The Lens that Transforms

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on September 11, 2022

1 Timothy 1:12-17      I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. 

Luke 15:1-10  Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

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 a whole lot of backstory to these readings about tax collectors and sinners, especially sinners… The first thing is that for far too many times, all this talk about sin is used like a stick to beat us with.  And the definitions of sin kinda end up being limited to specific acts, like it’s a sin to steal, or whatever.  It’s all the more powerful because, looked at from a very narrow angle, it’s all true.  Stealing is bad, and bad things are sins (or sins are bad things), but that’s just the narrowest, and I think, most dangerous way to think about or talk about or do something about sin.  But, at its worst, and strongest in our memories, are those memories of going to Confession or having a parent lay down the law, or going to the principal’s office – being told off for whatever.

That backstory makes it a lot harder to hear what this is really about.  You see, sin is, at its root, nothing more or less than being separated from God.  Sure, you might see the results in some mean act or another, but sin sin is more about the why than the what.

Years ago, when I was the pastor in Putnam, up in the northeast, the Quiet Corner, of Connecticut, we learned that some of the folks who used our food pantry also visited other pantries up and down I 395, getting groceries at each place, and then selling those groceries from the front room of their apartment in the town’s low-income housing.  This led to a really thought-provoking conversation because some of us wanted to bar those who were “cheating” from our food pantry while others didn’t.  Yes, for sure the folks who were selling “our” food were cheating, but why was their model working?  Wouldn’t the folks at the housing authority have preferred to go to the grocery store?  

Well, maybe.  But when we looked more closely at the problem, we realized the housing had been built in a beautiful part of town for sure, but a part that was a half hour walk from the Price Chopper… a half an hour walk down a steep hill, which meant a little more than half an hour up that hill, with groceries.  Maybe not so do-able with a toddler?  Certainly not doable if you were of an age to have walking problems.  And there was no public transportation in town.  We decided that our frequent flyer at the food pantries was really offering a public service, and extending our ministry to a place we had no way to reach… 

Who sinned in this case?  The folks who were taking that food and re-selling it?  Or the planners who never thought about how dirt poor people would get to necessary services? Or someone else?

You see, vision is an essential element in understanding what sin really is… so, let’s spend some time thinking about vision, what warps it, and how we can learn to see more clearly.  This is no blame game; it’s an opportunity to sharpen our eyes.

You’d think it should be easy to know right from wrong, but it turns out that clear moral vision is more rare than perfect physical eyesight.  It is as if our moral senses can be affected in much the same way our eyesight can be… by things that keep us from seeing clearly, by experiences which cloud our vision, by accidents that “scar” us and make it harder to see rightly.

Cataracts happen when something clouds the lens of our eyes.  For us, thinking about our moral vision, that’d be something like aspects of our privilege, our experiences.  If you’ve had a cataract, you know how sneaky they are… it takes a while for them to affect your vision and even longer for you to realize how bad things have gotten.  That’s the way it is with our own experiences, and how they can limit us.   

Tim Cotton writes of a recent visit to his downeast Maine camp:  …while my guests were here, they borrowed a kayak and a canoe to cruise around.  When they returned the craft, I assumed that the canoe would have been overturned on the beach because that’s how you leave a canoe on a beach in an area where you get significant rain that sometimes comes out of nowhere. Not because of concerns about water getting in the boat but because it’s easier to flip it back over than to flip it over twice. Once to empty it, and once to right it for a paddle up-lake. There is also less chance for a canoe to float away if left on the shore hull-side up.  But the guests were Texans. . . and I recalled that it rarely rains in Texas, and right side up would be appropriate in most all situations in that fine state. . . . We always think that our way is the best, which is just not the case. Each of us navigates life with values instilled in us by the people, places, and experiences we come from. We carry that forever. 

I think it’s natural for each of us to assume, absent any other input, that our experiences are everyone’s experiences.  And that’s the foundational false assumption that leads us toward a “cataract” about our privilege, our special knowledge, a blindness to the ways our experiences and resources have influenced our ways of success or failure.

Moral “cataracts” form like scar tissue where we’ve found ourselves

As human beings, our vision, our understanding, even of our own lives, is limited by so many facts, as if they were glaucoma or cataracts or macular degeneration.  Christ calls us to do for our souls what an ophthalmologist can do for our eyes… and, in giving us a vision of what our world is supposed to look like, helps us get beyond those constricting experiences of our own lives.  

The first step towards good spiritual vision is recognizing that we’re not seeing clearly.  You might think that of course we know when we aren’t seeing right, but that’s not so.  I remember getting my first pair of glasses when I was in sixth grade.  While I knew I was having trouble reading the blackboard, I never realized that my vision was the reason all my lines were slanted… when I put the glasses on, with the correction for fuzzy vision AND astigmatism, I was astounded.  In fact the entire world then looked slanted to me, while my eyes and brain adjusted to the new input.    

Something of the same – no, that can’t be right feeling – can happen when we first realize the extent to which our life experiences have blinded us to the experiences of others.  We think, ‘no, I got through college with little or no debt; I worked hard, had two jobs, so you can do it too’….. our experience of survival  can make it harder for us to realize how the costs of education have risen…  Or we think, “I have no privilege, I got no special help” without understanding, for instance,  that not everyone expects their children to get an education, that some, in fact, don’t want their children to get that excellent education.  Someone likely enrolled at Wesleyan this fall despite pressure from family and friends to stay home and go to the local community college – all to keep them from being lured away from home and family and community.

