The Rules of Prayer: Showing Up

A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Grafton UCC on November 20, 2016

Jeremiah 23:1-6 “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”, says the Lord.

Luke 23:33-43 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding [Jesus] and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear 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.

The Wednesday after the election, two male students from Babson College drove through the Wellesley College campus waving a Trump flag, and yelling racially offensive taunts at African-American students.

Last Monday, a Natick man reported to the Boston Globe that he’s received threatening letters demanding that he not bring black people to his home. “We have reclaimed our country by selecting Trump and you are now messing up everything. Natick has zero tolerance for black people,” said warning note #1, and then warning note #2. Police are investigating.

It’d be easy to dismiss these stories as the loser fantasies of those who lost the election, save that there is a video on YouTube of the two Babson men gloating about being barred from the Wellesley campus, and there are published photos of the letters. And, in both cases, the police are taking the incidents seriously.

But here’s a third story, this time about someone from our neck of the woods: Last week, Toni DiPina, pastor of the Rockdale UCC church in Northbridge just south of here, walked into a restaurant in Lincoln NH with her daughter and grandson, looking for a meal. They were told to wait for a table; meanwhile others who came in after them, were seated immediately. Toni and her family waited, and waited, and waited, for more than 20 minutes. There were tables open, but none for them. When she complained, the waitress just rolled her eyes and blew her off. Oh yes, Toni is black.

And this one, from a black woman who lives in Portland, Maine – she’s describing a conversation she had last week with a stranger, a white woman, who walked up to her as they both stood on Fore Street and asked:

“’. . . what was this place?’ I assumed she meant the establishment we were standing in front of, so I said it looks like a bar. Then she pointed her gaze at me and asked me where was I from? From there she proceeded to ask me where I lived? At that point, I realized that I was having a potentially racialized encounter and her next question confirmed it. She asked me where did the Blacks (her exact words) live in Maine because there was no ghetto here. She got louder as she repeated herself at which point the white man I had been with said, I think that is enough, these questions are not appropriate. She asked one final question, what would I do if she got aggressive with me? I told her this exchange is over and slowly backed away from her.

There’s been a lot in the news over the past 10 days about incidents such as these: threats, aggressive actions, refusal to serve, and so on. We’d like to think these are aberrant behaviors, the results of just one or two people who haven’t bought into the idea that “all men & women are created equal”.

But when the stories are reported in the paper or on TV, the comments show that those incidents not unusual, that there’s plenty of support for the miscreants.

“Boys will be boys,” says one writer; “more PC insanity,” writes another. It was no big thing, or they made it up, or I don’t believe the photo, or the story. The thing is, the victims don’t think the actions were funny, or innocuous.

And then there are the responses the people themselves receive, on Facebook, or via email or snail mail. The nice responses call them liars, and it goes from there to words I cannot say here in this room, and including threats on their lives. People are frightened.

 

All this month, I’ve been talking about prayer, encouraging us to use it as a way to get beyond the anger and hatred which builds walls and destroys community. That’s why we’ve been aiming to pray for our enemies on a daily basis. I know that’s hard; I’ve had to do it myself, and I don’t dismiss the difficulty.

However, the simple statement before God that we want to pray for our enemies, or that we want to want to pray… is the only way we can begin to allow the bile of anger to drain away from our hearts. If, this month, you have not found it easy, or possible, to pray for another, I hope you will at least find it possible to pray that you might be able to do that, and perhaps spend some time meditating on God’s trustworthy forgiveness.

Today, however, I want to point out that prayer is much more than words uttered in the privacy of our homes, or recited together here in church. Prayer is also action. Prayer is action when we see before us injustice, or pain, or anger and turn towards the hurt, not away. It doesn’t have to be big, or fancy, or pre-planned, or dangerous – it just has to be action.

The first step in action is paying attention to what’s going on. It’s way too easy to just take a glance and think we know what’s really going on, or take Facebook’s word for what is true and what is false. It’s something like the photo (by Michael Blanchard) that’s on today’s bulletin. If you look at it quickly what you see is the prow of the MV Island Home, the water of Vineyard Haven harbor, land and a huge moon, and you might think it’s a picture of the boat heading from right to left.

But if you take the time to look at the photo carefully, you’ll see a quiet wake “in front of” the boat, and that observation turns the picture right around. When you research the Island Home, you’ll discover it travels from Woods Hole to the Vineyard and that it appears to be double-ended. When you look for other pictures of the harbors, you’ll quickly realize that the lighthouse barely visible is East Chop, on the Vineyard. Now you’ll know the Island Home isn’t sailing from right to left, but from left to right. It’s not leaving the harbor; it’s arriving. . This won’t be your guess; it’s knowledge, not opinion. Studying the whole picture, knowing what we’re dealing with is a key step in active prayer.

Last winter, I went into Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston to visit a parishioner. I found myself at the main visitor’s desk, waiting in line while the harried clerk tried to help a wheelchair-bound woman who had missed her appointment because the transport van had been late.

The patient was very old, accompanied by a grandson who’d taken the day off work to be with her, and it turned out there was no way her appointment could be re-scheduled. Standing there, watching & listening, I realized I was in the middle of a prayer. That harried clerk did everything she could, phoned different people, pled for an appointment for that day, and even though she failed in her attempt it was, none the less, prayer in action.

We pray as a way to prepare ourselves for action – we pray to teach ourselves what action should look like, what the world should be. The words we say when we pray – here or at home – are a training program for life.

Prayer is not first of all about sharing ourselves with an eternally-approving God, but a way of molding our souls, our selves, into people of faith-filled action. “The goal of prayer is the forming and shaping of human character.”

Prayer, properly understood, is intended to pull us out of our own “centered on me, my & mine” mindset, and open us up to the fears and anxieties of the world around us.

The clerk was praying when she worked so hard for that patient. We pray when we stand with those who are being harassed, threatened or dismissed right now. Prayer is not just about words, but solid prayer results in concrete action.

Toni DiPina posted the story of what happened to her and her family on Facebook, and she was surrounded by a community of prayer and support. They helped her achieve some resolution with the manager of the restaurant and made it clear she wasn’t alone in the struggle.

This is Thanksgiving week – on Thursday, we will gather in homes across the nation, sharing the foods which mean home to us, watching football, avoiding arguments with cousin Addie who persists in thinking that the 49rs are a better team than the Patriots.

On that the day remember, too, the conviction of a people who so believed that prayer forms deeds, that they packed up everything they owned, and left behind family, friends, church, to come to a new land. Here they aimed to create a community where everyone was committed to a way of life which integrated prayer and action.

We are the spiritual descendants of those Pilgrims and the later Puritans, the inheritors of their beliefs in the value of every life, and in individual connection to God. Prayer taught those Pilgrims and Puritans that all people matter.

We join them as people of their prayer, the prayer that everyone is welcome, that God loves us all, and not just a prayer in words, but prayer in deeds.

I don’t know what sorts of situations we’ll find ourselves in over the days to come, but it’s pretty clear that there are people out there who think it’s ok to attack gay people, to dismiss people of color, to put down women, to dismiss the idea of equality and justice for all. It’s pretty clear that if we keep our eyes open we’ll have plenty of opportunities to match our words with our deeds.

  • We will stand up for those who are put down.
  • We will speak up for those who are silenced.
  • We will show up for those who think they are alone.

We will be the people who let their prayers guide their deeds, and who use their lives to show glory to God.

Amen.

© 2016, Virginia H. Child

The Rules of Prayer: Looking Beyond Ourselves

A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Grafton UCC on November 13, 2016

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.

