you not be welcomed with open arms?

God does not hold back his welcome and save it only for the righteous.  God welcomes everyone to the Table; God welcomes everyone to the family.  

In the dark of December, in the gloom of Advent, we claim once again this welcome.  We light our Advent candles to remind ourselves that the baby who will come will change everything, has changed everything for us.  

It may be dark.  Everything may have gone to pot. It’s likely we’ve done things we’ll regret the rest of our lives, and some days it can be hard to get out of bed.  But no matter where we are on life’s journey, we are welcome here, in God’s house, in God’s family.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

When???

A sermon preached at First Church, UCC Middletown, Connecticut, on November 27, 2022

Scripture                                                                                                     Matthew 24:36-44

 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. 

Last Sunday, four people were shot dead and one injured in Hennessey, Oklahoma.  On that same day, four people were injured in a shooting in Dallas, Texas.  On Tuesday of this past week, seven people were murdered, six injured in Chesapeake, Virginia and two were killed in West Palm Beach,, Florida.  There was a shooting in Philadelphia on Wednesday – 4 were injured, no one died; on the same day, in Maryland, another 4 were shot with no one dying.  and then on the 24th, Thanksgiving Day, two people were killed and another two injured in a shooting in Houston, Texas

When will it stop?

When will the violence stop?

When will the bad, the violence, the hatred stop?

The price of food has been steadily rising.  All over the United States, more and more people are depending on food pantries to get through the week.  In Middlesex County, almost 10% of us are food insecure – we don’t have access to enough healthy food for an active life.  We’re planning to feed 400 people at our Christmas Dinner this year. Many will take a second serving to-go, because that will mean they have food, good nutritious food, for another couple of days.

When will it stop?

When will it be that everyone has enough?  Enough food?  Enough work?  Enough safe housing? Enough reliable transportation?  Too often, poor people live in food deserts, areas where there are no Stop & Shops, nothing but quick-mart stores, filled with high-priced food that’s often just not good, and not good for you either.  

When will it stop?

Well, there’s more than one answer to that question.  The first, pragmatic answer, is that we certainly could, very practically, do something about both mass shootings and hunger.  If they are not really solvable issues, if you think of solving as complete elimination, they are certainly issues which could be significantly reduced by things like gun control and building intentional access to food into our infrastructure.

A chart I saw last week, for instance, shows that the stringent gun laws in Connecticut and Massachusetts make those states among the least likely places to encounter gun deaths in the entire country.  It’s clear that the stricter our gun laws, the less likely you are to encounter danger this way.  So, it is possible, at least theoretically, to cut down on the number of people killed with guns.

Experiments in different parts of our country have shown that if you build in access to arable ground for people living in cities, they can and will grow food for themselves.  If you provide people with the tools to grow, prepare and eat good food, that’s what they’ll do.  So, it’s at least theoretically possible to reduce food insecurity.

Right?  Theoretically??  But to be real, what’s theoretically possible, and what works, well, in some places and some times,… and what’s likely to really happen — well, those are two different things.

I don’t say this to be discouraging.  Individual action works.  We’ve changed the climate around gun control.  We’ve seen what happens when we establish community gardens.  But if you’ve worked on those issues – or any of the many others that stalk our society, like access to adequate medical care – you know that truly solving those problems is a multi-year, multi-decade, maybe even multi-century process.

And that can be discouraging.  

Advent is a time for re-calibrating our understandings of life, the world, and what’s possible, what’s likely… what will work in the short-haul, and what will make life-changing happen.

The scripture for today tells that it’s the way of life that we don’t know what’s going to happen next, that tomorrow might be good, and it might be very bad – or it simply won’t happen for some of us, because our lives will end today.

Hold that image up next to the one on our televisions or newspapers, the one which suggests that if we only purchase the right gifts, or wear the right clothes, or eat the right diet that we will be happy, wealthy, everything in our lives will go perfectly, and we will live forever. 

Advent is a time to remind ourselves that one of these pictures is accurate and the other is an advertiser’s dream.

And Advent is a time to remind ourselves that, if we are all going to die, and if our problems are pretty much with us always. 