Our Bible, our stories of Jesus, our history of welcoming the other, of standing up for the rights of the oppressed, of asking the difficult questions and then making the hard decisions, all are something like lenses through which we are able to see life as it was meant to be.  

What God asks of us, when it comes to sin, is to open our eyes to the discontinuities between God’s vision for this world and the realities in which we live.  

We participate in that sin when we wilfully close our eyes to the pain of our world; we participate it when we act without considering the effects of our choices, or when we act knowing that what we do will hurt people and we’re going to do it anyway.  

We renounce our participation in the world’s sin when we take the time to open our eyes to the world, when we reach beyond the blocks of our individual experiences to reform our lives, and rebuild our expectations, to move beyond our limitations into that vision which God holds before us.  And when we turn to do that, then it is as if we, too, have been found and carried on the shepherd’s shoulder, returned to our true home.  Not condemned.  Loved.  Loved and welcomed home.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

You Spent How Much for Bread?

Permissions on file at First Church Middletown CT office

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on September 4, 2022

Scripture:      Luke 24:28-35 — As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

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.

$4.99 for bread when you could have gone to the factory store and gotten a cheaper loaf for 1.99.

$4.99 for bread when you could have gone to the factory store and gotten a cheaper loaf for 1.99.

The deacon was excoriating her pastor for wasting the church’s money.  The pastor should have gone to the factory store and gotten it on sale – their cheapest loaf that week was $1.99.  You know that loaf – the bread is white and puffy, flavorless and less than 24 hours from total staleness. Instead the pastor had gone to a bakery and gotten a loaf of something dark, like rye or pumpernickel, sturdy, tasty and nutritious.

I’ve got to say, this is something I’ve never experienced… getting chewed out by the deacons for purchasing expensive bread… and – never having heard it before – it really hit me.  

It’s not that I’ve not heard concerns about the expense of communion supplies, though usually it’s around the grape juice.  The thing about grape juice is that mostly, we can’t use a whole bottle on Communion Sunday, no one likes it enough to take the bottle home, and it doesn’t keep for a month.  It doesn’t ferment either…. it just gets undrinkable.  Well, we’re Yankees; the whole idea of a new bottle of grape juice every month can make us grumpy. 

But this complaint wasn’t a Yankee whine about wasting the rest of the bread.  The leftover bread cubes had an ultimate destination – depending on which deacon took it home.  One deacon made bread pudding; another made croutons – in fact, you could say there was a quiet contest among the deacons to come up with the most interesting way to use the bread. 

The complaint was one that said the bread the pastor bought was too fancy for the occasion.  Think about that.  We’re going to shared bread and cup with Jesus Christ, and the deacon thought the bread was too expensive.  And think about this – the deacon, in the course of the conversation about Communion, about the core, the center act of our worship, tore down her pastor and made that person feel like dirt.  

Communion is the time in our service when we are closest to Christ.  Like those folks along the Emmaus Road, it is in the eating and sharing that we recognize Christ in our midst.  

The story from Luke happens just a day or two after the Resurrection, as two of Jesus’ followers are on their way home.  They’re joined on the journey by a stranger, and in their conversations, the stranger has a way of telling the story that makes sense to them… clicks with their heads, their thought processes.  But it’s not until they sit down to eat, that they realize this is not just some random meaningless connection, but that they’ve been talking with Jesus, that it is Jesus who sits with them… and when that recognition hits them, they beg him to stay… with the begging, he disappears.

Much of our faith is about how we’re to live with others – how to be kind, why it’s essential to work for justice, what it means to be merciful.  But this story, and the others about eating with Jesus, are about a different part of being Christian.  These stories are about where our strength comes from, how it is that we can continue to be kind when others are mean, or hold our tempers when the world yells obscenities at us.  These stories, and especially this one, are about spending time with Jesus.

Now, I’m not talking about the historical Jesus, as if he is literally sitting at our Communion table, probably wearing a t-shirt and sweats.  I don’t know, maybe for me it’s all about getting lost in stuff like what’s he wearing, how long is his beard, who does he look like, what does he look like… that all makes a real physical presence so unlikely and even unwelcome.  All that aside, I believe that Jesus is with us each time we celebrate Communion, and he’s here not so we can admire his hair cut, but so that we can receive some of the strength he gives to all who follow his way.

The Jesus who welcomes us to this table is that person we encounter when we read this story of Emmaus, and imagine ourselves, maybe in one of the rest areas on the New Jersey Turnpike, actually meeting someone at lunch, having a conversation that made our picture of our world shift into focus.  Because when we read about him, when we imagine ourselves in conversation with him, we are carried away to where he is.  

Have you ever had one of those life-changing conversations, maybe over a cup of coffee at a bookstore, or during a baseball game… this is that kind of place and time.  Rachel Held Evans once wrote  The church is not a group of people who believe all the same things; the church is a group of people caught up in the same story, with Jesus at the center.  That’s what I’m talking about…. this isn’t an encounter with a list of things we have to believe, this is a meeting of all different ways to live out the same goal.  This is like, but better than, the lunch I had last week with classmates from our time together at seminary.  We’ve been meeting for lunch two or three times a year ever since our graduations – through marriages and divorces, through children born, adopted, grown and now grandchildren, through various kinds of ministries… and sitting at table with Jesus is even better.

It’s easy to miss all that.  It’s way too easy to think of Communion as just one more thing to do.  It’s too easy to think, this bread’s too expensive, after all it’s not a real meal.  And in this post-COVID time with our little pre-packaged sanitary, gluten-free offerings, it’s even easier to count the cost of the package and worry about money instead of what’s really important.  Isn’t that just like life, though?

