What Is Eternal Life?

Congregational Church of Grafton MA, May 13, 2018

1 John 5:9-13 — Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal 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.

Yesterday I went to a three hour funeral of a beloved friend.  We gathered, almost 400 of us and shared photos, told stories, sang songs and listened for God’s word.

We came, knowing that dead is dead, that there is no life after death.  We’ve buried pets and plants, family members, friends, beloved and enemies.  And when they’re gone, they’re gone.

But this time, as the time together went along, we began to see something else.  We began to see the form and substance of new life arising out of the old.  We began to see death turning into new life.

Now, I’d planned all week to talk today about the eternal life that’s spoken of by the author of John’s letter.  I looked up quotes, found stories… all in the hopes of explaining the unexplainable.

Just how is it that what has been dead and buried can possibly rise and live again?  And what could something so inexplicable, so un-scientific mean to us?

But after yesterday’s experience, I find I just want to tell you what I saw and heard for myself.  Because yesterday, in its own way, I saw the dead rise and what I saw expanded my understanding of eternal life in a way I simply did not expect.

Let’s be clear.  I did not see an actual dead human being sit up and walk away.  The three hour funeral was for my seminary’s campus.  Andover Newton Theological School is a lovely set of buildings places on the top of the tallest hill west of Boston – from the top floor of the tallest dorm you can see all the way from Newton to Worcester.  It is a quiet leafy green paradise.  And on its best days, it was filled with people who all loved and served God, who sought to build community and share the good news of Jesus Christ.

But times change.  There are fewer churches, increased running costs, fewer students, more outgo, less income, and for the school, the beautiful campus, the sign of all we’d “always done” has been transformed from an important tool into a millstone around our neck.  There was never enough money to do all the necessary upkeep…

Does this sound familiar?  Fewer and fewer people attending, less and less interest, higher and higher costs, more and more expensive upkeep….?  I could just as easily be talking about this place, about our church.

So, if I went to Andover Newton yesterday to “say good-by to the campus” to attend a metaphorical three hour funeral, how is it that today I’m saying that I saw eternal life in action while I was there?

It’s because the time we spent together kept pointing out to us, kept helping us to see that the time for doing things the same way we’ve always done, the time for sitting in the same seats, in the same place, for running things in the same way, is over and done.

The time we spent together kept pointing out to us that every day we need to be willing and open to recognizing how our old habits can keep us from meeting the needs of the future.

Andover Newton nearly closed, but today it is a renewed, re-born, maybe even resurrected school on a new, to us, campus at Yale Divinity School in New Haven CT.  We were independent, owners of our own campus.  In New Haven we’re doing things differently.  But we’ve discovered that on this new campus, in company with the Yale Divinity School, we’ve shed the practices and expectations of the past that were holding us back.  We already have new students for a program that won’t officially start until next fall.

Think about what this means for us.  The writer of our lesson for today says that eternal life is found in Christ.  It’s not found in reverence for yesterday – that’s not bad, but it’s a poor foundation for tomorrow.  New life, eternal life, is found in putting Jesus Christ and the principles of Christian living first.  It’s not found by offering answers to yesterday’s questions.  Andover Newton found its new life by putting everything they’d been doing on the table, by gradually and painfully coming to see that their current situation had freed them from the cold dead hand of “we’ve always done it this way.”  That pushed the school back to its beginnings.

You probably don’t know it, but Andover Newton is the oldest graduate school in the United States.  Andover Seminary invented graduate theological education.  At a time when you learned to be a doctor or a lawyer by apprenticing, our ancestors decided that apprenticeships were no longer an adequate way to learn to help people deal with the crucial questions of life.

They started as a daring group of experimenters, trying something new, rebelling against “we’ve always done it that way.” That’s what the school – leadership, faculty and trustees – went back to a few years ago.. a beginning built on a willingness to put the past away and try something new.

We here in this church are in something of the same place as Andover Newton.  We are at a crossroads in our life.  Like that school, we can keep on doing things in the same old way or we can move out into a bold experiment.