Do you doubt that we all know that?  In Friday’s Washington Post, George Will posted an essay which, among other things, suggested that part of the source of the unhappiness of today’s world was that too many of us have all we need, and without the struggle for “life’s necessities” we are lost.

He bases that statement on an essay by John Maynard Keynes in 1930, who anticipated that by now, we would all be working 15 hour weeks, and have everything we needed.  Who can blame Keynes for thinking that?  It was 1930, and the world was – well, in the beginnings of a world-wide depression.  My mother’s father was 48 in 1930; he’d just lost his job, and never held a full-time job again – he pieced together this and that to continue to support his wife and the four children still at home until his death in 1945.  

Well, despite the ravages of the Great Depression, despite the poverty rates today, both Keynes and George Will think that one of the besetting challenges of this day is that too many people have more than they need, and so, in their boredom… well, here’s what Will says:

The fundamental economic problem of attaining subsistence having been banished by plenty, many hyper-politicized Americans have filled the void in their lives with the grim fun of venting their animosities. 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/11/25/toxic-politics-in-age-of-plenty/

Now, maybe I’m misunderstanding Keynes and maybe I’m misunderstanding Will, but I think they’re both off… if only because they’re wrong about how many people in this country have enough – enough food, enough medical care, safe enough housing, access to washers and dryers so to have enough clean clothes. . .the majority of Americans have not gotten beyond “attaining subsistence”.  Maybe there are bored wealthy people out there who are fomenting trouble because they’re bored, but kids aren’t going to school hungry because their parents are bored.  They’re hungry because there’s not enough food for them; they’re hungry because more and more people are poor these days.

The Advent readings point us towards a different truth: that human beings have had trouble forever; it’s part of our reality.  We are not on an ever upward inevitable path to enough for everyone.  There’s a kind of basic thread going through all the world that says, given a choice, too often we choose to take care of “me” first; that under the right circumstances almost anyone can be induced to behave very badly indeed.  Too many people think that if we just make the rich people of our world wealthier then by magic the poor people will thrive on their castoffs.

And that’s why we’re looking forward to remembering that, with the advent of Jesus Christ, we see another way we can travel, another standard on which we can build a life.  

With Jesus, we see the world more clearly.  Jesus has helped us see the real condition of things, shown us that our dream that things will just get better is just that – a dream.  Jesus has show us that will change things is not that we ourselves will have more stuff, but that we will live our lives with love, self-giving love.  This is our hope – not that our world will inevitably come to some sort of perfection, where everyone will have everything they need and want – but the love we live, the love we share can change the world where we live.  When we stand up and say “this is not right”, we make a difference.  

Jesus Christ came to teach us that we are not trapped in inevitability but that we are created to be innovative, to make change, to make a difference, to create good trouble, to show the world love.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Giving Thanks

A sermon preached at First Church, UCC Middletown, Connecticut, on November 20,  2022

Scripture                                       Deuteronomy 26:1-11  (The Message translation)

Once you enter the land that God, your God, is giving you as an inheritance and take it over and settle down, you are to take some of all the first fruits of what you grow in the land that God, your God, is giving you, put them in a basket and go to the place God, your God, sets apart for you to worship. . . At that time, go to the priest who is there and say, “I announce to God, your God, today that I have entered the land that God promised our ancestors that [God would] give to us.” The priest will take the basket from you and place it on the Altar of God, your God. And there in the Presence of God, your God, you will recite:

A wandering Aramean was my father, he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, he and just a handful of his brothers at first, but soon  they became a great nation, mighty and many. The Egyptians abused and battered us, in a cruel and savage slavery. We cried out to God, the God-of-Our-Fathers: [God] listened to our voice, [God] saw our destitution, our trouble, our cruel plight. And God took us out of Egypt with his strong hand and long arm, terrible and great, with signs and miracle-wonders. And [God] brought us to this place, gave us this land flowing with milk and honey. So here I am. I’ve brought the firstfruits  of what I’ve grown on this ground you gave me, O God.

Then place it in the Presence of God, your God. Prostrate yourselves in the Presence of God, your God. And rejoice! Celebrate all the good things that God, your God, has given you and your family; you and the Levite and the foreigner who lives with you.  

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.