How often is it that we focus on what something’s going to cost, when cost isn’t that important, and lose sight of what it’s supposed to bring.  How often do we find ourselves worrying about being like everyone else, when the real goal of our lives is to be like Jesus?  How often do we worry about the right clothes, or the right car, or the right kind of grass in our lawn, when what’s really important is how welcoming our home is, or being the person who reaches out to the lonely, or sends cards to the sick.

Today, Jesus invites us to this table as a way of helping us re-calibrate our priorities in this new season.  Come to this table today, not to save money or to spend it, but to be with companions.  Come to this table, not to be seen as a Christian, but to live as one.  Come to this table today to eat with Jesus, and to learn to live with love, joy, justice.  Come because here you are welcomed with love everlasting.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

It’s a Dangerous World

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on August 28, 2022

Psalm 27

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? 
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? 
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— 
my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall. 
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; 
though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident. 
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, 
to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. 
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; 
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. 
Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, 
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; 
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! 
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” 
Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me. 
Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. 
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation! 
If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up. 
Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. 
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, 
for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence. 
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; 
wait for the Lord!

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 27 is a psalm of comfort.  It is a psalm of strength, a psalm of trust.  It’s a psalm that unflinchingly recognizes that bad things happen to good people, that you can lose everything, and yet – in a way, with God, it is impossible to lose God’s presence.  

And it is with that sense of God’s underlying support that we are able to keep moving forward.  This psalm describes for us the source of our daily life’s purpose and strength.

Here’s the thing:  often, I think, we hear stories of folks who seem to have surely known what wanted them to do, and had the courage and focus to stay on that path and something about those stories makes it seem as though those are things that only happen to people who have “special opportunities”.   We who get up and go to work, well that’s not something we have to work on, or worry about.  And that’s wrong.  Faith, courage, strength – they’re all part and parcel of every  Christ-following life.

Look at how often we read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis at the end of World War 2 for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler.  We admire his bravery, but it’s really hard to imagine ourselves in any situation like his.

Or think about the woman in the middle portrait on the bulletin – Lucretia Mott, was a Quaker leader, important in the work for the abolition of slavery, then active in working for the rights of women – all in a time when a woman speaking publicly was unheard of.  A wife and mother of six, in her spare time she helped found Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.  We admire her, but for most of us, doing all those things, being that influential is simply beyond our experience, and – I’m afraid – that perception makes her reliance on God’s support out of our reach as well.

Then there’s my third example.  In many ways, she’s also famous, but famous in a different way.  She never moved in national circles; she lived her whole life in one town, dying where she was born.  Her name is Gertrude Chandler Warner; she’s the author of the original Boxcar Children series for children.  

I never met Miss Warner, though I served the church she attended.  She was devoted to helping her community, her church and her world.  Her life, I believe, is an example for what any of us might do with our lives, whether we’re in Putnam or Middletown.  

Miss Warner started as a first grade teacher in 1918, and taught until 1950.  I met plenty of her students when I lived in Putnam and uniformly they thought she was a wonderful teacher.  When she’d been teaching for maybe ten years, she wrote the first Boxcar book, and then, in the 1940s, re-wrote the story to make it more suitable for early readers.  But the whole of her life, her bravery, is not that people still read her books, though they do.  It is in the way she lived her life, just as bravely as anyone who is famous today, but in a homelier way, a way much closer to how we can live, how we do live, our own lives.

Listening to God, Miss Warner was an active member of the Congregational Church of Putnam, where she taught Sunday school and was the Church Clerk.  She volunteered for the Red Cross and other organizations.  

When, in the early ‘60s, the state of Connecticut sought better ways to help the residents of the dreadful state training schools, Miss Warner helped change the attitudes of people and opened the opportunities for regional centers.  In short, she was doing what any of us might have done if we’d been in that time and place.  Individual, daily, acts of bravery and focus.  Each of those activities took a certain focus, a determination, a sense that there were things to do.  

Psalm 27 is something of a magnifying glass, a reading that helps us see more clearly just what we are, or are not, doing with our lives.  We need focus.  Without focus, we can still do good things, but they’ll not have the effect they might, if we took the time to focus our efforts.

Someone once (probably more than once) asked me how I managed to flunk out of the University of Florida in just three semesters.  I started my first year with high scores on the Florida Placement Exam, admitted to Florida as a special scholar. Three semesters later, I had a 1.0 GPA and a one-way ticket to Parris Island SC to be a Marine.  Why?  Well, that scholar status got me a pass into the stacks of a seven story university library.  

My last semester, I’d go there in the morning and read my way through the stacks, one book after another…. none of which had anything to do with my courses.  I read everything, but with virtually no focus.  I probably learned a lot, but none of it furthered my goal, insofar as I had a goal. I had no focus, no purpose to my reading.

Sometimes it seems as though we’re living our whole lives with the same lack of focus as I had in that library; Psalm 27 is a way of finding the track and staying on it, because it constantly calls us back to God’s hope for us all, that what we do, how we live, will reflect our grounding in a life of love, justice and mercy.

That clarifying focus is everywhere in the Bible – here, it says, is what really matters.  Here, it tells in one story or another, is what happens when you lose your focus.  Here’s a path for you.  Here’s a promise that our failures don’t mean we get kicked off the boat, fired from the team.  God does not forsake.  God helps us keep our focus.