I’ve been here now for just over a year and a half, and I know you to be good people, like my classmates at Andover Newton. Like them, we all like doing things the way we’ve always done.  We like the familiar.  We’re ok with a little change, done slowly, but radical change, putting aside the old for something that feels uncomfortable, well that’s not something we jump right into.  Trusting people we don’t really know to do the right thing, well that was hard for us in Newton too.

But if Andover Newton hadn’t stepped out on a new and different path, if it hadn’t girded itself up to go over all its programs and honestly discern if this or that program was part of our future, if it hadn’t been willing to give up its beloved Doctor of Ministry degree and any number of other things, well, it would have closed last year, never to graduate another student, unable to teach out the final 100 students, all of whom will finish their degrees.  The money was gone.  They chose God’s everlasting life, they chose to let go of all that was killing them, all that was dragging them down, drowning them, they chose to follow Christ.

And yes, I’m suggesting that we are facing similar choices.  The old ways of attracting people to church don’t work anymore.  I was raised in a world where one of the ways you proclaimed your status as a respectable person was by attending church.  Today, the Pew research folks tell us that fully one third of Massachusetts folks don’t believe in much of anything and no more than one third attend church regularly. Even well-read college-educated adults miss Biblical quotations because they’ve never read the Bible, don’t know the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and have no idea what we do in here each week. They have never been in a church, not once.

It is time, the right time, the ripe time for us to sit down in community to talk together about what we are called by God to do share the good news of Jesus Christ to one another, to our community, to the world.  Before us stretches the “slow time” of summer.  When we get to September, I want us to have constructed our plan for what we will do during our 2018-19 season to help our church thrive and prosper.

I’m not going to tell you what your goals should be.

I’m not even going to tell you what you should do.

We will discern these together.

I will only say this, that if our plans do not include doing things which push us beyond our comfort zone, if they do not require us to give up something we have loved or cherished, if they do not require us to change habits, we will almost certainly be trying to re-create yesterday, only in a different shade of color.  And even if we do the exact same thing superbly well, it won’t bring back yesterday. We need plans for today’s and tomorrow’s realities, not cherished memories of the past.

We’ll talk about this at Cabinet this week. Pass your ideas, your fears along to any of us who come to that.  The Cabinet will  plan times for us – as a congregation – to get together to discern where God is calling us to go.

And now, may God bless this church and guide it to new life.

Amen.

© 2018, Virginia H. Child

Why Are We Here?

The Congregational Church of Grafton UCC, February 18, 2018

Genesis 9: 8-17  -When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. . .

Mark 1:14-15 – “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 

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 February 1943, Langdon Gilkey was an English teacher at the Yenching University in Beijing China.  World War 2 had begun fifteen months ago, making it impossible for him, or for many other foreigners, to return to their native countries.  Everyone had scruffed along right where they were, but in February, things changed.  The land was under the control of the Japanese army, and they wanted all the foreigners gathered together in one place, under tight control.  And so began a sobering journey for Gilkey.

Along with around 1500 other missionaries, teachers and business people, husbands, wives, children from teens to infants, they traveled by slow train to a city in Shandong Province where they were confined in a former mission compound.  There was not enough room for everyone, there were barely any facilities – few beds, no extra blankets, not enough water for flush toilets or daily showers, inadequate kitchens to cook, no refrigeration to keep the food safe, and for that matter, not enough food.  If you’re like me and don’t quite know where Shandong Province is – well, it’s just west of Korea, at about the same parallel as PyeongChang, where the Olympics are taking place, and just about as warm and comfortable in the winter.

Langdon Gilkey came to the camp an ordinary cultural Christian, not particularly interested in the details of the faith, pretty much convinced it was largely irrelevant in a world where people now knew to work together for the best for everyone.  He believed we’d grown beyond the foolishness of greed and self-interest, that sin was an old fashioned concept.  And then he was asked to serve on the Housing Committee for the Internment Camp.