We are coming on Thanksgiving, and right after that, Advent and Christmas and there is just so much on our hearts that, at some level, it’s hard to even begin to see the heart of this season.  

It’s not enough that we’ve just been through yet another heart-stopping election, or that we suddenly jumped from early fall to early winter.  It’s not enough that this fall we’ve lost two well-loved members of our congregation.  But coming up on Thanksgiving, we’re faced with the conflict between the elementary-school explanation of Thanksgiving and the realities of early European settler behaviors.  And since COVID insists on sticking around, there are too many times when it all seems just too much.

Here we are, facing Thanksgiving, and in the backs of our minds, there’s a worry that this is no time to stop and give thanks.  There’s just too much that’s still unsettled, too many fears about our future.  It feels, too often, as though we’re trapped in a living version of that old arcade game, Whack-A-Mole.  No sooner do we put on threat behind us, that another one pops up.

Some challenge our feeling of safety; others challenge our hopes for our country’s future.  Some make us re-think the assumptions we’ve carried with us since second grade.  

And for some of us, this fall has been especially difficult, what with family crises or work troubles, or our own individual health issues.

So what do we have to be thankful for this year?  

We’re still here.

We have each other.

Our lives have meaning and purpose.

God loves us.

We’re still here.   

COVID closures were supposed to be for two or three weeks, remember?  We were all still making plans for the big “re-opening” celebration at Easter, and then it was going to be Pentecost… and then there came the slow realization that this was not what we thought it was going to be.  Under the stress of the pandemic, some churches closed, not just for the short-term, but forever.  And they have not come back.  We are still here.   That’s our first thanksgiving.

We have each other.

We are still a strong fellowship of people who love and care for one another and for the world where we’ve been placed.  We see each other in any number of different ways – here in this room for worship, on Zoom meetings, and in casual meetings out and about – and wherever we are, we know we are in the presence of companions on the way.  We are not alone.  That is our second thanksgiving.

Our lives have meaning and purpose.

One of the great gifts of our faith is our call to be people of peace, to be builders of community in our world.  We are not without purpose in our lives.  There is always something we can do – not always the great deeds that are celebrated in history books, but always the small kindnesses which are available to us every day, like holding doors open, smiling at our server.  And there also opportunities to be active, informed participants in our community, attending meetings, helping people understand what’s happening, and the like.  In our work, being ethical, honest, trust-worthy people; in our private lives being faithful, loving, reliable.  Our lives have meaning and purpose.  That’s our third thanksgiving.

Finally, we know that God loves us.

This isn’t the arrogant “God love me”, but the compassionate “God loves us”.  God loves each of us == as we are, where we are.  When we do our best, God loves us.  When we do our worst, God still loves us, and hopes for us to grow into a better way of living.  

If you grew up in a home filled with hostility, know that God loves you.  

If you have lived in a world of addiction, know that God loves you.  

If folks have scorned you, hated you, just because…. you didn’t look like, sound like live like they thought you should, know that God loves you.  

God loves you, today, tomorrow, and forever.   And that’s the fourth and greatest thanksgiving this year.

We’re still here.

We have each other.

Our lives have meaning and purpose.

God loves us.

Amen.

©2022, Virginia H. Child

I’m Your Greatest Fan

A sermon preached at First Church Middletown CT on November 13, 2022

Psalm 16
Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. 
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”
As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. 
Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;
their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. 
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. 
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. 
I keep the Lord always before me;
because [God] is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. 
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. 
For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. 
You show me the path of life. 
In your presence there is fullness of joy; 
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Luke 14:1-6
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had edema. And Jesus asked the experts in the law and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.

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

On November 11, Applebees offered a free meal to anyone serving in the military – active or veteran.  There were a few conditions – you had to eat the food in the restaurant, and had to have some proof of your service.

I’ve got to say that being offered a free meal at Applebees beats the socks off those times people called me a filthy name while wearing the uniform of my country…. or those times when my fellow Marines met with scorn while coming home from Vietnam.

But you know, it’s also kinda weird to be part of a PR campaign.  

Veteran’s Day is, for me, a wild mixture of sincere appreciation for my service, virtue signaling, and being used by those who want to monetize my service.  That mixture led me, today, to think about fanboys and cheap grace.