There are hard decisions before us, challenging choices about what we should do, times when we’ll have to risk it all to do the right things, to take the right path.  This psalm assure us that, as we take this seriously, God will be with us, encouraging us to step up and take the courageous step.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on August 21, 2022

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 
 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, 
and before you were born I consecrated you; 
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; 
for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. 
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, 
“Now I have put my words in your mouth. 
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow, 
to build and to plant.” 

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 last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about truth, about what it is, and how to deal with it.

Now, you might expect that it’s all the stuff in the national news that is making me thing about the nature of truth, and I suppose that’s part of it… seeing how little some people think of truth.

But much of that isn’t really about truth, it’s about facts.  Did President Biden win the election?  Yes, that’s a fact.   Facts are demonstrable, provable, verifiable.  Truth, well, that’s something else altogether.

It seemed to me that today’s reading from Jeremiah is one of those Bible selections that can be read either as about facts or about truths.  I first thought about this in seminary.  You’ll remember that I’ve said I was raised in a Christian denomination considerably more liberal than the UCC, and it never occurred to any of my teachers that the Bible contained anything other than truth.  The idea that it might also contain facts was astonishing to us.  I’m not sure my teachers believed that Jesus was a real person, and I know no one believed that the miracles of Jesus were based in fact.

So, when I was studying Jeremiah at Andover Newton, with one of the world’s experts on Jeremiah, I was doubly astonished to discover there were people who believed that because the words said “before I formed you in the womb” that it was a polemic against abortion, or because the words said, “I am only a boy” that it literally meant Jeremiah was a little kid, maybe an eight-year old?

Doubly astonished because not only was that so unlikely to be factually true, but because for me, those interpretations or explanations meant that you missed the real point of the story.  

So, here’s what I think the story is about at this point.  God is calling Jeremiah to speak truth to the people of Judah in very troubled times.  Think of it this way…. Jeremiah has a job as dangerous as Liz Cheney’s, trying to speak truth to people who not only don’t want to hear, but don’t want him to have the opportunity to speak.  Speaking, in his time, and in his place, was dangerous.  But God was calling him, and so he tried to avoid the truth of the call by saying he wasn’t an adequate choice.  He was trying to fool God into letting him go.  

At the same time, and this is the truth I saw this week, Jeremiah really believes he’s not equipped for the job.  He can’t see the truth of his own abilities, and so he’s ducking, or trying to duck, the call to exercise what he doesn’t really believe exists.  He sees the danger, knows what’s likely to happen, and doesn’t feel up to it.

Who can blame him?  Who here has not, from time to time, found themselves denying a truth because it was too challenging, too frightening?  Friday night I was reading an article about leadership: the author was describing being sent to a basic school, where for the first six weeks, because of his prior experience, he thought he could skate.  One day, he wrote, I realized that the newbies, the students who’d never studied this before, were learning more than me, because they knew how little they knew.  And I thought I knew everything that was important.  His attitude changed that day, and recognizing the truth of his ignorance, he began to get so much more out of the training.  He saw his truth and it re-ordered his life.

Seeing the truth, not allowing facts to mislead, is one of the great skills of the Christian life.  It’s not easy to move from assuming that facts are truth, to understanding that facts are only part of truth, that facts always exist within a specific context, and that context is part and parcel of the meaning of those facts.  

This past week there was a story in the NY Times about a home appraisal in Maryland.  The owners wanted to appraise their home so they could get a loan and they expected, after having put tons of money into it, that the value would have risen considerably.  They’d paid $450,000 for the house, and done $40,000 of improvements, for a total of $490,000.  Homes in their neighborhood had gone up about 42%, so they expected a value closer to maybe $600,000.  But the appraiser said it was only worth $475,000.  In a neighborhood where values had gone up 42%, their home had lost value.

They tried again, made some changes in the interior – changed out photos – and arranged for friends to be there for the appraiser instead of being there themselves.  This time, with no other changes, their home appraised at $750,000.   

Yes, you heard me right.  The first appraiser said the home was worth $475,000.  The second appraiser said it was $750,000.

What was the truth here?  The truth seems to be that the first appraiser met the owners, who are Black.  The second appraiser met the owner’s friends, who are white.  And being white made the house worth almost $300,000 more.

Tell the truth and shame the devil.

It’s truth we need to get behind why the facts are what they are.  Yesterday, I read an article which discussed whether or not going to college is worthwhile – their primary evaluation was whether or not you made more money after going to college than if you had never gone.  No one will be surprised to hear that there’s a wide variance in results.  The top 19 schools are all medical schools, for instance.  After that, there are law schools, and business schools like Babson and Bentley.  The only unexpected high-success school, for me, was Princeton Theological Seminary.  Apparently, Presbyterians pay a lot better than I ever imagined, and Princeton Seminary is a much more financially rewarding place to study than even Princeton University.  Who knew?  

There are almost 4000 schools on the list; things get really interesting when you head to the bottom of the list.  The very bottom is populated by beauty colleges and independent yeshivas, but just above those schools, and the for-profit technical schools, you begin to find schools like the Inter-American University in Puerto Rico, where a former dean of my seminary went, and colleges for the native American community, and then community colleges and historic Black colleges, HBCUs.  They’re all mixed together, and if you only looked at the facts, you’d think that Benedict College was not all that different from the McCann School of business or the Advanced Institute of Hair Design.  Benedict is a small, Black school, in South Carolina.  Many of the kids who go to Benedict come from families where no one has ever gone to college before.  Their prep is abysmal, their challenges daunting.  Once you know the facts of the school’s background, know just who they’re hoping to educate, you realize that the worth of the school cannot be measured by how much money their graduates make.