There’s nothing easier than thinking of yourself as a Christian, especially as we so often define that word for ourselves. And that’s ok. But if you want the full benefit of following the way of Christ, there’s more to it than just giving yourself the name.  It’s like the difference between dating and marriage.

Last week, we took the first step in the difficult part of being Christian: recognizing that we can’t do it all ourselves, that we need help to make it through the day.

This week, we’re diving a little deeper, to help us get comfortable with the idea that there’s more to all this than just what we want.

Christian faith is pretty clear, and even easy, when it’s just me and my Savior. Jesus is really understanding, non-judgmental, accepting and gracious – even when I don’t spend much time with him. And it’s pretty easy to do what seems right to me, and know it’ll all be ok with him.

But then add in community, and it all get so complex and messy. Community is part and parcel of the Christian way; though it is harder, it’s also more rewarding.

Living in community is more challenging because it pulls out of our own self-centered orbit and requires that we think about and deal with – not only our own desires, or even the desires of our friends, but with the needs of the community and the wider world.

As we grow in our ability to pray, we’ll deepen our commitment to praying more for what the community needs than what we want. We’ll be drawn out of our own selves, our own experiences, expectations, wants and desires.

Jesus tells the story of the sower…who went out to sow seeds.

  • Some of his seeds fell on the path. They were never going to sprout. Some got eaten, some were destroyed.
  • Some seed fell on rock, it died for lack of water.
  • Some fell among thorns, and got choked out.
  • Some fell on good soil, grew and prospered.

There’s any number of lessons which may be taken from this story, but for today, it tells us that there are ways to be which can look good, but for differing reasons do not prosper.

So we can go through the motions, like the sower, but pay no attention to anything in our lives, and the gifts of faith do not prosper.

Or we can pay attention enough that the seed of faith sprouts, but then it withers and dies because it’s not nurtured at all.

We can pay attetion, and nurture it, but then allow the realities of life to choke it out.

We can pay attention, and pay attention, and pay attention… and grow more and more deeply into relationship with God and one another.

Lives change, and sometimes it feels as though that change happens by the minute. Happy and receptive one minutes, it can feel as though we’re nothing but rocky ground the next.

Sometimes we’re so captive to our own troubles, our own concerns, that nothing else can flourish.

And then comes those times when we are able to move beyond our selves, to see and hear the need of the community within which we live, and reach out to them through the power of prayer. Because prayer changes things.

But that’s hard. It reminds me of a devotional written some time ago by professor Mary Luti:

Mother and child in the supermarket. The boy’s two-ish. Squirmy. In the cereal aisle, Mom’s tension rises. When he rips open the Cheerios, she’s had it. She yanks the box away, plunks him in the carriage, and wheels him to the register before he can summon a sound.

 And I’m thinking it’s terrible to be two. You want what you want when you want it, but you get what adults think is good for you and convenient for them. You can manipulate them to a point, but your power’s limited by size and weight. They can always toss you in a cart like a head of lettuce and wheel you away.

No wonder children like playing grown-up, bossing each other around. They think we’re free, that we just will things, and everything we want leaps from the shelf into our carts. They don’t know yet that to be in charge of yes and no is more terrible than being two.

 They don’t know about the tyranny of choices, the terror of decision, and unintended consequences. They don’t know that we’re never not at the mercy of other people’s ideas about what’s good for us and convenient for them. They don’t know that at any age, without warning or consent, rogue events can yank dreams from our hearts like a fed-up parent in a grocery store. Even if you’re 6’5″ and weigh 240, life can still toss you around and wheel you away.

 Here’s truth, consolation, saving grace: In life and death, and in every tossing, we belong to God

Here’s more truth: the more we practice reaching out to others, paying attention to who they are, what their frustrations are, what their needs will be, the better we will be as well.

We had a national election this week, and there are a lot of people hurting today, a lot of people scared. There was more vitriol in this election than I can remember in decades and it has not stopped with the election. It’s a time when we might well be consumed by our own reactions. And it’s a time for us to also reach out, to extend the hand of community to those whose fears are overwhelming, to offer them our prayers, to together comes to a sense that “tho the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

The first rule of prayer is to “ask for help”.

And the second rule is to “get outside ourselves”.

All so that we may strengthen our faith, increase our trust in God’s empowering presence, and be a strong witness to what it means to “be the church” in this community.

Amen.

© 2016, Virginia H. Child

The Rules of Prayer: Recognizing We Need Help

A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Grafton UCC on November 6, 2016

 

Psalm 17:1-9 Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry

Luke 20:27-38 . . . that wife, now – I nthe resurrection whose wife is she?

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.

Psalm 17 is often held up as an example of a good prayer – and it is – an example of a good prayer. It’s a prayer which knows, absolutely, that God is there for us. It’s a prayer which trusts, absolutely, that God will support us. It’s a prayer which comes pretty close to demanding that God pay attention, hear our cries, and respond to our needs. The Psalmist even speaks to God in the imperative mood.

You remember the imperative mood from high school English, right? Do this, NOW. Hear! Listen! Pay attention!!

Well, that’s how confident the psalmist is; he – or she – tells God how it should be, and what the answer will be to his/her prayers. That’s one confident pray-er!

Now that seems pretty normal to me – just the sort of thing we usually expect from the Bible. But today’s Gospel lesson is clearly from another place. Every time I hear it, I can’t help but think to myself, golly, if I had a chance to ask Jesus a question, I hope to heavens it wouldn’t be something as piffly as this one.

It is so odd, it’s confusing. The poor woman! She keeps being married off to one brother after another .. . . and don’t you wonder how brothers 6 or 7 felt about this, given that she’d seen brothers 1, 2, 3, 4 AND 5 all die. In this day and age, we’re all wondering if she’s not a serial killer after the insurance money, but all the religious rule-keepers of the day (the people who want every little part of the service to be JUST like it was in grandpa’s day)… well, all they can worry about is, just whose wife will she be in heaven?

It’s really not surprising that Jesus’ response to the rule-lovers was quick and pointed. You’ve gotten it wrong, he says. Resurrection life isn’t about having wife or husbands.

So it seems we have two lessons here: one a model of how to pray and the other a model of foolish expectations.   But if that’s what we think, we’re only partly correct.

That’s because there’s something out of kilter in each lesson; neither is really a model of right-ness. Each of them starts from the same place…. Each starts by the writer, or the rule-lover, thinking they’re right. Neither of them has any sense of humility; neither was written by someone who was conscious of their own distance from perfection.

And the first rule of prayer is to begin by recognizing that we – not one of us — start from a good position. We have all fallen short of the glory of God. That’s why we confess our sins on a regular basis – we need to remind ourselves that we don’t stand in the position of perfection.

The Psalmist was so sure of his position that he didn’t feel the need to acknowledge any shortcomings on his part. He must have seen the world in black and white to have ended up there, I think.  And those rule-lovers? They were so sure they knew the rules backwards and forwards that they tried to debate with Jesus!

Neither the Psalmist nor the rule-lovers had any sense of their own shortcomings, and not knowing, they weren’t able to ask for forgiveness, much less vision or healing.

Church – this church – at its best, is a place where we can be vulnerable, where it is safe to admit our shortcomings, our sins, our struggles. It is a place where we can stand together and support one another. But when we forget to remember who we are, when we lose our sense of humility & begin to act as if we’re just tidying up the loose ends, well, then we’re really stepping out into the cold, by ourselves, wrapped up in our cloak of self-righteousness.

Now, this is part of the natural order of life. We’re all prone to attacks of self-righteousness. We’re all hesitant to admit our own short-comings, our errors, or fears.

