So Much Gone

A sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown, CT on September 12, 2021

Luke 6:27-42 —27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 

3“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. 

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” 

3He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 42 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 

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.

Twenty years ago, yesterday, was two days after the church I was then serving had closed.  On Sunday, September 9, we shut the doors of our building for the last time.  We put the organ into storage, sold the building, and dispersed what members were left to other churches in the greater Grand Rapids area.  The next morning, I woke up to the attacks on 9-11.   (nb: I thought 9/11 was a Monday, but was mistaken.  It’s been corrected here.)

It was surreal.  And at the same time, whatever effect it had in Grand Rapids Michigan was nothing to the effect it had here in Connecticut.  I’ve listened to my colleagues share the stories of parishioners who died at work in the World Trade Center or on one of the airplanes.  9-11 was much more personal.  It was not just our country that was attacked, but it was our neighbors, our friends, it was us.

People gathered in the following days, gathered in prayer, gathered in worship, gathered trying to understand how and why such an attack happened.  We shared news of the heroes who ran into the buildings at the Pentagon and at the World Trade Center.  We were community, family to one another.

It didn’t take long for our government to retaliate, and eventually kill Osama bin Laden, who’d planned the whole thing.  But it’s been twenty years and we’re only now extricating ourselves from the idiocy of our whole attempt to re-make the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan which followed our retaliations.  

The movie “The Princess Bride” popularized the saying “never get stuck in a land war in Asia”, but I always think of Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, who limped because he’d fought in the Afghani Wars.  Those were the wars about which Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem “The Young British Soldier”:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains 
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

For me, the single most important thing, the thing that held us together after the attack was our sense of community.  It’s community I want to carry forward, community that I believe God is calling us to create.

It was community which held things together after the attacks.  Church communities, communities of teachers, first responders, leaders, communities of all kinds.  It was communities of people – not otherwise connected – who stood against those who would have (and did) attack Muslims and Sikhs in the aftermath of the attacks.  It was communities which stood up for and advocated for better care for those who still suffer physically from their work at the crash site in New York City.

And it is communities today which hold the greatest hope for our future.

It is communities like this church community, places which have dedicated themselves to living out the world of Jesus as they were reported in Luke.  

Jesus said, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you… give to everyone in need…do to others as you would have them do to you.

It would be so easy to look at these words and poke all kinds of holes in them because it’s easy to read them as hard and fast laws, rather than the guidelines to behavior that they really are.

Jesus is not saying that you may never protect yourself.  He is not saying that when you’re dealing with a lying, cheating bully that you just have to give in and give up.  What he is saying is that we are called to a kind of living which brings out the best in us and in others.

We know that life always requires a balancing act and that’s what this lesson is really all about.  Always, always, always look to create community of live.  Never, never, never allow someone to bully, cheat, steal without naming it.  Let yourself grow, name your growing edges, at least to yourself, step into tomorrow, allow change to happen.  Don’t be the blind person in your community, the one who cannot see and refuses to allow anyone else to see either.  

Here’s the thing.  It’s not just about us.  It’s about our world and how we all work together.  This past week, I was listening to Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in NYC, preaching at the first Rosh Hashanah service.  She said that the community of faith was – in the wider community – a marker, a waystone.[1]  I’m from New England, so I tend to think in terms of lighthouses.  Our existence, even when we do not always succeed, but our existence as a community which is trying as hard as it can to be a place of welcome, love, mercy and justice, is a lighthouse to those around us, because they know that here, there is at least one place, where that is happening.  We are a safe harbor in a difficult and dangerous world.

May we always be a blessing to our world.

Amen.


[1] Rabbi Angel Buchdahl, Central Synagogue, NYC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPDbWYvz2VY

The Healing Waters

A sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown, CT on September 5, 2021

Acts 8:26-38

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: 

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

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.

From Friday’s NYT:  Our long-gestating Italy trip, originally scheduled for last spring, has returned to its yearlong holding pattern. We’ll be packing our vaccination cards in November when we travel to a Miami wedding that’s enforcing strict inoculation requirements. I think I speak for everyone when I say that I am so tired of not knowing if I’m doing the right thing.

. . . I think we’re all becoming accustomed to the truth that escaping from a pandemic was never going to be so simple. The restoration is going to happen in fits and starts, with a permeating sense of unease. When will I stop waiting for the other shoe to drop? Ideally someday in the far-off future when our lives have fully returned to normal, without anyone realizing it.