Truth provides nuance to facts.  Facts are flat, truth is multi-dimensional.  When Jeremiah dug in his feet and tried to argue that he was not qualified, God provided a different view, the view that’s not quantifiable, the idea that some of our options have more social value than others.

Facts can say that we don’t make a difference, but truth says there’s more to what we do in life than facts can ever reflect.  Facts say we are only worthwhile when we can contribute to the community in some quantifiable way… either by working outside the home, or caring for children…. something that might be best described as work.  

A friend who’s living at an over-55 community tells me that she has neighbors who are still canning their vegetables for the winter, even though they live alone and can eat all their meals in the dining room, because without that canning activity, they don’t think their lives have value.  Facts say, unless they’re producing, they don’t matter; truth says that everyone matters, whether they can add to society or not.

Today’s lesson from Jeremiah calls us to a way of life which values truth more than fact, values people more than their usefulness, values love more than anything else.  Let us join Jeremiah in listening for God’s truth in our lives.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Baptized into One Body

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on August 14, 2022

Scripture:     I Corinthians 12:12-26 (The Message): Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.

I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.

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 Saturday’s New York Times, David Brooks offered an essay about the importance of friendships, and not just friendships, but friendships which cut across class lines… and I thought, “aha, those kinds of friendships that our children make in church, or at church camp!”

Because, you see, children who are part of friendship which cut across the social lines that divide us one from another – those children – do better in life than kids who don’t.  He writes:

One of the most powerful predictors of whether you rise out of poverty is how many of the people you know are well off.

The size of the effect is astounding. Cross-class friendships are a better predictor of upward mobility than school quality, job availability, community cohesion or family structure. If these results are true, then we have largely ignored a powerful way to help people realize the American dream.

Now the essay is focusing on upward mobility, but I don’t think the positive effects of cross-class friendships are limited to just making more money or living.  That’s because cross-class friendships are just one example of the reality we explore in baptism.

Baptism, you see, establishes the ultimate cross-class friendship.  Think again about what Paul describes in our lesson from 1 Corinthians:  Your body has many parts – limbs, organs, cells – but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body.  We are all part of something, something that is incomplete without what we bring to the body.  

Today, right now, we are more complete now that Maeve is part of the body. 

There’s more to this – because, you see, baptism, in its proclamation of radical inclusivity, drives inclusivity in our wider world…. not overnight, but inevitably.  That’s because baptism is a foundational acknowledgement of humanity.

Look at it this way:  we only baptize human beings.  We don’t baptized dogs or cats or cows or sheep.  We baptize humans.  Therefore, anyone we baptize is human.  Baptism is an absolute affirmation of our humanity.

That means that when slaveholders insisted that their slaves must be baptized, they were acknowledging that slaves were human beings – not sub-human, not animals, but people, and people loved by God.  When we said Natives had to be baptized, we were acknowledging their humanity.  I don’t think every slave holder understood what they were doing, but that doesn’t change the truth of the offer.  

Baptism is Christianity’s response to the attacks on any of us who have been told that we are not fully human for whatever reason – women who’ve been told they are second class, trans folks, GLBTQ+ people, Black people, brown people, all POC, folks with intellectual challenges, immigrants, people who don’t dress right, eat right, talk right – it doesn’t matter to God, and it shouldn’t matter any of God’s people.  Because God has recognized that each any every human being matters.  

Once you acknowledge someone’s humanity, you can no longer legitimately deny them the right to live as they are, as who they are.  They are real, as they are; they do not need to change to be human.

This applies to everyone, to the whole world.  You don’t have to be baptized to be recognized as a human being.  It’s not about being baptized, it’s about our unconditional welcome to every human in the world.  It wasn’t baptism that made slaves human, it was God who made everyone human.  Baptism helps us see that truth, and pushes us to make it real in our lives.

Baptism destroys the idea that the church is a club for like-minded people.  And when we live up to our calling, we naturally create cross-class friendships.  When we create those cross-class, cross-race, cross all the dividing lines-relationships, we change ourselves and our world.

It’s not easy, but that’s what we’re here for, that’s why we baptize.  The struggle to change, to recognize the meaning of baptism, is the struggle of our world to grow closer to God’s intention for us, to be a place of peace, justice, love, acceptance, mercy.  

Every time we baptize someone, we stand up for the equality of all humanity.  And every time we seek to live into our baptism, we take part in that difficult, but foundational, struggle.  Maeve doesn’t yet know what’s out there for her, but her parents have promised to teach her, and we have promised to help them, not just here, but standing in for every congregation which takes baptism seriously.

Today we blessed Maeve and her family, and we thank them for reminding us of the power of baptism to make our world better.

Amen.

What’s the Point?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on August 7, 2022

Hebrews 11:1-3 — Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

Luke 12:32-40 —  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 

 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” 

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

I want you to imagine your usual day – we get up, we eat, or not, we shower, we go to work, or get busy on a project, and the day progresses.  Maybe we go out to lunch with a friend, or the grandkids come over.  Evening comes, and we watch the baseball game, and then to bed.

And tomorrow will be more of the same.  Well, maybe we’ll go to the beach, or play golf, or spend hours in the library researching something exciting, but basically, it’s get up, eat, work, play, back to bed.  Over and over.  If we live to be eighty, we’ll do it 29,200 times.

Why?  Do we do this just because we’re alive, do it without thinking?  Or do we ever ask the more interesting question —  if we have 29,200 days at our disposal, what makes them worth living?

What makes our lives worth living?