The first time I ever went down to Cape Cod by myself, I was driving up from Philadelphia with a friend. I’d made the trip a million times, for sure, but always riding in the back seat, up through Connecticut to my grandparents’ home in Woodstock, and then via US 44, through Providence and Taunton, and thus to the Bourne Bridge. This time, I was driving. This time I didn’t go to the grandparents’ home. This time, I took 195 through Fall River and New Bedford. And the trip went really well, until we turned to come back to Philly at the end of the week.

All I know is the next road sign I saw said “welcome to Quincy, city of Presidents”. I’d thought I was right, boasted of my competence… and led us to Quincy when we should have been on the far side of Providence. Because I didn’t know we were wrong, I couldn’t get to right.

The first step is a kind of strong honesty, at least with God, admitting our faults. Henri Nouwen, the great teacher of spiritual life, wrote “the whole central idea of meditation is to simply pay attention to God & find your real self in God. . .” We can’t find that real self until we can admit that we don’t know where it is.

When we think we’re in the right, when we’re not able to see ourselves as God sees us, we back ourselves into a world ruled by anger and frustration. Because, you see, if I’m right, you must be wrong. That’s just the way it is. And I’m right, right? And then because you actually don’t believe I’m right, or at least not as right as I want you to think, I get angry.

And anger eats away at joy, dissolves happiness, corrodes family relationships, and destroys community.

Of course, we all get angry. Even Jesus gets angry – remember those money changers? But there’s a difference between the petty angers of running out of something important, and the kind of anger which eats away at community. It’s the difference between immediate problems, and long-term problems. I eat the last of the cereal, and there’s nothing for tomorrow morning – it’s an immediate, easy to solve problem. I tell my friend I think he’s a bigot – that’s a long-term, difficult to solve, problem.

Someone wrote recently – “for every stitch of hate you put in the fabric, you have to unstitch and you have to restitch in a different way later”[1] in order to mend the rent in the fabric of community.

When we begin to see ourselves as imperfect, when we begin to recognize how the fabric of our relationships has been damaged, we’ll naturally try to bring all together again, to fix what’s broken.

All too often, the solution we seize on is that the other person should begin things by apologizing to me. What we don’t realize, at least at first, is that the hot blazing core of anger lives in our own hearts.

The first step in re-building after a fight is healing the anger in our own hearts. That’s why I focused this month in the newsletter on how we get beyond what tears us apart. It’s something that happens all the time – in families, at work, and even here at church.

Sometimes we don’t even realize how angry we are. Sometimes, we feel so justified in our anger that we don’t want to let go. But Jesus tells us, in that story about the poor woman who’d been married seven times, not to get lost in the irrelevant.

Growing out of a fight will never happen so long as we fix our hearts on being right, on getting even, on making the other do what we want. Every person who’s been through a divorce knows how hopeless it is to keep on being angry at your ex after everything’s over. But still, it’s hard to let go of the feelings; that’s why the author of the story I quoted said he often finds he has to begin by asking for the will to let go of his anger and resentment.

The first step in prayer is to know you stand in the need of prayer, to recognize that where you are now is separating you from God and from your community – your family, your work, even your church. Take that first step and acknowledge your need. Even if you have to begin by saying, I don’t know what I need, or I’m just not ready to let go of my feelings, that’s a beginning. And you will grow, throughout this month, as you continue to offer prayers for that situation, for those persons who have made you so very angry.

Then in God’s good time, your healing will begin. In the meantime, come to this table spread for all who stand in the need of God’s healing love.

In the name of Christ, Amen.

© 2016, Virginia H. Child

[1] Eboo Patel

Back to the Beginning

A sermon preached at the Congregational Church  of Grafton MA UCC on September 11, 2016

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 – Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.

1 John 4:16b-21 – There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

[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.]

It’s all about joy.

It’s all about love.

Life isn’t about our failures. . . though failure happens.

It isn’t about illness or death. . . though there’s no denying that happens too.

And life isn’t about drawing tight little circles around those who are in the “in group”, or the right skin color, or the proper backgroun.

Life, for those of us who have chosen to follow the Christian way, is nothing more, and nothing less, than a dedication to creating joy by living in love.

Joy and love are the hallmarks of a faithful Christian.

Failure can pull us off course.

Pain, illness, death, can so drain us that we can’t even see the way.

Anger and hatred, can make us want to quit the journey

And then there are those folks who seem to want to suck the air out of our lungs – they ask us, even on the train to work – you can’t really believe that stuff, can you? There’s no scientific explanation of the Resurrection, you know…. As if faith were judged on scientific standards.

Or you meet one of those good folks – down in East Providence, they show up at my door regularly – who believe that because I don’t share every particular of their interpretation of Christianity, that I am not really a practicing Christian. As if wrangling about the petty details of how Heaven will be organized is going to make it easier to love my neighbor.

We who are practicing the Christian way find it all to easy to mistake the forest for the trees, or the trees for the forest. But really, we know there is more to life than we can see, more to our world than just what can be demonstrated.

God created a way for us to live purposefully, and then, sent us Jesus Christ so that we would see that purposeful life lived to its fullest. Finally, God gifted us with the Holy Spirit, so that we would have a constant guide, something of a compass, in us to remember the way when we get lost.

When we try to subordinate God to a scientific explanation, or when we try to tie God eternally to pieces of theological conversation, we miss the boat. And we do – miss the boat – all too often.

That’s why we’re going back to the beginning this morning – to re-center ourselves on the firm foundation of God’s love, that we see and love in Jesus Christ, who came singing love.

In the Old Testament, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish Bible, there’s a story about the last sermon ever preached by Moses. Knowing he was dying, he gathered all the Israelites together and said to them: “See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey….by loving the Lord your God, walking in [God’s] ways…then you shall live. . . .And if you do not, but are led astray to bow down to other gods…you shall perish. Choose life”.

Choose life. That’s what love is all about. It’s the keystone and center of our faith. When you get right down to it, choosing life is another way to talk about salvation, because we are saved by choosing life, and we experience being saved when we live in love, when we live with joy.

It’s all about living in a way that makes for life, for vitality, for the prosperity of a healthy community, healthy relationships.

Every single thing we do as Christians, we do because we have chosen life. We believe there will be a tomorrow, and we are determined to plan for it. We believe that we can become better people, and we are determined to work towards that goal.

It all sounds great, and it is, but the theory falls short of our execution. Or to put it more clearly – we fail, early and often. Being a Christian, following the Christian way, putting life first, isn’t easy, isn’t always clear. Sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be an answer to the challenges we face.

Over the summer, I’ve been reading Anthony Lukas’ book COMMON GROUND, about race relations in Boston in the late 60s & 70s, and how forced busing to end segregation played out in that city. If you lived here in those years, even if it was out here and not in Boston, you know how painful those days were. Angry parents, terrified children, inadequate schools, deeply rooted ethnic enclaves, systemic racism, and a truly dysfunctional city government all contributed to conflict which nearly destroyed the City of Boston.

One of the things which comes through Lukas’ book clearly is how many of the players really wanted to do the right thing. They wanted to solve the challenge of racism. They wanted to support good schools. They wanted everyone to have a fair chance. They wanted peace in the city. But all that was laced with a poisonous level of distrust, hatred, fear and contempt for the other – whoever the other was.

In those times, when there’s no one clear right answer, when right for one can be so very wrong for the other, then we need to come back to what’s basic in our faith.

We choose life. We choose what builds up, what makes community stronger. We choose love over hate.

We choose life, and we choose life with questions.

Jesus was twelve the year his parents went up to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They lost him there for a while and when they found him, he was in the Temple, sitting among the teachers and asking them questions. Questioning is part and parcel of “choosing life” for us.

The Preamble of the Constitution of the United Church of Christ says it is “the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.”