Because of the way people had entered the camp, some had much more space than they absolutely needed, while others did not have enough.  In particular, families with teenagers had two rooms, while families with toddlers had only one.  This was enormously challenging for the parents of the littlest ones – one 8×12 room in which to do everything…  The building committee came up with a plan to redistribute space – in fact, they came up with two plans to do so – and each time, to Gilkey’s astonishment, the plans were rejected out of hand by those who would lost space.

He brought the problem of space to four families, of whom he wrote:  “None of them is a troublemaker or uneducated.  …they’re all respectable.. and as moral as they come, just the kind that would support any good cause in their communities at home.”[1]

Not one of them agreed to share their space or make any changes.  One husband and father threatened to sue him, after the war, if he persisted in insisting on this change.  Even the missionary family refused to cooperate.  The Housing Committee had to finally go to their Japanese captors and ask them to force people to agree to the changes.  Only under compulsion were people willing to help each other out.

He wrote:  . . . I began to see that without moral health, a community is as helpless and lost as it is without material supplies and services.[2]

Why are we here?  Because, like Langdon Gilkey, we’ve come to realize that the world doesn’t work on the basis of good will to all people.

We’re here because we’ve come to realize that without the power and leadership of God, without the example of Jesus Christ, without the urging of the Holy Spirit, we’d find it enormously difficult to live in a way which nurtures community, builds up our world, brings justice and mercy to the downtrodden.

We’re here because without God, our lives would be only about me, myself, and my immediate family, and that’s not how we want to live.

God gives us church as a place to try out living by faith.  As Gilkey discovered, living a moral life isn’t so easy when our choices are limited.  In Shantung Compound every time someone got more, someone else got less.  There was no “more” for everyone, and so it seemed as though life was really about “less” for everyone.

Knowing the right answer to the question of how to live isn’t simple, or obvious, or easy.

Yesterday morning I conducted a graveside service for Lois Morris Mann, whom I was told had been active here more than 50 years ago (she was 95 when she died).. and, as I often do, I read First Corinthians 13.  I was struck by this phrase:  “if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing”  and it occurred to me that the God whom we follow says that love is more important than faith.

So the first thing I know about God is that for God, love is the most important thing.  It is love which can bind our world together, even when we cannot agree on the details of faith, and from that truth, all else proceeds.

Then I turn to the story from Genesis, the end of the story of the flooding of the land.  Now this story isn’t about the nature of floods, or the likelihood of them, or even whether or not one actually happened exactly as told.  Rather it’s  a story which takes the idea of a flood and uses it to illustrate truths.  It tells us that bad things happen; that some of them are catastrophic, and that God stands with those who have lost the most.

Scientists have spent years trying to prove that there really was a flood, or searching out the remains of Noah’s Ark, but the truth of this story is not in its facticity but in its truthful understanding of God’s care for us.

Our Gospel lesson tells us a third truth about God.  What God is calling us to, this life based on love, focused on justice, is not something that will happen at some unknown time in the future, not something that we should just sit patiently and wait for.  It is something that is right here, right now.  Jesus said, “the time is fulfilled , and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the Good News.”

This is good news.  We are not stuck here, in the midst of a world filled with tears, wracked by terrible news from one day to the next, horrified by yet another large-scale killing at a school.

We serve a God who calls us, now, to action.

We serve a God who calls us to stand up for those who are alone, to stand with those who seek to change our world for the better.

We serve a God who promises that we will never be left alone in disaster, promises that it is love which is the foundational principle of our world.

And that is the Good News for today.

Amen.

© 2018, Virginia H. Child

 

[1]Langdon Gilkey: Shantung Compound, Harper & Row, New York City, 1966, p. 82.

[2] Ibid., p. 76.

Burying the Dead

This morning I officiated at a graveside funeral service – essentially all the funeral plus the committal to the burial space.  It was a beautiful day, warm for this time of the year, and for a blessing, not the least bit windy at the top of the hill in the cemetery.  Burials in New England, in the winter months, can be really unpleasant.  This was lovely.