When I was a kid, one of the joys of the library in West Chester PA was their extensive collection of science fiction.  It was there that I discovered the subtly subversive works of Robert Heinlein, and reveled in his picture of a world where real questions were raised and chewed over – what is honor?  how can we be honest? what do we owe our community, our family?  And in one of my favorites, his book Beyond This Horizon, Heinlein first raised this question for me –  “what makes life worth living?”

I suppose that, at some level, those books were my first theology texts, tho Heinlein is not the least bit theistic.  None the less, the question he raised – what makes life worth living – is one of the major questions of any religion.  

You won’t be surprised to know that there’s more than one answer.  In Beyond This Horizon, it’s the promise of reincarnation that makes the difference; the idea that life continues made life worth living for the protagonist —  although I seem to remember that the hero’s views begin to change when he marries and they have a child, so there’s that, as well.

Christians have another take on what makes life worth living.  We understand our world to have been created with great potential, but at some level, it is not yet finished, certainly not perfect.  What makes our lives worth living is that we have been giving the opportunity to participate in the further creation of a world which practices the Godly virtues of peace, justice, equity, and welcoming love.

Well, it’s easy and clear to say, but not so much when it comes to the doing.  

Look at our world today:  we’re surrounded by the unmistakable evidences of climate change.  It’s hot, it’s August, but it’s too hot, for too long; there’s not enough rain.  I don’t know about you, but these days those ideas about how the Sahara became a desert are making too much sense.

Look at our government, and other world governments.  We’re fortunate here in Middletown to have great local government, but we can’t pretend that all is well with the state of democracy in the US.  

Maybe you know someone, maybe you are someone, who’s worked hard all their lives, and seen it all go for nothing.

Sometimes, it’s just hard to believe there’s any way that life is worth living.  We build our lives, maybe, on being the very best at what we do, and then the day comes that we’re not, not the best, not anymore.  Or our lives have value because of the work we do, or because we’re parents, or spouses.  And all of those are worthwhile things, but they are ways of valuing our lives that are built on fragile assumptions.  They’re good foundations, but not quite reliable foundations.

Building a worthwhile life on God?  Now we’re building on a reliable foundation.  God loves us, and that’s something to rely on.  But more than that, God knows us.  Other foundations expect us to be the best at what we do – best teacher, best mom, best whatever… but God does not expect us to be the best person in the world.  God knows that we are shot through with imperfections – that we don’t always work as hard, that sometimes we’re selfish, or greedy.  Our imperfections, in God’s eyes, do not stop us, do not make us utter failures.  They help us sharpen our focus, give us goals going ahead – we can aim to get better, but we do not have to batter ourselves against the unachievable goal of perfection.

God knows us, God loves us, God gives us valuable work to do.

Sometimes it can feel as though what we do to make a living is not worth much.  Not everyone teaches at a first-class school, not everyone creates a life in a place as nice as Middletown.  When I lived in Rutland, Vermont, one of my friends worked in a local grocery, checking groceries.  You know, that’s not very exciting work.  It doesn’t really engage your mind (and less so now than then, what with the price scanning technology we now have).  But Dot thought that God had called her to be friendly, and had given her that job as a place to practice her friendliness.  She told me that she knew that some of her customers did not speak to anyone from one week to the next, so she made an effort to recognize people, to engage them in meaningful conversations, to remember them from week to week, to give their lives value.

That’s the valuable work God gives us to do…. To make lives livable, to give them value.

In our first reading, from the letter to the Hebrews, the author says that faith is the assurance of things hoped for…what is seen was made from things that are not visible.  The life we can see was made from things we cannot see.  Our faith is built on something we cannot see clearly and will not always recognize.  And our Gospel lesson reminds us that we have to be ready for action at any time.

We do not always see or know the ways in which we can change our world.  Sure, some jobs seem to make it obvious – folks in the medical field save lives, for instance, and teachers do too, when they open up the world of the mind to their students – but even there we will never see all the ways we influence others.  

And how often do we make someone’s day by saying “thank you” when they serve us our coffee?  Or teach our children?  How many kids have felt better about themselves just because we exist and welcome queer children?  They never walked in our door but they know we exist and they know we think it’s ok that they exist too.  

You don’t need to be US Senator Robert Stafford, a member of Grace UCC in Rutland, Vermont, and come up with Stafford Grants, to have a life worth living.  You don’t need to be Bill Russell, maybe the greatest basketball player of all time, or Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame… you don’t need to be an actor or play pro ball – you just need to be kind, honest, trustworthy, decent.. and if you are, you will change the world around you for the better.  This is something that each of us can do, every day of the rest of our lives.

So, let’s get going…. let’s change our world and make our lives worth living!

Amen. 

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

What Makes a Church a Church?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on June 26, 2022

Galatians 5:1, 13–25

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.…

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

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

Last Saturday, we had the Annual Meeting of our Conference – I mentioned it last week.  The worship was so not like what we have here.  It was more like what we did when we weren’t meeting together – one person or group after another, each videoed in their living rooms.  There was music – I particularly remember the organ and steel pan duet, the rock band….and other great music, though not what we hear in this place.  While there were songs, we were not able to sing together.  

You could almost think that the differences between that worship and this worship weren’t the same thing.  We struggled with that ourselves when COVID required us to let go of in-person worship.  We wondered, we worried, what could we be doing, was this anything like real worship. 

But we were, in fact, worshipping, different music, different settings.  We were united, not by our appearance, not by our economic status, our gender or orientation, not even our age or singing ability – we were united by what makes us a church.