We ask questions. We aim to present the faith of Christ in ways which speak to the needs of this generation.

Like Jesus, we don’t take “we’ve always done it this way” as the final answer.

Like him, we seek to deepen our understanding, especially when we hit one of those desperate times in our lives. A parishioner shared with me the experience she’d had that summer.

It began with a conversation with her cardiologist. It was clear her heart was failing, and she was 91 years old, so she was pretty well resigned to just letting things take their course. Her doctor explained that, while the surgery he was suggesting was not risk-free, if it worked, she would be much stronger, more vigorous, and able to enjoy life.

As she thought about it, it seemed to her that if life was made for joy, and she wasn’t able to be joyful now, she ought to opt the risk. If she died, well, she had had a good run; but if she lived. . .  We talked together about how Jesus seemed to be saying that life was good, worthwhile and to be enjoyed, and how much more she appreciated that since the operation.

The author of the First Letter of John had heard that same Jesus, and with his example in front of him, wrote that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” “Perfect love casts out fear. . . We love because [God] first loved us.”

To choose life, to choose the way of Jesus, is to choose to live with love. Every other things we believe about God, about Jesus, about even the Trinity, is something we’ve observed, discerned or deduced because it helps to illustrate the vision of a God who calls us to choose life, a Savior who came singing love, and a Spirit who calls us into community, to be for each other, living proof of that reality.

It’s a challenge; we don’t always live up to it; sometimes we fall flat on our feet, mess up terribly, but a church built on love offers second chances, encourages us, in the face of our failures to return to the core of our faith, to recognize what we’ve done wrong, and to begin again.

That’s who we are; a community of folks who try, and fail, and try again, always looking towards the goal of love, always choosing life.

Amen.

© 2016, Virginia H. Child

 

‘Tis the Spring of Souls Today

A sermon preached at the United Parish of Upton MA on Easter Sunday, 2016

 Luke 24:5b “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.. . .

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.

Hatred runs free in our land.

City water in Flint, Michigan, poisoned the city’s children and no one cared.   It was more important to save money than lives.  And who would complain?  Flint is incredibly poor.  The median household income is around $27,000.  And more than half of Flint is black; who listens to black people anyway?  So, said the State of Michigan, let’s save money.

It’s not just Michigan. It’s now legal to discriminate against gay & lesbian citizens in North Carolina. If you’re transgendered, you have to use the bathroom of your original gender, no matter what you look like, feel like, are, today. I cannot imagine how scared, how hate-filled some people must be, to pass these laws.  I wonder if North Carolina is now going to form a TSA-like corps of people who will stand at restroom doors checking credentials.

It’s here in Massachusetts as well.  A few weeks ago, there was a basketball game at Newton North High School.  That largely-Jewish school was playing Catholic Memorial, an all-boys prep school from West Roxbury. The kids taunted one another across the basketball court, and it escalated beyond all belief when the Catholic Memorial kids chanted “you killed Jesus” at the Newton North kids.

On Friday, someone hacked into 3 Massachusetts colleges, using their printers to spew out anti-Jewish flyers all over the campuses.

Churches  in the Boston area put up banners proclaiming that BLACK LIVES MATTER.  And they are defaced with profanity, cut up with knives.

All across our country, speakers at public events shout out hateful things about women, gays, Hispanics, Muslims, journalists and protestors.  And if a little violence breaks out, well that’s the breaks of the game, right?

I’m not talking about bombings, about which we here in Massachusetts know much more than we want. I’m talking about home-grown hatred.  I’m talking about ordinary people…ordinary places…but extraordinary hatred.

I saw a cartoon the other day:  picture a chemistry lab, complete with bench, bunsen burner, flask and retort.  Your job is to refine the contents of the flask.  And the heat of the bunsen burner comes from flames of fear.  The flask is filled with ignorance.  And what comes out the retort is pure, distilled hate. That’s our world today.

It is as if we are stuck at Good Friday, stuck in a place where the best we can do is blame someone else for everything we hate about ourselves. We’re stuck filled with anger, stuck attacking those who cannot defend themselves. It’s Good Friday, and hatred walks our streets.

Here we are, in a beautiful room. It’s been lovingly decorated with gorgeous flowers and blessed by gracious music…. What place does hate have in this room, in this company?

On such a beautiful day, why do we want to notice the slime of hatred oozing into our world?

The power and joy of Easter is that Jesus Christ came just for days and times such as these, to give us a a pattern for life in the worst of times.

When we hear hatred voiced, we know there is a better way.

When we hear worries and concerns met with callous disregard, we know there is one who calls us to a path of love.

When we recognize the negligent disregard of racism, we know there is a way to live in perfect equality, one with another.

We know this because, in the worst of times, Jesus Christ came to be in this world.  He came to teach us to measure our world against the standards of generosity, justice, righteousness and love.  We know this because after he died in pain and shame, on the third day, he rose from the dead.

It’s easy to say that this Resurrection, this central act of our faith, makes no sense.  Of course, it doesn’t.  Resurrection makes no sense at all.  It’s not sensible; it’s not logical; it’s not scientifically reproducible, like a chemistry experiment.

It’s the sheer irrationality of the event that testfies to its essential truth.  Because, you see, this isn’t about science, isn’t about rationality or historical fact.  It’s about light shining in the darkness.

Easter began, not at sunrise this morning, but in the darkest events of Thursday and Friday, in the despair of Saturday.   Easter began with betrayal.  It deepened with desertion, abandonment.  It continued with a trial, condemnation, and execution.

Buried in haste, his body was gone when the women came to the tomb. Nothing about this made any sense, not in that long-ago time, and not today.  And out of that senselessness, new life came.  Out of confusion and fear, courage bloomed, lives were changed.

The despair and terror of Jesus’ followers is our despair and terror when we face an unknown future.  Their joy when they realize they are not alone, is our joy as well.

This story, this resurrection isn’t about science experiments; it’s about real life.  It’s about life where things just don’t go right.  It’s about those times of quiet desperation when you just can’t see any way forward.

It’s hard to remember our need for God when all is going well.  We humans like to take good times and good weather for granted.  We may well expect everything to always turn out well, but we’re doomed to disappointment.  It’s a fact of life, and not plain pessimism to point out that good does not continue in perpetuity.

Now some will argue that the blessings of our lives come because we’re better than those who suffer.  We’re smarter, we’re more generous, we have louder voices and are better at pushing our way to the front of the line and we thus get the best rewards.  This is the “everyone gets what they deserve” school of life.

And others will say that we get what we work for, and so all we have to do is work hard and rewards will appear.   That’s kinda the “I went to MIT, so my life will be great” school of life.

Both run thin when we face a cat-scan filled with signs of cancer.  Neither has any comfort or strength when the factory closes and we’re out of a job at the age of 59.  And neither has any explanation for the kinds of evil we see every day in our news feed.

Christianity is faith for the tough times.  It’s not an “always sunny weather” way of living.  It anticipates challenges, knows we’ll face ethical dilemmas, personal disasters.  It knows that at the end of all, we will die – the ultimate failure in American life.

Through all that, it helps us understand the value of our lives.  It shows us that life isn’t about toys, or job success, but about the grace with which we live.

And today it reminds us that hatred leads to death.  Only love leads to life.

Because we serve a risen Savior, we will not incite riots.

Because we follow the way of Christ, we will not stand for condemnation of the poor.

Because we carry on the love of Jesus,  we will not join in the disenfranchisement of the downtrodden.

We are Christians; we will condemn hatred and practice mercy.

Today is the spring of souls, the beginning of a new year of following God’s way.

When we sing Christ the Lord is Risen Today we proclaim that death is not the end of things.  Hope rises up out of despair, creates justice, proclaims mercy, practices love.