Fanboys – who don’t need to be boys – those folks who want the glory but not the cost.  Cheap grace, easy words for a hard way of life.  And oddly joy-less to boot.

Jesus set out one day to have lunch with some folks on the Sabbath.  Under the rules and customs of his life and times, the Sabbath was a day on which no work was done…. I went to high school with what we called hard shell Baptists who lived like this – no work, no movies, no card-playing, no tv-watching – it isn’t my way, isn’t our way, but it is a real way of living religiously.   

At any rate, on this day, Jesus happened to meet a man who, the Bible says had edema.  We might cast about for what illness would cause this, but that’s not the point of the story.  The point is that this person is ill and needs healing.  And Jesus turns to his lunch hosts,  people who stick to the strict letter of the law, and he asks them if it’s permitted to heal this man, even though it’s the Sabbath.

As it happens, Jesus knows it is – you can break the Sabbath rules to save a life.  But he wants the folks standing there in front of him to declare themselves, to show a little humanity.  They keep silent, however.  Their silence – in the custom of their time and place – means that they recognize the truth of what Jesus says, but their support of that truth is pretty weak.

Jesus doesn’t let it sit there, though.  He then asks his hosts, “listen, if your son, or your ox fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you rescue him, or it?”  And with this question, they still do not respond.  But this time, it’s more that there is no good response to what Jesus has said; of course you would rescue your child, your animal.  So Jesus not only has them back to the wall, agreeing silently that he’s right, but then drives the argument home to them.  

Their agreement with Jesus is no longer a kind of cheap, easy, agreement, like when I nod my head “yes” and agreed that the food is great, when I know it isn’t but I don’t want to argue.  Jesus wants them and us to understand the need to move from a passive ‘sure, ok, whatever’, to an active, “yes, that’s really important.”

Yes, this is the weekend we recognize and give thanks for those who have served our country.  At its best, it’s a time for heartfelt appreciation, even as we recognize that for Christians, there’s always an inherent conflict between the need for military service, and our commitment to recognizing God’s spirit in every human being.

Christians believe that war is always wrong, even as it is sometimes fought for an important reason.  I was raised a Hicksite Quaker, taught from my earliest days that all wars are wrong, that there is never a justifiable reason for fighting.  I learned those lessons while sitting in a meetinghouse on the land where the Battle of the Brandywine was fought in our Revolutionary War.  I sat on benches stained dark with what we kids all thought was blood from when our meetinghouse had been used as a hospital during that battle.  We  all knew about the grave in the cemetery with both American and British soldiers buried together.  When I was ten I didn’t get the irony of teaching pacifism on a battlefield, in what had been a military hospital, but I certainly understood the symbolism of enemies together for all eternity in that grave.

Ours was a fully featured pacifism; youth group was a time to learn how to survive going to prison for refusing to cooperate with the draft.  The bottom line expectation that all of our young men would refuse the draft.

At the same time, I knew that my devoutly Quaker uncle, and my equally committed Quaker cousin had joined the Navy in World War II.  And when my family moved to south Florida, the realities of what had happened in Europe began to turn from pages in textbooks into the reality of the stories of my classmates.  

My high school, in a community now called Pembroke Pines, was, for a segregated school in the south, remarkably diverse.  Mostly Yankees, we had a small group of Seminole Indians from the Dania Reservation (my best friend’s dad was the Indian agent for the reservation).  We were pretty much equally divided into Protestants, Catholics and Jews… a diversity of background I had not experienced up north.  And as I got to know my Jewish classmates, I slowly realized that most of them did not have grandparents., that most of them had lost close family members in the Holocaust.  

I listened, I read, I thought.  I don’t supposed it’s the least surprising that by the time I graduated from high school, I had acquired a deep belief that the world was flawed, that it was foolish to expect it to get better just because some of us refused to participate in war.  More than that, I began to think that it was not possible to live in the United States without participating in our commitment to engaging in war.  Whether pacifists want it or not, we are all protected by those who are willing to take up arms.  

When I joined the Marines, I truly believed that it was a sin to kill people, but that it was necessary from time to time to do so, to protect my country.  Even though I would not be called upon to fight, I understood that by joining the service, I was taking part in something I had been taught all my life — was wrong.