To be church, you need four things:

  1. You need people.
  2. You need people who love Jesus.
  3. You need people who love one another.
  4. You need people who will reach out into their community.

Now there’s more to say about churches, but this is the core, the essential.  You can’t have church of any type without these things:  you can’t be a Catholic without people; you can’t be a Baptist if you don’t love one another, you can’t be Presbyterian without service, you can’t be a Congregationalist, or a Methodist, or anything at all, without people, Jesus, love and service.

Of course, there are different kinds of churches; some, like ours, are governed by the people, some by the pastor, some by the local bishop, or even some faraway headquarters.  Some insist the pastor wear special clothing – pulpit robes, and all kinds of fancy duds.  Some would rather the pastor wear ordinary street clothes.  Some begin by gathering in a circle, some dance, some have processions. 

And we differ in the details of what we believe.  But when you get right down to it, we all agree on the basic – people, Jesus, love, service.

Now, think about this – turn it around.  If you are a group of people who don’t like each other, can you be church?  If you don’t care about Jesus?  If you don’t serve your community?

This is the time of the year when I often attend mandolin camp; I’m not a very good classical mandolinist, but I really enjoy getting together with this group of about 40 people who all love to play the mandolin.  The first year I went, I remember our teachers were talking about how they began to learn to play our instrument.  Over and over we heard a variation on “I tried another instrument, but here I felt welcome”.  We had love, we had people…. and in many ways, we sounded like a church.  But we had no Jesus, we had no service…

I think of this whenever I hear people say “I worship God when I sail, or hike, or play golf… “ and think to myself (because arguing the proposition seems unwelcome) but you don’t have people, you don’t have Jesus, you don’t have service… and you don’t really have church.

Church is when we get together, not just to love one another, not just to be friendly, but to welcome the stranger, to serve the needy.

Our lessons for today make this clear.  They don’t talk about the right way to organize a church, or the right songs to sing, the right robes to wear.  They talk about how we make our commitments real in the eyes of all.  And that’s what makes a church a church.

In Galatians, Paul tells us that we are free people.  He says, Jesus has freed us from the dead hand of habits and expectations.  He tells us that we need no longer be the thoughtless victims of meanness, cheesiness, nastiness, greed, self-indulgence and so on.  He tells us that we are now the commissioned, empowered practitioners of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

Paul says we are not only all these things; he says we KNOW that we are free, we know we can put shoddiness aside, we know we are made and freed to be good.  And he expects that if we can do it, we will do it.

But, God bless him, Paul sometimes was more than a little optimistic.  Our Gospel lesson adds to Paul’s story by telling us about a couple of disciples and how they got it wrong, and about several would-be followers, who didn’t quite get the urgency of the whole endeavor.

You see, the time to be church is not tomorrow, it is not when it’ll be more convenient. The Samaritans were all in on following Jesus, until they knew what he actually intended.  It was all ok to follow Jesus, so long as he didn’t try to upset what was really important, so long as he didn’t challenge what they’d always known was true.  

It was all ok to follow Jesus, so long as it didn’t mean giving up any of the little luxuries that made life worthwhile. 

It was all ok to follow Jesus, so long as we were given enough time to take care of other important things.

The time to be church, the time to follow Jesus, is right here, right now.  And it’s often a time that doesn’t see right in our eyes.  I might not feel ready to follow Jesus.  I might think it’s more important to have some time for myself; I might think my laundry needs to be done.  I might even not agree with what it seems Jesus is asking me to do.  It doesn’t matter, not one bit.  

What matters is that we are church.  

What matters is that we are people, people who follow Jesus, people who love one another, people who serve our world.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Words and Deeds Lead the Way

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on June 19, 2022

Galatians 3:23-29    Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. 

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, the Southern New England Conference, the name for all the UCC churches in CT, MA and RI, held its third Annual Meeting.  At the beginning, there was a long – more than five minute – statement of apology, acknowledgment for stealing southern New England from the indigenous people who were living here.  Land acknowledgement is a great idea, but what does it mean if it doesn’t lead to some sort of action?

Words… words about gun control, words about land acknowledgement, words…. And now these words, from Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow.  McMorrow is a practicing Christian, a Roman Catholic, and she wrote in a recent Commonweal Magazine article:  

Calling yourself a Christian, or putting it in your Twitter bio, is not the same as being one.  It’s performative, and it’s nonsense.  It’s not showing faith through works.  

Last week I pointed out that everything we do here is founded on our belief in Jesus Christ, however you define that belief.  It’s quintessentially in our DNA – we don’t want to confine anyone to a particular way of describing Jesus, but we do want you to follow Jesus.

Mallory McMorrow reminds us that following Jesus is not about saying “we follow Jesus”.  It’s about following Jesus.  It’s not about getting into fun discussions about whether or not Jesus is fully human and. . . and fully divine.  It’s not about saying racism is bad.   It’s not even about white people learning about Juneteenth.  It’s about doing, not saying we do.  It’s about living out our faith.

Today’s scripture reading is one with which we’re pretty familiar, because it contains …. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  But there’s more to this selection that that wonderful declaration.

You see, that declaration is part of a longer discussion about what makes us Christian.  Back in the day of Galatians, the way you became an adherent of a religion,  was that you were born to it.  You were a Roman, you followed Roman gods – tho a wealthy important Roman might also follow the Greek gods because they were classy.  But Phoenicians followed Phoenician gods, Egyptians followed Egyptian gods, and Jews followed the Creator God we follow today.  By and large, you didn’t change gods, unless you were trying to cozen up to the powers-that-be…. Thus the Herods pretend they are kinda sorta Roman, so as to be more acceptable to the occupying powers.