The deceased, a 95 year old widow, had walked away from church participation (and, so far as her children knew, all relationship to God), upon the sudden death of her first husband.  Her happy re-marriage did not bring her back to faith.

That said, they reported that she was a loving, kind and generous woman, beloved by her children, her second family, grandchildren and all.  So, there I was, officiating at a service for a woman I will never meet, in the midst of family members who have all moved away from our little town: today was the only time I will ever see these people.

It was all made more interesting because the funeral home gave me the wrong address for the cemetery.  Who knew that our town runs both town cemetaries out of one office, while the two are a good five miles apart?  Who’d have expected that half the family was at the right spot, while the other half were with me, at the “right” address, but wrong location?  Fortunately, someone had a phone, and we were soon on the way to the right spot, our very own mini-funeral procession, and no one was inconveniences by waiting an extra five minutes for our arrival.  Moral of the story?  First, check those addresses.  Second?  Always plan to arrive early.

There’s always a question as to just how much “proclamation of the Gospel” is appropriate at such a service.  I’ve known pastors who’d preach a full-on, come-to-Jesus sermon over the casket of the dearly departed — but mostly I hear of them from the folks who were so turned off by the experience that the first thing they ask me is, “do you preach sermons at funerals?”    And “yes” is definitely the wrong answer because these folks already know that sermons are a bad thing.

So, how exactly can I share God with these people?  I try to do it in a number of ways.  First, I am hospitable.  When the family comes to me, I welcome them as they are.  Sometimes they’re enormously embarrassed that they’ve had so little to do with church; I do my best to get them beyond that.

Secondly,  I encourage the family to be truthful, at least among ourselves.  If Dad had two families, let’s talk about that; then when I speak, I will not be saying things that everyone knows are false.  In one of my earliest funerals, I buried a man who was a poacher and a wife-beater — drunk every Saturday night.  Had I not been told those things, I might well have made a fool of the church in my comments; knowing the truth, I was able to offer comfort to a family that was just as glad he was gone.

And thirdly, I concentrate on the Gospel of Love – not uncritical, sloppy-agape love, but that love which welcomes us home. I am absolutely convinced that Love is the foundation of Christian life.  You can believe all the creeds in the world, but as Paul says, if you have not love. . .   And conversely, if you have love, then you are part of God’s family.  I do not believe it serves God’s interests or anyone else’s to use the funeral as an occasion to suggest that the deceased fell short of God’s plan, or ought to have been a stronger church member.

Most of the time, I do funerals. memorial services and committals for people I will never see again.  Living as I do in a place where my denomination was for many many years the “official” church without which it wasn’t possible to have a legal town, it seems as though it’s part of my call to pastor in need those who have no church affiliation.  It is my intention, hope and prayer that when the family leaves the service they know that they have met a way of living which is welcoming and affirming and which intentionally preaches a gospel of love.  Maybe they’ll check out church when they go home; maybe they’ll tell their friends about the good experience.  Maybe they’ll grow in their appreciation of the place God can have in their lives.  For sure, in every case, they will have heard and seen a Gospel of Love.

Getting to Knowing

Congregational Church of Grafton MA UCC, February 11, 2018

2 Kings 2:1-12 – When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.”   Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 

Mark 9:2-9 – Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

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.

Life is full of the incomprehensible.  Anyone who thinks they totally understand what’s going on is deluding themselves.

Now, sure, some people understand how to build engines, or how to teach this or that; some blessed people know how to bake or make wonderful meals.  Some really smart people understand computers, write code, or clean up computers after they’re infected with a malicious code.

And most of us can find our way from Grafton to wherever we need to go; we can ask Siri, or use a GPS, or read a map.

I’m not talking about that kind of knowledge.