Until then, I’ll always be grateful for the summer of 2021 and its wondrous preview of what lies ahead.

I’ve been telling my friends I feel as though we’re trapped in endless reruns of the movie Groundhog Day.  It’s the same thing over and over – one day it’s safe to go outside without a mask, to have lunch with my friends, and I’m making plans for tomorrow – and then the next day, it turns out to be completely different.  And the cycle starts again.

Sure, I think, I know, at least intellectually, that tomorrow is not guaranteed, but I’d always kinda assumed that there were some foundational things I could count on.  I don’t know about you, but it’s been unsettling to discover that I’m wrong, that the constancy I’d taken for granted was more of an illusion than I’d thought.

We want coffee hours, and potluck meals, and times to sit around and talk with one another.  We thought we’d be able to do that this fall, but because of the Delta variant, the answer is “not so much”.  We thought we’d be able to sing, and the answer is “not really”,  though, starting next week we will put hymns in the bulletin. 

We’ve been careful; we’ve worked hard to create a safe environment, and we thought we would be rewarded by an increasingly safe world.  And it hasn’t quite happened in the straight line improvement we thought we deserved, expected to have happen.   

And it’s not just COVID.  It’s the horrors of what’s happening in Texas where the law of their state now turns neighbor against neighbor, where you can be brought up on charges for even thinking about abortion – or the other change in Texas law, which allows anyone anywhere to carry a weapon, no license needed.  This is a state which simply no longer cares about the health and safety of their own citizens.  And that’s disorienting.  We expected government to do it’s best to keep us healthy and safe. 

It’s for days like this that we have faith. It’s for those times when the centers, the strongest parts of our lives, don’t work, fall apart.  William Butler Yeats, in his poem The Second Coming, wrote: 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…..
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drawned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand. 
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out  
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man, 
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. 
The darkness drops again; but now I know 
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, 
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

We do not live in the first time when things seem to be falling apart.  Yeats wrote the poem in 1919…. right after the horrors of WW 1, right at the beginning of the Irish Independence wars with Britain, and while his wife was recovering from flu caught in the 1918-19 pandemic.  In other words, a time much like ours.  He looked to a future he did not yet know, some rough beast, that would bring hope.

The poem’s final words point us to the one thing which we can hold onto as our world wavers between better, bad and not-so-good, and that is our faith in a God who creates, a God who does not abandon. God always gives us a way out of no way, even though that way may be hard to see and challenging to follow, because it can lead to something so different that it challenges all our pre-conceptions.

In today’s Scripture, the Ethiopian official doesn’t at first know what he’s reading, and doesn’t understand it.  Philip jumps into his vehicle and rides along, explaining as they ride, and the official responds by asking for baptism.  

We read the story and think, well that’s kinda abrupt…. but there’s more to it than the speed of his decision.  The Ethiopian is on his way home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, even though, because he is a eunuch, he is not thought to be a moral human being – he is, despite his temporal power, part of a dismissed minority.  Some folks even taught that eunuchs were unacceptable to God.  But here he reads about a way to fully belong to God, reads the words of Isaiah welcoming everyone, and responds to the promise of acceptance with his request for baptism.

Baptism promised to him, and promises to us today that no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, we are loved by God, and welcome here.  

Don’t ever make the mistake of discounting how important it is to know that there is a place and community where every person is welcome…. 

I did a baptism a couple of years ago – the child was part of a blended family – his children, her children, and now their child.  The family lived in New Hampshire, but visited our town monthly so that the dad could spend time with his oldest son who lived with the ex-wife.  They were not rich, not well-educated – just a stay-at-home mom and a truck-driver dad, struggling financially, and they brought their tiny daughter to us for baptism because, the dad said, “we want her to know that, if she turns out to be a lesbian, there is a place that will always welcome her.”

And so I baptized this little girl, just as Philip baptized the Ethiopian official… because God teaches us to welcome everyone.

Now, what does this welcoming baptism have to say to a people who are tired, frustrated, and just a little angry with our world?  Well, the same baptism that offers welcome to the Ethiopian eunuch offers a welcoming shelter to us as well.  Our baptism reminds us of the everlasting promise of God that, no matter how discouraging our world is right now, nothing can destroy God’s love, or God’s dream of a world marked by justice, peace and mercy.  