Today, we are a resurrrection people, born anew out of a culture riddled with hate, born to be messengers of God’s love, to all the world.

Christ the Lord is Risen!  Hatred will not win the struggle.

Amen.

© 2016 Virginia H. Child

 

Changing our Name

A sermon preached at the United Parish of Upton MA on April 10, 2016

Acts 9:1-20 – “ . . . Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done. . .”

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.

Everyone knows Saul who will be Paul… everyone knows by now that he’s a dangerous fanatic who seems to live to turn Jesus-followers in to the authorities — probably more because they were seen as rebels than because they were heretics.

Paul left Jerusalem for Damascus with a warrant to catch even more Jesus-followers. And on the road, his life came to a halt. One moment he was a genuine fire-breathing, Christian-hating nemesis. The next moment, he was a broken man, brought to his knees by the realization that everything he’d been doing was wrong. He was brought into Damascus, blind and helpless, newly re-born as a follower of Jesus, no longer Saul, but now Paul.

If you’ve been coming to church for more than a year, you’re almost sure to have heard about Paul. And even people who’ve never darkened our doors have heard the phrase “a road-to-Damascus change”.

But today, we’re going to listen, not to Paul, but to Ananias. Today, we’re going to look at the uncertainties of change. And, if nothing else, Paul was certain about the fact that he’d changed; he didn’t know his future, but he knew God had called him.

Ananias didn’t. Ananias didn’t know Paul at all. He knew Saul, he knew yesterday’s certainties really well. He knew that Saul had been out to get him and all his fellow believers, but he hadn’t been there when God struck Saul down and raised him back up as Paul. He didn’t see the change, and so he was stuck in yesterday.

Saul left Jerusalem on fire to catch more Jesus-followers. What if this was a ruse, to bring them out into the open? How could Ananias trust this new Paul?

God came to Ananias and called him to go and heal Saul/Paul, but Ananias balked and questioned God’s call.

Who can blame Ananias? Who, faced with a mind-blowing change, even if it’s a good change (after all, the persecutor Saul was changing into the dynamic leader Paul – that should have been good)…. Who, faced with good change, doesn’t still yearn for the stability of what we’ve known and done for forever – even if it wasn’t perfect.

My seminary, Andover Newton Theological School, is going through a Saul to Paul transformation now in many ways. We’re selling our beautiful Newton campus and moving and, while we think we’re going to move to New Haven CT to be a part of the Yale Divinity School campus, that’s not a signed & sealed certainty yet. If we go to Yale, our future will be really interesting, with lots of good opportunities for students & faculty.

But saying good-bye to what we’ve known and loved – there’s been a seminary in that spot in Newton for more than 150 years – isn’t easy, and it’s clearly much more attractive to dream that we could, if we only wanted, continue to stay on the Hill. It’s hard to trust the vision of the future that the school’s president and trustees are bringing forward.

There’s a lot more Ananias than Paul in most of us. Most of us find an enormous comfort in recreating the patterns of yesterday than in stepping out into an unmapped future. We know what yesterday was; we cannot know what tomorrow will bring.

For decades now, we’ve lived with the illusion that all we need to do to prepare for tomorrow is to replicate yesterday. And now, like Ananias, we’re finding that yesterday’s assumptions, yesterday’s truths, don’t work anymore.

Spring is coming, and maybe you, like me, have been pulling out your favorite spring gardening clothing. And, maybe, in the course of that search, you’ve discovered that a favorite shirt has made the leap over the winter from shabby to unwearable. Maybe you went outside and realized that a garden bed has been invaded by bittersweet. Somehow, some one or more assumptions you’ve always made about what you’d wear, how you’d garden, or the advisability of planting bittersweet… well, they just don’t work right anymore.

When you get right down to it, we simply can’t plan for tomorrow by repeating yesterday.

That’s true whether we’re talking about a graduate school, a local congregation, or what to wear when gardening.

Really, when this sort of change happens, whether something minor, or something life changing, we only have two choices: we can dedicate ourselves to complaining about it, or we can become part of the change.

Ananias complained. He whined, he muttered. Well, let’s face it, if you were asked to deal with life-altering change, asking you to do something that just doesn’t seem “right”, wouldn’t you want to complain? There’s nothing wrong with complaining – that’s part of what Ananias teaches us.

But that’s not the end of his lesson: he doesn’t just complain; he listens. There’s nothing wrong with naming our fears by complaining, but there’s plenty wrong with getting stuck there, or with simply refusing to entertain any alternatives to yesterday. And so, while Ananias voiced his worries to God, he also listened to what God had to say.

God speaks in many ways these days; we’re not called to resist change until we run into a blinding light on the road to Damascus. We are called to equip ourselves to deal with change. And again, Ananias shows us a path.

Yes, he complained, but then he checked things out. He did his research With God’s help, he began to see that things had begun to change and to understand how he could be a part of things. He didn’t walk away; he stayed and was part of the future.

This is not just advice for our life as a congregation; it’s about how we choose to live. In the new book, “When Breath Becomes Air”, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi writes about discovering, weeks before he graduated from residency, that he was dying from incurable metasticized lung cancer. He was 36. The future he and his wife had envisioned – work as a surgeon, on the faculty at Stanford Medical School, plenty of time, lots of money – all of it evaporated overnight, and the skills he’d aquired for yesterday weren’t going to work with this new tomorrow.

When his cancer was diagnosed, he already had lungs filled with tumors, but tumors on his spine and in his brain. He wasn’t going to have a whole lot of time. The choice was stark; spend his time looking back in regret, or look clearly into the future. In an article for Stanford Medical School, he wrote:

Time for me is double-edged: Every day brings me further from the low of my last cancer relapse, but every day also brings me closer to the next cancer recurrence — and eventually, death. Perhaps later than I think, but certainly sooner than I desire. . . .

. . . Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

Paul Kalanithi and his wife, also a physician, explored every option available to them. They gave his future here on earth its best chance. And then they opted to live looking ahead. They had a child; she was still a toddler when her father died. They took a chance on tomorrow and, for them, it paid off. He wrote of that choice to his daughter:

When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

Tomorrow is a chancy place. To get there we may well have to dance with our fears, fears of illness in our world, fears about unrest here there and everywhere, fears for the stability of our church community.

Like Ananias, we may try to turn our back on tomorrow; we may want to run away. We may take counsel of our fears. But our risen Lord promises that when we trust in God’s unfailing love, there is another way, one which points us toward tomorrow. It’s the way Andover Newton has chosen, stepping into an unknown future. It’s the way Paul and Lucy Kalanithi chose, having a child, writing a book. It’s the way we have chosen, holding after-church meetings, calling our next pastor.

It’s the daring way, the trusting way, the hope-filled way, the way of Christ. It is our way, and we will follow it together.

Amen.

© 2016, Virginia H. Child

How Many Roads to Home?

A sermon preached at the United Parish of Upton, Massachusetts on September 27, 2015

 

Mark 9:38-50 . . . why anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. . .

 

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.

 

 

Upton is better than Mendon. True?

Massachusetts is better than Connecticut.

New England is the best part of the United States.

 

Ours is the best country in the world.

 

The Red Sox are better than the Yankees.

 

And everywhere else in the country, except New England, the Patriots are the most despised football team…..

 

There’s something in us that wants to make “we” and “us” and “mine” better than “you” or “yours” or “the other one”.

 

Sometimes, it’s not that my place is better than yours – in northern New England, I used to hear it as “ boy, you wanta talk about cold – you’ve never felt cold until you feel the wind sweeping across Sebago Lake from Mount Washington”. And I have to say, I hope to never feel it again… it sure was wicked cold! But, really, that’s just a variant on the old song, “mine is better than yours”.