I probably don’t need to tell you that it was disillusioning to serve in the Marines in the 1960s, during the Vietnam years.  Not disillusioning to be a Marine… disillusioning to see how our military were being used by mindless, soulless technocrats in Washington DC.  That’s when I began to see that there were much worse things than serving in the military.  

One of the realities of life is that we all die.  Those of us who are veterans of military service are those among us who offered up their lives that we all might live free.  There is no shame there, no sin; there is nothing but honor in swearing to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  Some of us ended up giving our lives, some of us did not, but we all made that commitment.

We each face times in our lives when we have to make hard choices, when maybe what we have to do is something that, at some level, will seem wrong – but in that doing, something really good will happen.  It isn’t good to kill, but if it means that a whole population lives, then it can be necessary.

We have a responsibility to understand all the implications of our choices, to know that if we are not alert, we can be used.  That’s true whether we’re talking about military service or helping out that cousin from wherever who just wants to camp in the back yard for a week.  It’s true when we’re talking about the choices we make in running our businesses, teaching our students, or raising a family.  Our Christian faith calls us to a thoughtful way of living.  It may be easier to see when it comes to something like military service, but it is always there, always part of that commitment that Jesus wanted the Pharisees to make.

Psalm 16 says:
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. 
I keep the Lord always before me;
because [God] is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. 

When we are faced with those tough decisions, God’s presence is always with us and God will help us discern the best way forward.  In that presence, in that help, we will find the joy of deep faith.

Amen.

©2022, Virginia H. Child

Looking for God in all the Wrong Places

A sermon preached at First Church, UCC Middletown, Connecticut, on November 6, 2022

Haggai 2:1-9  In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying:

Speak now to Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 

Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lordof hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.

Luke 20:27—38 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 

Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

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

Last week, the national offices of the United Church of Christ announced that our every-other-year all church meeting, called General Synod, would now be held every three years.

For most of us, that’s not very important news.  

For those of us who’ve been a few times, that’s interesting news… 

And for some of us, those folks called “Synod junkies”, people who went faithfully, every other year, it’s a major disappointment.

But still, that’s not – in the wider scheme of things, all that important, right?

Except that – this.  It is important… and here’s why:  It’s the reason for the cut-back.  For it seems that the denomination says it can no longer take so much time away from the important day-to-day work of national staff, to put the Synod on.  They no longer can afford to spend so much of their budget on Synod costs.  

For the national offices, General Synod is an interruption, something that distracts them from what’s really important.

Maybe they’re right.  Maybe the central work of the national staff is all about what they do.

But what if they’re wrong?  What if the central work of the national staff is encouraging, strengthening and building close connections between UCC people all over the world?  If that’s their work, then moving Synods from every 2 years to every 3 years is a major error.  What if the most important work is making it possible for Howard Thody to sit down with a delegate from Washington State and discover what they have in common?  What if it is all about making me sit down with someone from a Committee on Ministry in South Dakota and hear, first-hand, how they struggle to prepare people for ministry?

The most challenging thing about the impending change is that it doesn’t look to me as though anyone drilled down far enough to ask just exactly what it is that our national offices are there for.  I don’t think anyone spent much time thinking about what the purpose of our denominational offices really is.

Now, you may have wondered if you inadvertently wandered into the wrong discussion this morning, since you had never heard of the General Synod until maybe five minutes ago, and weren’t planning to trek off to Indianapolis next Summer to see what it is…. but I’m not telling you this story because I want to start a “change Synod” movement.

I’m telling you this story because it tells us all something important.  And that’s this:  it’s darned hard to make a good decision when you’re not clear on why you exist.

Think of those Sadducees in the story from Luke, wasting everyone’s time asking Jesus a ridiculous hypothetical question about marriage in the hereafter.  They’d rather argue about the fine points of theology than worry about the social problems of their community.  Anything to avoid asking real questions about meaning and purpose and fulfillment, right?