Even in the midst of all that has gone wrong in our world today, that work still continues.  We live within the comfort and strength of our baptisms and so . . . 

We feed the hungry.  
We comfort the mourning.  
We call out for justice. 
We offer welcome and community to all who would come.  

Amen.

© 2021, Virginia H. Child

Words and Deeds

a sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown CT, August 29, 2021

The Scripture for Today James 1:17-27 — Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. 

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Or, as Eugene Peterson translated today’s lesson:  “Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.”

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.

Don’t let this good news go in one ear and out the other…

Don’t go around judging when you know that only God can judge

Don’t assume you’ve been judged and found wanting by God, when you’ve heard that God loves and welcomes all.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you clicked “like” on that story about refugees that you’ve done all that needs to be done.

Don’t let this good news go from one ear to the other without making a change in your life.

Make what you hear part of your life.  Live by it, depend on it, practice it.  Make God’s endless love your watchword.

This is what the United Church of Christ calls radical hospitality.  Now, in the most particular, most focused sense, radical hospitality is about who and how we welcome others.  But when you step back from that particular understanding, you realize that radical hospitality is really, and only, about living out the Word we hear from Jesus.

Maya Angelou is often attributed with saying that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Guests don’t come back to our churches because of what we do but because of how we make them feel.

Radical hospitality is about living out our faith. 

It’s hard to hear sometimes, because that word radical has vague and unpleasant overtones of going too far…. About five years ago, some radicals chained themselves to the concrete barrels they unloaded in the middle of I93, going into Boston, at rush hour.  You can’t overestimate how angry they made people, even the folks who agreed with their protest.  that’s a kind of radical that’s about making people uncomfortable, maybe even forcing change.  That’s not what this is intended to be.

Radical has other meanings.  Most of them depend on understanding that radical comes from the Latin and points toward roots…. roots of plants, roots of trees, roots of math, roods or foundations of our belief.  And that’s what this radical is all about.  It’s about going back to the roots of our faith.  In our radical hospitality we’re practicing the fundamentals of our faith.

In the Gospel of Matthew it’s recorded (in the Message translation) that Jesus said:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Love your neighbor as yourself.  It’s radical, it brings us back to the root of our faith, the foundation on which we have built this church, on which we conduct our lives.

What we do here, how we welcome people here, can feel so normal that we don’t realize how life-changing, how assumption-challenging it really is in our wider world.  What we do here in welcoming everyone is not done everywhere.  It is not done in every church, not even here in Connecticut.  And there are places here in the United States where our Black Lives Matter banner might have evoked a fire-bombing.  It happens.  It is radical in every sense of the world to return to and live out the foundational beliefs of our Christian faith.

Our way is a way of hospitality – of an intentional welcome, one which has declared an intention to put aside what we’re used to in order to become what we’re all used to.  It is a hospitality which creates a new reality.  In it I am not welcoming you to my table, but making that table, our table.

We are challenging the assumptions of our world about who’s welcome, who’s got a place at the table, who’s got a voice in our decisions.  

In this radical hospitality, no longer does my lesbian cousin have to pretend she’s waiting for the right man to come along.  No longer do we put our cognitively challenged son in an upstairs room.  No longer will we make someone who can’t walk give up coming to church.  

And it’s not just about worship time in church.  Radical hospitality says that everyone deserves enough to eat – and makes it the responsibility of those who can share to do so, to work to create a world where everyone has enough to eat.  Radical hospitality works to make a world where everyone has a seat at the table, where no one is judged by the color of their skin, or where they came from, or what their parents did, or didn’t do.  

Radical hospitality is about breaking down the walls that divide us one from another.  

Yes, sometimes radical hospitality makes us uncomfortable.  Discomfort is the sound that radical hospitality makes when it rubs up against our unconscious assumptions.

I can remember long conversations with some of the kindest church members I’ve known, as they struggled with the conflict between the welcome they wanted to offer everyone, and the tall tales they’d grown up some category of people.  Radical hospitality was pulling them right over their comfort zone and they wanted to go there.  It’s not always easy to make the changes.