 

There’s something in our nature that wants to build our sense of worth on the backs of those around us. My lawn is greener (or, if you look at it from the other direction, my lawn is browner) than yours, not only measures my worth against yours, but says that you’re less important than I am.

 

But when we start defining our worth by the shortcomings, failings of others, it means that when they get better, it somehow takes something away from us. If the way we see our lives is “well, at least I’m better than X,” when X gets better, what does that do to our sense of self?”

 

It posits a world where everyone is in competition with everyone else, where life is like the apocryphal story about the engineering professor at MIT who always distributed grades on a bell curve, no matter how well the class “got” the subject. Even tho no one in the class scored lower than 90 out of 100 on the final, some failed, some got A’s, while most got Bs, Cs, and Ds….. they were essentially all in competition with one another over the very few As that would be earned there.

 

Now, think about it…. Do you think those students would be willing to help one another get better grades?

 

Today’s Gospel reading is the story of the MIT students, except, of course, it’s set in Palestine, and it’s Jesus talking with the disciples once again. But it’s that same issue of, “there’s only so many <whatever> to go around, if he gets some, I won’t”. You can hear them whining… we’re here with you every day, why can someone who’s never shown up get the same blessing”?

 

Don’t you just love the disciples? They’re so real. It’s one of the reasons I love the Bible – they’re not plaster saints, but real people who make the same kinds of mistakes as I do.

 

Well, the disciples whined that this nameless someone was doing good in Jesus’ name, without the proper permission or preparation or whatever, and so they (and aren’t we good little boys and girls), told him to stop. To their astonishment, it’s they whom Jesus chastises. He says, “…anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on my side. . . “

 

Why does this matter to us? Because there’s more than one right way to do things. Because there’s more than one right way to live. Because there’s more than one right religion. Because there’s more than one right political party.

 

Because everytime we set the world up as us against them, we build a foundation for hatred and rejection.

 

Last week, a candidate for President of the United States, running on the Republican ticket, suggested that Islam renders a person inappropriate to be President of the US. Now, at one level, that’s an academic question – no Muslim is running for President. But at the more important level, it says that there’s something intrinsically wrong with Islam, with being a Muslim. But Jesus said, “anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on my side”

 

Far better that we should evaluate our candidates on their ability to govern, on their basic decency, on their intelligence, than to go back to those days before the election of John F. Kennedy, when there was an informal religious line that said “no Catholic need apply”.

 

Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, writes:

 

As soon as our denominations, our church, our faith, becomes that which we need to defend, we’ve given up on true dialogue and openness to conversation. We’ve shut the doors and decided that our confessions are better than others.. . . faith is not about competition. Faith is about conversation. It is about support and community. We need a lot of reminders about that.”

 

Tearing down the other, because they’re not like us – tells those outside our doors that they’re not welcome. It tells people who’ve read the Bible, who’ve heard the stories, that we don’t take our own story seriously.

 

The Pope came to Washington this week, and the reporters were astonished at what he said when he spoke to Congress. Now, there was nothing earth-shaking about what the Pope said – it was simply what Christians believe and try to practice all over the world – but he didn’t define what he was proclaiming by putting down others. He didn’t begin by saying, everyone who disagrees with me, or everyone who practices faith differently, is wrong. He simply said what he believed.

 

What does it say about the way Christianity is being proclaimed these days that the press was astonished at his version of the faith?

 

My friend, David Gaewski, who’s the NY Conference Minister, attended one of the services with Pope Francis and wrote this:

 

So here is my end of the day reflection of attending the service with Pope Francis: There were many very high church officials from all faiths present; the multi-religious prayers for peace were beautiful and many were quite fervent; . . . and then this priest from Argentina comes in and speaks in a very soft and humble voice– And he thanks the Fire Fighters of New York for modeling what it means to be human fourteen years ago when the towers fell. He honors all the faiths present and says “we must say “no” to those who want us all to be alike; and we must say “yes” when we celebrate all of our differences.” And then the youth sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and it became a holy moment on what already was holy ground.

 

We must say “no” to those who want us all to be alike; and we must say “yes” when we celebrate all our differences.”

 

Here’s the key: what makes us good, what makes us acceptable, isn’t that we’re better than the next guy, stronger than the other football team. It isn’t that we’re all alike, all believe the same things, follow the same teams, dress the same way, eat the same foods, practice the same religion or even look alike.

 

What makes us good, is that God loves us. God loves us as we are. We don’t need to belittle our neighbors to be acceptable. We don’t need to pretend to be perfect. We don’t need to worry that someone will show us up.

 

As we are, we are loved by God.

As we are, we are empowered to do good in our world.

As we are, we can create community.

 

We’ve been working on this for the past 2000 years. Sometimes we’ve been better at it that others, mostly when we remember this one sure thing: as we are, we are loved by God.

 

As all the world is, it – every single person – is loved by God.

As we are, we are loved by God.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

© 2015, Virginia H. Child

Teaching and Learning

A sermon preached at the United Parish of Upton MA on September 20, 2015

Mark 9:30-37 . . . on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

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 Wednesday night, I let the dog out into our fenced-in yard one more time before bedtime. As I watched him wander the yard, I sniffed the air and smelled skunk. Urgently, I called him back inside. . . he chases squirrels and I knew he’d chase a skunk if he saw it. Now, he knew what I wanted. He heard me call. He even turned his head toward me, for a second… and then he took off barking around the tool shed. The skunk smell got worse, and he came streaking back toward the house. . .

Well, the good news is that the skunk didn’t get him. My dog knows the meaning of coming when he’s called, but he’s a little weak on the practice. You could say he’s filled with head knowledge, but his practical living out of that knowledge is a little wonky.

If he were a human, he’d be first cousin to those disciples who, given an afternoon’s lesson with Jesus, closed their minds to what he was saying, refused to learn the lesson he was teaching, and instead began to argue among themselves about who would take over what job when their ship came in. They got the words ok, but they completely closed their eyes to the meaning.

That’s why this story from Mark is also included in Matthew, and in Luke. Because being a Christian isn’t really about scoring a top score on the religious SAT. It’s about living the teachings of our faith. That was hard then; it’s still hard today.

You’d think that wouldn’t be so. You’d think that after 2000ish years, we’d have gotten our acts together. You’d think that with all the gathered wisdom of the centuries, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley… Reinhold Niebuhr and on and on, we’d have gotten the memo, learned the lesson, and we’d be old, practiced hands at living our faith.

Tisn’t so. Tisn’t so.

I think that is, as much as anything, because actually living according to Jesus’ teaching is scary as all get out.

I’ve been pastoring for more than thirty-five years – preaching and teaching Bible – and over and over, I’ve watched people sit down and study the most profoundly moving books, only to get up from their reading to criticize the author’s use of quotation marks, or their personal translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy – or, my personal favorite, the time, just as we were getting into the kind of conversation which is intensely personal – a student burst out, “I just want to know, what do you think this author believes about the doctrine of the Trinity.” The book wasn’t about the Trinity; the question was a squirrel ploy to move the conversation away from the personal and onto the academic.

Living our faith is scary stuff.

That’s why, I think, we’re so easily lured into spending hours on whether or not this fact is right or that tenet must be believed in order to be a real Christian. It’s one thing to study it academically; it’s a whole ‘nother thing to study it experientially.

Look again at Mark. This time, look at what Jesus is talking about when he’s teaching them. He was saying, in the most explicit language possible that they were on a path to pain and death. They were close to the end of things and so he said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed to some people who want nothing to do with God. They will murder him. Three days after his murder, he will rise, alive.