The question of the day for Paul was – did you have to become a Jew in order to be a true follower of Jesus?  If you were a Greek or a Roman or from one of those countries on the south side of the Mediterranean – did you have to give up who you’d been in order to become a follower of Jesus?  This was not just a religious question.  If Romans didn’t honor the Roman gods, their loyalty to the Roman authorities became suspect.  Being a Christian in those days was something of a liability.

There in Galatia, there was an argument going on, one which basically said, if you’re not born one of us, you’re really ever not going to be one of us.  We still think this way — we all know communities where if you’re not born there, or if you didn’t graduate from the high school, you will never ever really be accepted.  Or one of those places where if you aren’t from the right class, or not related to the ruling family… well, then, the words will say “you’re welcome”, but actions will say, “not so much. . .”

Our lesson helps us understand that everyone is welcome, that everyone is a member of the family, that everyone counts, that what supports one, supports all, what hurts one, hurts all.  And there’s more.

Because what we say is not just about words, it’s also about deeds.  And the Bible is really clear as to what those deeds will look like.  How we are to behave is throughout the Scriptures:  in Exodus 22, for instance, we read that aliens, people who are not of our country, must be treated as we treat ourselves.  In fact, all the laws and rules we find in Exodus and Leviticus, as boring and petty-fogging as they can seem, are an attempt to make sure that everyone is treated fairly.

Paul says it very clearly in Philippians 4: 7 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  In the Letter of James, it’s written:  be ders of the word, and not merely hearers…. And a little later in that same first chapter, it’s written:  14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Words are good.  We need to know who we are, whose we are.  

Deeds matter because they give tangible form to our words, they make our words live.   

Words and deeds together, are a gift from God, a gift to God.  

We welcome the stranger; we feed the hungry. We clothe the naked.  But we don’t just do exactly and only what those words say.  Feeding and clothing are only examples. We use our powers of observation and compassion to see what needs to happen where we are.  We use our intelligence to listen to our world, to let go of what’s no longer needed, to pick up what’s important now.  

We are Christians and we care about our world.  We are Christians and we work to make this world better.

That is our name, that is our calling, that is our work.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

The Cost and Joy of Discipleship

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on June 12, 2022

Acts 16:11-22

We (Paul and his companions) set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us. 

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.

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.

Paul and his companions made the big journey over the sea to Philippi, to a city, a Roman colony, a crossroads between Europe and Asia – and a place where no one yet had heard their good news, where they had no friends that they knew of, where they had no connections.

One of the first things they did was hunt up other Jewish believers.  While they knew they would reach out to non-Jews, they wanted to begin where they might find friends, or friends of friends, where they might find connections.

And find them they did.  When they sat down with the women and began to tell their story, they met Lydia, a merchant in the city.  There they forged new connections and a new church.  

Those connections were not limited to those with money and power.  Others heard their gospel news and began to follow them.  One of those was one of the least in the city, a slave, a slave girl, a slave girl with not even a name.  But God’s story doesn’t come only to those with money; it comes to all of us.  The slave girl heard the story and began to tell all the world what she’d heard.  It was Jesus who brought together Lydia, Paul and the slave girl. 

What binds us together?

Is it our mutual love of UNO? Or pizza?

Is it that we went to the same school, maybe at the same time?

Have we known each other since forever?  Do we go to the same church? Were we on a committee together sometimes, some place?

Are we Facebook friends?

Were we/are we members of the same Scout troop? Or Rowing club?

Do we run together?  Work together?

Have we been poll watchers together for years?

Or do we love jazz, or organ music, or .. well, you fill in the blank…..

What ties us together?  What ties the “us” that is here today?  Not the “us” that’s family, or the “us” that loves some sport activity, or any other “us” you can think of.

What ties together the “us” that is here today?  What connects us to one another.

The foundation of all we do, the thing which draws us and hold us, loves us and pushes us is Jesus Christ.

Now we might say no, we’re here for the music, or the people or the church’s passion for justice, and all that’s real and true.  But it doesn’t exist on its own.  It exists because, first, we decided to follow Jesus.  All those things are good, and valuable, and important.  But they are not the foundation out of which all our connections grow.

We have many connection with one another and each of them, in some way, is founded on this man who lived two thousand years ago.  Now as it happens, there are many ways to describe that man.  Some of us believe Jesus was both God and man, some of us think he was a good person. 

But all of us believe that there is something about what he said, how he lived, that gives meaning and purpose to our world today.  All of us know that there’s something gravely wrong with our world.  We know that there are forces and powers trying to drive us back into the dark ages of hatred and contempt. And we know, however we describe Jesus, that he has a way forward, a way which unites us.

It’s on that connection that we build all the other connections which hold us together.  We are old and young and in-between; wealthy and struggling; educated and haven’t read a book in decades.  Some of us run, some hike, and some of us sit on the couch and watch others.  We are not all the same by any stretch of the imagination, and the connection which cements all the other connections here is that connection to Jesus.  That connection builds connections of passion and interest – our commitments to being Open and Affirming, our concern and involvement in issues of racial justice and equity, our dedication to feeding the hungry.

Some of us are Lydia, some of us are nameless slave girls…  some of us could recite the theological intricacies of the Apostle’s Creed, while some of us aren’t sure they want to say – out loud – that they follow Jesus. 

As a church, however, Jesus is the rock on which we stand and it is in Jesus’ name that we make our connections.  

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child