We all have heard the  compassion when someone says something like this doesn’t bother me, but it does bother (insert name here)…  That’s when radical hospitality makes us aware of the conflict between the empathy we feel for someone we know and the absolute pain of the folks we have not yet met.  It’s hard to say to someone you love, I know this will make you uncomfortable and I’m sorry, but I can no longer pretend that I can’t see the pain in other eyes.

Radical hospitality calls us to move beyond our own comfort zones; it reminds us that Christian faith is built on love for the stranger.  What is the story of the good Samaritan but a story about the radical outreach of a man for a stranger, robbed, beaten and left to die on the side of the road?  In the time of the story, Samaritans were despised, the untouchables, the Black people, of that world.  It was unthinkable, radical, that one of THEM, a Samaritan, would stop and help one of US.  And if the stranger had been aware, he might well have cringed away from having one of THEM touch him.  But radical love, overflowing hospitality, carried the day, and a life was saved.

That’s radical hospitality in a nutshell.

Back to James.  James writes that it is impossible to say that everyone is welcome without actually welcoming everyone.  That the basic, foundational truth of Christianity.  Everyone is welcome.  We don’t allow people to use that universal welcome to mistreat others – every person is welcome, every behavior is not – but that doesn’t negate the welcome Christ offered to us and that, in his name, we offer to others.  Radical hospitality is who we are.

Amen.

© 2021, Virginia H. Child

Is The Bible Important Today?

“The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” Wallace Stevens

It occurs to me that there’s something that Professor Willie James Jennings almost takes for granted in writing his book Acts.  I say “almost”, because I don’t think Professor Jennings takes much at all for granted, even as a professor at the Yale Divinity School.

But here’s one thing I wonder about:  what difference at all does Acts make if the Bible isn’t important to you?  What if the Bible isn’t a source of guidance in your life?  What if it’s all “angels on the head of a pin”, foolish academic stuff? What if you find as much or more guidance in the I Ching?  Or what if Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night first showed you how to live and you re-read it yearly?  What if the guiding voice in your head is L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz? or the musical Wicked?

What if the Bible doesn’t matter?

I know it matters to me, and I know it matters to Professor Jennings, but in a world which is increasingly secular, does it still matter to the church?  Back in the day, the rule (the guideline) was that Christian worship had to include the reading of the Bible, an explanation of what had been read, and – ideally – prayer and the observance of Holy Communion.  Is it still important for Christians to read, explain and study the Bible?

If the Bible is important, then Professor Jennings’ book is as well. Indeed, his take on Acts  has the power and clarity to change our world.  But if the Bible is an optional extra, then Acts really is only idle thought.

Is the Bible important?  Is it essential to Christian living?  I say “yes!”.  Here’s why:

First, a note:  Christians generally evaluate ideas on the basis of three things:  Scripture, reason, and tradition (some add a fourth criteria, experience).  So when I think about why the Bible is important, those are the rules I will use to the best of my ability. 

The Bible is essential to Christian living because within it is contained the record of a thousand-year effort to follow God’s call to be a community where all are welcome.  It is the story of a progressively deepening understanding of what justice and mercy and love and community meant.  

The Bible is a core part of our life together and has been since the beginning of time.  Reading and studying Scripture is not something that was added on, but has been part of Jewish, and then Christian, worship from the very beginning.  Jesus is recorded in the Bible as reading from, and then explaining, Scripture in his home synagogue.  The letters of the New Testament tell us that the earliest worship services of the nascent Christian church consisted of reading the stories of Jesus and explaining them to the worshippers.  

The Bible speaks to our minds, giving us a framework through which to make sense of the world in which we live.  It’s not the only book/play/art work to bring us that gift, but it is the least tied to contemporary anything.  The Bible is not about style; it does not use today’s experiences; instead it speaks to style, experience, life.  

Now there are other, contemporary item which open our hearts and minds to God and God’s call; movies or television shows, plays, magazine articles.  That’s always been true.  Often, we’re tempted to think of those things as a kind of scripture, as something which speaks as well as, even better than, the Bible.  That presents a bit of a challenge because what was written this week (in this current time) is often so immersed in today that it is difficult to separate its specificity from the eternal.

It’s always been true, as well, that with the passage of time, some of what spoke so well to one generation loses its power to speak to the next, while other stories, sermons, prayers still break into our hearts and minds.  As these items age, the best, most powerful among them ripen into a timeless understanding. 