No one wanted to hear that their faith, their agreement to follow Jesus was going to lead anywhere except to extravagant success. They’d quit their jobs, left homes and families; and it wasn’t so that they could be betrayed to the authorities…no sirreee! So they blew Jesus off. So little attention did they pay to his words that they spent the rest of the journey arguing among themselves as to which one would have the most authority in the coming days. Just who would be top dog, they ask, and each wanted to nominate himself.

They never heard a word he said – sure, the sound waves passed their ears, but it was like me asking my dog to come in. The skunk looked like more fun, and so it was, for a minute or two.

But that’s not faith. Jesus made it as clear as he could when he rebuked the disciples and said “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Professor Micah Kiel writes that, “in Mark, faith is not intellectual assent to a series of ideas or articles to be believed. Faith is more about what is in your gut, fortitude.” . . .for me, that’s why we’d rather hide in the thickets of facts …. If we once get beyond knowing and move into living, it’s going to change us, change our lives… and change is downright scary.

Think about it… who here has not had a doctor tell them, with utter seriousness, that if they do something, or quit something – terrible things are going to happen. Stop smoking, cut back on burgers from McDonalds, give up cake (or at least cut way back)… I can remember a family conversation my brother and I had with our mother, telling her of the dangers of smoking. She took a long drag on her Camel and said, “well, at least I’ll know what killed me.” We hear the words, but we don’t let them change our lives… not quickly, not easily. It isn’t until we have trouble walking thru the grocery store, or can’t pick up a grandchild, or have that first stroke, that life gets our attention, maybe.

When we try to understand our faith, we focus on the facts because, until we get them right – we think – we don’t have to worry about action.

This week’s reading is a fascinating study of the relationship between fear and faith. Notice that the disciples do not ask Jesus any questions in response to his prediction of his impending crucifixion because they are afraid. And the next thing you know they’re talking about securing their place in the coming kingdom. Fear does that. It both paralyzes you and drives you to look out only for yourself.

Jesus had been teaching them as they walked along, teaching them about the ultimate way of life, about his purpose, about his life and his death (and by extension about what would happen to his followers).. and they did not want to hear it. So Jesus nattered on, and they tuned him out.

We’re no different. We find change challenging; we don’t want to delve too deeply into what following Christ might be. We’re really good at trying to avoid pain, or walking away from fear, or hunkering down until better days come.

But that’s not our world. Those are not our options. As much as we might prefer a world where there was no pain, no struggle, where we can close our eyes, click our heels threee times and go home, that world doesn’t exist. We might dream of living where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are all above average, but that world only exists in Lake Wobegon, in Garrison Keillor’s mind.

We live in a real world, where people we love get sick and die, where forest fires can burn out of control and destroy a world, where our jobs may disappear overnight, where a country such as Syria can dissolve into chaos. . . or we might — less catastrophically – spend a couple of hours stuck on the MassPike trying to get to Boston in the morning.

In this world, we need more than facts to sustain our spirits. We need to allow the words of our faith to take root in our hearts. From those roots grow the courage to take each day as it comes, to step out without knowing for sure what tomorrow will bring, to live with the truth that none of us is perfect, and that life is filled with traps of expectations and disappointments.

That’s real life. Not certainty, not constant and everlasting good, but wonder, and hope. We’re horrified by the streams of refugees trying to get from Syria to Europe, and then, in wonder, see how Germany is welcoming these homeless, stateless people. We go to the hospital, almost shaking in fear for our diagnosis, and are welcomed by caregivers who see us as real people.

In our turn, we meet those we encounter with love as well, listen with compassion, reach out in generosity. The generosity of Germany moves us to share what we have with those self-same refugees; when one person lets us into the traffic stream we think to let someone else in, in our turn.

Life isn’t so much about facts, as it is about the application of facts. It’s not important to memorize all the books of the Bible; it is important to act with love, with acceptance, with generosity. We don’t need to recite this creed or that catechism, without thinking about the meaning of the words. We need to live the meaning of the words, to understand that the core of our beliefs is simply this: God is love. From that one belief, all else follows.

God is love.

Amen.

© 2015, Virginia H. Child

. . . where they have to take you in (but will send you out)

A sermon preached at the United Parish of Upton on September 13, 2015

Mark 8: 27-38 . . . for what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their 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.

 

The other day I read an article about a couple who’ve chosen to live in the Victorian era. That’s right, even though they are physically present in twenty-first century Washington state, they’ve given up electricity, refrigerators, indoor plumbing, washing machines…. And comfortable clothes…. So they can write with a dip pen, read by oil lamp (and wash the chimney’s every morning, I expect), and move around town on big wheel bicycles.

They’re not Sturbridge Village re-enactors, who go home at night and take a hot shower before sitting down to a cold drink and a baked chicken in a heated home. They do this 24/7, and glory in the work of emptying the pan of melted water under their icebox.

I’m going to step out on a limb, here, and say that these two people are living in a romantic dream…romantic and, for that matter, inconsistent, given that they use the internet, maintain a blog. I bet that when they go to the dentist, they ask for novocaine – and I hope both of them vote, even though in Victorian times, she would not have been allowed to do so.

They also want us to know that they understand themselves to be closer to the ethical center of life, that they use fewer of the world’s resources by wearing wool and cotton, and so on. From that, I gather they’ve never actually studied the working conditions in late Victorian-era mills, or thought about the conditions under which that cotton was harvested and so on.

We like what we like and we especially like what gives us comfort.   For these two people, comfort comes in corsets and long underwear.

For others – maybe even most of us – one place comfort is found in our real or idealized memories of home. I can’t give those two Victorians too much of a hard time; whenever I really miss my grandmother’s kitchen, all I need to do is go over to Sturbridge and visit the farmer’s home… we had more upholstered furniture, but the kitchen is familiar and reminds me in so many ways of that place I loved so much.

Today’s lesson from Mark is all about comfort. It’s just not the kind of comfort that two Victorians might recognize, not the kind of comfort that the nostalgia of Sturbridge offers us. It’s not even the kind of comfort Peter was looking for.

We’re not all that different: mostly, comfort, home – that idealized, remembered, theoretical (or even actual) home of our hearts is all about comfort. If we had it we remember it with love; if it wasn’t there, we wish it had been or we’re angry because it wasn’t, and maybe we dream that “if only”, it would have been.

Comfort, safety, security, home — and then Jesus, poking his head in the door to ask a question. “Who do you say that I am?”

Well, Peter, by then, knew the right answer. “You are the Messiah.” Jesus reacted the way Peter expected by saying “shh; we don’t want anyone to hear you”. And so Peter assumed that the home Jesus was building, building by becoming the Messiah, would be like the dreams they all had of a place where the rich were thrown down and the poor took over (Peter was poor. . . ). It would be a place where they could give up the tough work of fishing and become tax collectors, raking in the coins. It would be good; it would be comfortable; it would be the home of their dreams.

Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man (that is, the Messiah), must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.

 

That’s no way to mount a revolution! It’s no way to build that comfortable home for which Peter yearned. And so, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan!

My older grand-niece started school this week. She has a loving home, two great parents, grand-parents, aunts, uncles & cousins who have surrounded her with love all her life. She even has the world’s most patient dog. Her home is indeed a haven of comfort and a place of peace. But if you look closely, it’s the most challenging, discomforting place she’s ever been. Sure, she’s loved, but she’s had to learn to stand up for herself, literally. Last year, her parents upset the apple cart by giving her a baby sister; oops, she’s no longer the only, well-loved offspring. And now, just as she’s gotten that kid under some control (she thinks! Her sister has learned to walk. . . ) she’s off to school.