I follow the writings of an English sheepfarmer, James Rebanks, although to call him “just a sheepfarmer” is a gross disservice to a very thoughtful man.  Rebanks farms in the Lakes District of England – think Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter – on land that has been farmed for more than a thousand years.  For the last hundred years or so, the goal has been to make a living by maximizing the produce of the land, even to the detriment of the land.  Moving streams to create more arable fields led to fields which could no longer handle flooding.  Close cropping everything destroyed habitat for small mammals, birds and insects.  Gradually, the ground was no longer able to support his flocks without supplemental feeding; he was no longer able to produce enough hay for the winter on his own land.  Maybe five years ago, he gradually began to change his farm.  First they re-wilded some of the streams.  Then they created set aside spots for brush to grow, to create better habitat for all the flora and fauna on the land.  Then he purchased a small herd of cattle – and while some become food for the family, and some are sold as a cash crop to other farmers – mostly their purpose is to fertilize the soil.  Today his land is producing better quality grass for the sheep, and more of it; there’s more diversity of plants, insects, birds and animals on the land, and he can handle occasional flooding better.  

That’s because he sat down and re-thought why he was farming.  

Two thousand five hundred years ago, give or take a decade, the prophet Haggai spoke to the people.  They were discouraged, they’d worked so hard and seen so little.  In 539 BCE the Jewish people had been allowed to return from exile to their homes in Jerusalem, and  nothing was right there.  Their temple was destroyed, the former glory was passed away.   They were discouraged.

Haggai told them that better days were coming.  Now, in his picture, those better days would lead to an even more beautiful temple, decorated with gold and silver and jewels.  

When we read this story today, however, we read it from our own context.  We’ve not lost the external beauty of our church.  We have moved beyond the world for which this building was planned.  In fact, we probably moved beyond that world more than fifty years ago, when you consider that this room, and the Memorial Room and the Upper Room were the original space  — think about where they had Sunday school — they lived in a world where  you could cram 100 fourth-graders into a class and expect them to behave.  I’ve seen other buildings put up in the late nineteenth-century and they rarely have anything we’d recognize as a Sunday school space.

It’s not about the literal meaning of the words of Haggai.  As so often, we cheat ourselves if we stop at the surface.  Haggai’s meaning for us is not about gold leaf paint or jewels in the stained glass.  It’s about our future.  Our glory has never been the beauty of our building; it has been, is, and will be how we live out our faith in the world.

This room is beautiful, but its real beauty is its inner life, the amazing generosity of its people, our willingness to stand up for the poor, the dismissed, the hurt, those who hunger and thirst.

And the question for us is where will we go in the future?    Do we want to be a place known for our hospitality?  How will we do that?  Do we want to be a community known for its support for racial justice?  What does our community need?  How are we called to respond?

The Gospel lesson is a warning to watch out for irrelevant arguments.  The Sadducees were playing “gotcha” with Jesus, and it didn’t go well for them.  And, you know, that’s the sort of thing we do when we’re really disturbed by the options before us.  

We don’t like how the (baseball/basketball/whatever) game is going, so we criticize the way the players are wearing their uniforms, right?  You show up for Thanksgiving Dinner and your parents announce they’re getting a divorce, and this will be the last time you ever gather as a family… and the next thing you know, there’s an argument starting down at the far end of the table:  Which is the better comic book character – Daffy Duck or Donald Duck? Because missing the point is one of the ways we avoid or delay dealing with really difficult stuff.  So in our conversations, let’s take care that we don’t miss the point.

This is not about the things we think a church ought to do, but the things we’re ready and willing to do.  

What is our purpose today?  

It wasn’t until James Rebanks saw that farming was more than breeding better sheep, that it was also about caring for the land, investing in the future, that he was able to see clearly how he could, should care for his land.  With a new, clearer understanding of his purpose, he was able to marshal his resources to make a difference.  

Getting a clear sense of our purpose is the first step to understanding what we are now being called to do.  Like Rebanks, we are being called to look at what we’ve always done and decide together whether that’s the right way to continue, or whether we are being called to make some changes.  

We’re in a new world.  And we’re not the same church we were fifty years ago.  How will those changes change us?

Let’s talk.  Let’s talk together.  Next week, after church, with or without coffee, let’s begin a conversation.  We won’t come to conclusions next week; don’t worry if you’re not going to be here that day.  But let’s begin the conversation.  Just who are we these days?  And what are the gifts we have to share with Middletown, in God’s name?

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child