At the heart of worship, we need timeless; we need the Bible.  

But the Bible is confusing, hard to understand; it talks about so many things.  How can we possibly understand something written before people had properly figured out wagons and road (though the wheel had been invented, axles were still to come and good roads didn’t get going until Roman engineers put their minds to the problems).

And yet. . . and yet. . . the Bible is indeed a good and reliable guide to a well-lived life.  It is the key to understanding and living out the Christian faith:  we can be Christians and doubt every doctrine, but if we ignore the teachings of the Bible, we will inevitably miss the mark.

Here’s one example of what I mean:  on Saturday, on Facebook, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, one of the three leaders of the national United Church of Christ, wrote:

Just a troubling observation.  So often these days the transcendental takedown is what is perceived as prophetic. Tearing down, whether that is people or things, often feels good and the “hearts and likes” are off the charts. But neither destruction nor affirmation are indicators of the prophetic. 

The ultimate Call of the prophet is to heal and restore spiritually, emotionally, and communally. Often such work requires deconstruction, which is more careful and is less popular than destruction. Hence the hatred of the prophet. Wholeness is not popular and prophets are not celebrated.

We need a Movement toward authentic relationships so we can choose again the healing work of calling one another in instead of the titillating work of calling one another out.  Where have our real connections gone? Who do you trust to call you in? Or as Queen Mother Ruby Sales asked me yesterday:  Who is a love worthy of your labor?

Rev. Blackmon reminds us that while contemporary habit might raise up calling people out, Biblical life calls us to invite people in. In doing so, she reminds us why we need the Bible. Contemporary writing — well, the evils of our current time call forth our anger and in the immediacy of our emotions we can be carried away. But the Bible, while not ignoring our angers, helps us remember that we build more strongly when we build with love.

This is all about the overarching theme of the Bible – how to live together in community in a way which is marked by love, justice, mercy, extravagant generosity, radical hospitality.  

Any secular force might well say “we need to fight racism”.  But it is the Bible which calls us to struggle against racism with love, with a willingness to turn our world from me to we.  Calling folks out is a secular move, one that is built on a framework of power and authority.  Calling people in is a Biblical move, one which is built on a network of love and mutuality.

Studying the Bible is our life’s blood.  True, it requires some time spent learning a little of the background of the Bible.  Any good study Bible has the additional material to give us what we need.  Any pastor worth her salt can teach a basic introduction that’ll get you going.  It’s not a lot, not to get started:  just learn that the individual books were all written at different times, by different people (and not always those whose names are attached), and while the books can have radically different ideas about what to do in specific circumstances, every one of them is, at its base, about how to build community.

The Bible is not written to support particular theological ideas.  You won’t find the Apostles’ Creed in the Bible; you won’t find teachings about the meaning of Communion.  Those sorts of things came later.  Those ideas are fun, and they’re important, but they’re not essential.  What’s essential is understanding that this book can help us build community, can teach us how to love a world that is often unlovable.  

The Bible tells stories of broken people, folks who choose the wrong, and try again.  It’s not a book about perfect people who make one good choice after another.  Sometimes it tells stories about the mean, the angry, the hate-filled (and the hate-ful).  Sometimes the stories are filled with love.  Sometimes, they made great sense when they were written, but in today’s world, not so much.  

Some folks tell us that the Bible is worth reading because it is true, and it is true.  But it is not factual; it is not scientific.  It’s truth is not about history, or mechanics or science.  It’s truth is about human beings, about our relationships with one another, with the world, with God.  As Wallace Stevens writes, sometimes the greatest thing is to read something that you know is not factual and yet believe in its truth.  

That is the power of the book about which Professor Jennings writes.  That is why it’s worth our time and effort to read it, to understand it, and allow it to be our guiding star.