I’m talking about the miracle of growth – just how is it that I can feed a puppy dog chow – an unappealing, hard, crunchy food – and the dog turns it into sleek & glossy fur, grows from a pound of blind puppy into a 40 pound expert sheepherding dog?

I’m talking about the miracle of meaning and purpose – just how is it that we come to understand that life has its best meaning when we serve our community?  I’ve been reading General Alexander Archer Vandegrift’s story of the battle of Guadalcanal.  What is it that made it possible for all those men to fight so hard in such a strange place, to fight knowing they were likely to die? Fifteen thousand American men  – and close to 30,000 Japanese were killed or wounded there.  Why do we love our country so much that we’ll give up our lives, our freedoms, to keep it safe?

Last week I read a newspaper story about a newbie UCC pastor, who’d given up a $200,000 a year job at Harvard to be a $50,000 a year pastor in rural Ohio.  What makes that happen?

And of course, there are the other class of unanswerable question, which ask “why did this happen and not that?” or “why me, why my mother, my spouse, my child”.

Life is mysterious and filled with unanswerable questions.

Today is a time in the church year when we try to grapple with some of those unanswerable questions.  We begin with the story of the death of Elijah and the emergence of his student, Elisha, and then move onto a story of the emergence of Jesus as a person of spiritual power.  Each story is an attempt to both answer and ask questions about what is important, and how we recognize it.

In the midst of the worst time in his life, the death of his teacher, Elisha finds new life, new meaning, new purpose by picking up Elijah’s mantle, by carrying on his work.  It’s a reminder that the work we do, whether we’re religious leaders, or parents, or whatever, is part of an ever-flowing stream of living.  We live on our own timelines, but life in general goes along on God’s timeline.

Jesus didn’t do what he did to make himself a big thing; he brought his entire self into God’s way of being, and by doing that to give us a way to see and understand what God was calling the world to do and be.  In much the same way, when we live out the Jesus Way in our lives, we help others to see and understand God’s call.

The gospel story tries to tell us what happened when you really listened to Jesus, really paid attention to what he was saying – it was such a glorious experience that it seemed to Peter and James and John as though he was transfigured into a glorious being, as if Elijah and Moses had shown up and they were all talking together.  And then Peter suggested they build dwellings, which would allow them all to stay there in the midst of transforming glory.

But everyone has to come down off the mountain top. We can’t stay in church 24/7, but have to take our experiences of that glory, our memories of what it was like to be in God’s presence, out into the world, so that those who are lost, or lonely, or living in fear, might, through us, be brought to a place of justice and peace, built on our love for God and for one another.

God in Christ came to us that we might see and learn and know a new way of being, that we might not just exist, but prosper, enjoying a life filled with meaning.

There are times together,  times of transfiguration, so filled with meaning and joy that we just want to stay there, to enjoy the feeling of being in God’s presence.  It’s like being at the most wonderful concert, or most beautifully-played game, an experience we just don’t want to stop.

Underneath the special-ness of that experience, however, is another kind of transfiguration, the transfiguration of the everyday, the illumination of daily living and its transformation from one task after the other into a way of being which brings transformation and transfiguration into our daily world.

And that’s our call; that’s our task.  We are called and commissioned to make love our watchword, make justice our goal, and by doing so, to bring transformation to all the world.

And in the name of Jesus Christ, we will do so.

Amen.

© 2018, Virginia H. Child

The One Right Way to Be Church?

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

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

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


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

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

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

Knowledge puffs up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And from Mary Oliver:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

© 2018, Virginia H. Child

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

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

Getting Those Ducks in a Row

Congregational Church of Grafton, January 14, 2018

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good comes out of places like Nazareth.

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

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

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

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

We are called to be Christians.

Amen.

© Virginia H. Child, 2018

 

Christmas Is Over and Done

The Congregational Church of Grafton UCC, December 31, 2017

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

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

Christmas is over and done.

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

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

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

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

Christmas is over and done.

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

Christmas is over and done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Christians are, that change might happen.

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

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

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

Amen.