We’d like to think that at least the best homes are places of constant comfort, but I want to suggest that the best places are places of constant challenge, of growth and outreach, of change and adaptation.

That’s what Peter learned. He learned that everything he’d ever known about what makes life worth living was built on a flawed foundation. The best life wasn’t one that said “what works for me is what works for you.” It turns out the best life is built on this: “what matters to you, matters to us”.

It turned out that home wasn’t a musty refuge like a dog’s bed, festooned with what had worked well years ago, little bits of this and that. Home is where we get the strength to go out and serve our world.

Peter whined to Jesus; he tried to get him to change, to give up this self-denying, self-sacrificing idea, and Jesus told him to step to the rear, to stop tempting him. Then Jesus said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

 

Life, the good life, the profitable life, the worthwhile life, is not about a total abandonment to comfort, but instead it’s about putting others first, not about self-indulgence, but about listening to the other. Jesus asks what the point is if, in our search for money, power, reputation and things, we lose that essential sense of home – real home, grounded home – that gives all we live and do its true value.

Because home really isn’t about a physical place, or even a particular gathering of people. It’s about the spirit we bring to those places, to those gatherings. For some of us, home is our AA group, family the friends we eat lunch with every week.

Good home, true home, points us outward, calls us to leave behind that which holds us back, invites us to reach out beyond our comfort zone.

Good home, true home, welcomes the refugee, reaches out to the different, stands up for the down-trodden, speaks up for the silenced.

Jesus said it best when he said:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

 What would it profit us to gain the whole world but waste our lives?

Amen.

© 2015, Virginia H. Child

Taking the Easy Path

A sermon preached at the United Parish of Upton, Massachusetts on August 23, 2015

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18  Now therefore rever the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness.

Ephesians 6:13-17        Therefore take up the whole armor of God

Years ago, I was called to serve a church in an upscale, wealthy community.  On Sundays, we often had more than 150 people in church. One of the things they loved to do, occasionally, was have coffee hour.  On our first Sunday together, they got out the silver, the delicate china cups and saucers and prepared delicious tiny cookies and sandwiches.  We had a delightful time, with lots and lots of little conversations going on all over the hall.

The next week, there was no coffee hour.  After several weeks had gone by, I asked about it.   Well, I heard, they couldn’t do it too often, because it was so much work.  No one wanted to come in early each week and start up the coffee pots.   No one wanted to polish the silver.  No one wanted to wash those delicate cups.   No one wanted to do all that baking and preparing each week.

You all know where they were coming from, right?  But what was missing?  When would we talk with one another?  How would we meet visitors?  With no coffee hour, folks just left after church, and we never met them.

You’d think it would be simple to start a weekly coffee hour.  How hard could it be to plug in a pot of hot water, put out jars of instant coffee and tea bags, use paper cups.  Well, talk about heresy!   If you suggest instant coffee for coffee hour, even paper cups will seem acceptable by comparison!

We started using paper, having a reception every week, and people – new and longtime, stayed, talked, and got involved.

I thought it was an easy decision, but it wasn’t easy for them.  I hate to do dishes; they loved beautiful china. Even today, there are folks in that church who believe we lowered our standards.  The beauty of the silver and the china was what was important.

Accepting that the church thought it more important to welcome the newcomer than to have that high-quality coffee hour was a really hard decision.

Don’t be mistaken – change is hard.

A couple of years ago the Old South Church in Copley Square in Boston owned two copies of the Bay Psalm Book.  There are only 11 copies of this book in the world.   The Bay Psalm Book is rarer than a Gutenberg Bible, and Old South owned two of them.  They lived in the Boston Public Library’s Rare Book Room.  Beautiful possessions, they had no practical impact on the church’s mission to welcome the least, the last and the lost.

Faced with the increasing costs of doing ministry – we know about that, right – and with the increasing costs of caring for a historic building – we know about that too –  the church began to think about selling one of the copies.

For many folks it was a slam dunk kind of decision.  After all, the Copley Square building was still chugging along with its vintage 1875 heating system, a really slow elevator to the upper floors, and the original electrical system.  Who wouldn’t want to upgrade everything before it failed entirely?  Much less adding internet access, air conditioning, handicapped access to more of the building, and so on.

But others said – not that the work didn’t need to be done – but that it could be financed through the use of the church’s $23 million dollar endowment and the running of another capital campaign.  They added that they had a fiduciary responsibility to the folks who’d given them the books to keep both of them.

Everyone agreed the work on the building needed to be done:  they disagreed on financing. The deciding was not easy; there was a fight and it ended up on the pages of the Boston Globe.  No one wants their church’s fighting to end up on the front page of the Globe!

Deciding isn’t easy.  The right way isn’t always clear.  And when the deciding is over, sometimes people leave.

When all was said and done, Old South’s congregation voted to sell the second copy of this book. The book was auctioned off at Sotheby’s two years ago, for just over $14 million, which Old South is using to upgrade its building and support its ministries throughout the city.  Some of the folks who disagreed left the church.

When we hear the story of Joshua, it feels all warm and fuzzy – but that’s only because it happened thousands of years ago.  Close up, when  we’re reading about a church fight in the Globe, we can see the pain on faces, hear the anguish as friends argue with friends, notice the folks who have simply stepped back until it’s all over…. Because it’s not easy, not always clear, what the right way to follow Christ is for today.

Decisions to follow God, weren’t all that easy back in Joshua’s day and they’re not now, either.  Then, and now, they ask us to form our daily lives intentionally.  Our decision to follow Christ asks us to live in ways that build up the world.  It asks us to put our desires in the context of the community, to see ourselves as part of a whole – and then, together, as church, as community to discern God’s will for our life.

But, we ask, how do we do that without conflict?  I’m going to suggest that that’s not the key question.  The only organizations that don’t have conflict are dead or dying.  The question really is how do we disagree in ways which build up, rather than tearing down?

In the lectionary readings for today,   there’s a reading from Ephesians 6.  The author of Ephesians sees life as a continual struggle, and offers up some advice, which I think applies to making the decisions of life as much as anything else.

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times. . .

Use the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness.  Proclaim the gospel of peace.  Let your faith keep disagreements from feeling like personal attacks. And remember that God comes first.

We’re not just talking about factual truth here, but the inner truth of understanding why you’re where you are on this.

Last year, I worked with my church on the process of becoming Open and Affirming.  Some of us were not comfortable with ONA.  As we went through the process, they began to understand that heir objections weren’t grounded in Scripture, but grew out of their personal feelings.  When they  understood that truth, they began to hear the congregation’s sense that God’s extravagant love and welcome was extended to all.  It wasn’t easy for them, but they stayed with us, even in their discomfort.

Be true to yourself; be the person you claim to be.  Avoiding the hypocrisy of saying one thing and living another is a big part of living a righteous life.

It is salvation – the health of God’s community – which is central in our life.   It is not about winners and losers, but about discerning God’s will for us.  We believe that God speaks most clearly to groups of people, not to individuals.  Of course, a group such as this church can be mistaken, can mishear God.   But we believe that it is always better to listen together. Even when what the congregation discerns is not what you did!  Even when you think they are wrong.

Don’t take me wrong.  Trying to do the work of discerning God’s will, either for ourselves or for our church, is never easy. It wasn’t easy for Joshua.  It wasn’t easy for the folks at Old South.  It wasn’t easy to move from china to paper cups.  It’s never easy to become Open and Affirming.   We are almost certain to make mistakes from time to time.

But with the power and comfort of the Holy Spirit,

our aim will be clear,

our hope trustworthy,

our love abounding,

and our passion for the work of ministry unabated.

Amen.

© 2015, Virginia H. Child