Arguing with the Author

Acts: Willie James Jennings, ACTS

Further Reflections:  Christians, Jews and Nationalism

Jennings writes:

  • Nationalism is a seductive way of understanding collective existence.
  • Nationalist vision is weakness and fear masquerading as strength and courage, because it beckons the world’s peoples to postures of protectionism and leans toward xenophobia
  • To think toward national existence is already to be thinking toward captivity and death.
  • We struggle to imagine collective life beyond nationalist form
  • God, however, overturns what we might anachronistically call Israel’s nationalist desire through nationalist form—the son of King David, King Jesus, will not form nationalists even as he forms a new people, but disciples.
  • Desire for a people and desire for a place belong to God, having been born out of the divine life expressed in the gracious act of creation. What belongs to God, God seeks to direct. God seeks to direct such desire in us toward holy ends and not the ends of statecraft or global or local markets. 
  • This is why the book of Acts is a direct, unequivocal assault on nationalism in all its forms. God from the very beginning of the Acts drama will not share holy desire with any nationalistic longing that draws borders and boundaries. The Holy Spirit will break open what we want closed and shatter our strategies of protectionism for the sake of a saving God who will give back to us precisely what we cannot hold onto with our own efforts and power, the continuities of our stories, our legacies, our hopes and dreams for a good future and a thriving life. God who will be all in all desires to bring all into all, the many into the many, just as the One is now in and with the many. Nationalism give energy to the false belief that only by its own single efforts can a people sustain its story, its hope, and its life. Such belief is unbelief for a Christian, because we know that God offers a new way found in a new life, a joining that brings stories, hopes, and life in a shared work of knowing, remembering, and testifying.[1]

Today, I’m reading a small sidebar essay inserted between two sections about Chapter 1.  In it, Jennings asserts that all of Acts is a condemnation of nationalism, the act of being a country.  Nationalism is impossible for the Christian, Jennings says, because the very acts which are central to Christian faith are impossible to the nationalist and the very acts essential to the survival of nationalism are antithetical to Christian faith and action.

Is he correct?  Surely.  If, and it’s a big if, if we understand his claim to be that there are no moral nations anywhere in the world, that conflict and war are part and parcel of the nature of countries, if we believe that it is wrong for Christians to engage in commerce with the intention of making money, and if it is impermissible for a Christian to compromise, then nationalism in all its forms is forbidden to the Christian.

Can anyone point me to a group of Christians who have successfully lived as community outside the bounds of nationalism?  That’s right:  the Amish do so, and so do many Mennonites and some other groups of Anabaptists.  Some Quakers would say they live in that way as well.  Looking at their lives, it’s clear that those folks abjure more than buttons on their clothing.  Life for the faithful Amish person may well mean no electricity (at least at home), very little formal schooling, making a living by farming, factory work, or other low-skilled local industry.  Few Amish folks go to college, become physicians, etc.  If they do, they most likely move their affiliation over to the Mennonites in the area.


It’s clear that living in this way, following the path of such modern monastics as Shane Claiborne, is more than we can expect most folks who claim Christian faith to buy into.  While I respect Professor Jennings’ naming of the challenges of living in a world framed by nationalism and driving by capitalism, I am concerned that by presenting this as a binary choice (either give up your country and remain a Christian, or give up Christianity and remain part of the system)… we will drive more people to see Christianity as unrealistic.

To me, this smacks of a kind of perfectionism, a call that says since our faith will be affected if we live as citizens in a country, then we must give up citizenship.  Here’s the problem I have:  the safety of those Amish folk, those conscientious objectors, depends on the willingness of others to stand in the way of danger.  And by removing the most powerful critics of dangerous nationalism from the public voice, it gives the voice of toxic nationalism more bandwidth.

Nationalism always lives in tension with our faith.  There’s always a pull towards putting too much faith, too much power into our vision of our country.  But communities need structure, and that structure needs to be completely separate from our faith community, not because of the American political doctrine of the separation of church and state, but because combining a particular faith with a particular political community concentrates too much power in one place. 

Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  If we do not recognize this, we’ll find ourselves expecting unending self- effacement from our faith community and it’s just not going to happen.

I think that, from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, folks have always recognized that he was calling us to a way that was close onto impossible for most people to follow, at least all the time.  In fact, I disagree with Professor Jennings that Acts is primarily about avoiding nationalism.  I think it is rather about living within the reality that is the intersection between nationalism and Christian faith.

That’s because I think Acts is about tough choices.  I do not think many of us have the calling to leave it all behind, to live as some sort of monastic, or in an intention community like Amish life.  For most Christians, life is complex.  We live enmeshed in a society that – lacking our witness to the importance of every life, would step on its own elders on the way to more  — more money, more luxury, more for me, less for you.  In other words, the world in which we live is soaked in self-centeredness. 

The challenge of existing in our present world will not be solved by saying we should step away from nationalism. Exiting would give unfettered self-centeredness the freedom to grab it all, and let the rest of the world die.  Who hasn’t seen that happening over the last four years in plain sight, and behind closed doors for centuries?  The challenge of today is how do we maintain a kind of dual allegiance which makes our Christian faith the rule against our secular loyalties are tested (and not the other way round, where we construct a faith which comports with the selfishnesses of the civic world).  

For that matter, who can’t see the sins of nationalism (power grabs, domineering behavior) among ecclesial organizations of every stripe?  Nationalism is not the exclusive province of countries, after all.  Churches want to maintain their eminence; church leaders want their perks, someone wants to control the endowment, someone wants things to be done their way and no others.  It is impossible to retreat from the sins which are part of every organization which attempts to control its members.  Even the loosest of organizations like the component parts of the United Church of Christ, fall prey to this sort of power-grabbing behavior from time to time.  We’re just not very good at it, unlike other more strictly organized denominations.

Last Sunday, Winston Baldwin, in his sermon, reminded us of the story of the time King David decided to build God what he thought would be a decent house.    He decided that he was the one who would make that decision.  God thought otherwise, and Winston reminded us all that though we’re always trying to put God in a box, to bring God’s call under control, to make it all about us and we and what we want, God has other goals, other aims.  And following God is not easy.  One of the things that makes it hard is that there are no hard and fast answers.

Instead, we are called to a more complicated relationship at the intersection of world and faith, nationalists who don’t worship nationalism, Christians who meet the world humbly, aware of our tendency to worship things and structures and people and power, instead of the God who has loved us.


[1] Jennings, W. J. (2017). Acts. (A. P. Pauw & W. C. Placher, Eds.) (First edition, pp. 23–24). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Easy Come, Not So Easy Go. . .

Part 2: a close reading and my reaction to Prof. Willie James Jennings’ commentary on the Acts of the Apostles:

We are going, heaven knows where we are going  (Woyaya – UUA Hymnal)

Acts 1:1-12

Because I most often read Acts as someone who knows the end of their story, it feels to me as if it’s all certain and sure.  Prof. Jennings calls me back to a time and place where the endings are totally unknown.  He reminds us that in the world of Acts, the apostles know only where they have come from and what happened back then.  But they do not know where they are going, and they’re not yet clear as to what “there” will be.  

In the last years of Andover Newton’s life in Newton, Mass, the song Woyaya was popular in chapel services.  Listen to it here <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWzQKjSn4Cc&gt;, and you’ll hear why… for the song speaks of an “Acts” time, when all that is sure is yesterday, and tomorrow is completely unrevealed.  In those days, all we knew for sure was that change was coming; all we had to hold on to was a past of blessed memory.

And here’s a big problem:  everything that is tied to yesterday is tied to death and decay.  I don’t think that means that everything from yesterday is bad; it simply means that it was part and parcel of a time that is gone and that when we focus on that, we lose sight of this present day. When we hold on too tightly to yesterday, we find tomorrow is more and more frightening. Jennings reminds us of God’s constant presence in the in-between times.

My father’s family lives on a farm in northeastern Connecticut; we’ve owned the land, parent to child, since the late seventeenth century (though not always with the same last name, as the farm has had a habit of passing from father to daughter).  In my father’s mind, the farm was always sort of like the first photo – in my mind, it’s more like the second…. In reality, it’s a constantly evolving place.  Barns go up, barns come down.  Porches are added, then removed; the cows are a constant, but they’re not always the same breed.  The farmer who sticks to the first picture farm is a farmer who’s about to go out of business.  

So, to get back to Professor James’ book, are we still listening for yesterday’s word, or are we open to today?

Acts is a testimony to the way that Jesus – and Jesus’ Resurrection – changed the world.  So we do look back, we do pay attention to the past, but we do not stay there.  Jennings suggests that the reality of Resurrection is that Jesus is right here, right now; we are not left with dim historical stories, but are companioned by a living reality.

Jesus’ presence with us calls us into our present and asks us to face forward into the future.  In following Christ, we are not trying to reanimate the past but to see and really understand what living here and now asks of us.

The story of the Ascension reminds us, again, that it’s a waste of time and effort to look for Jesus in the past, to stare hopefully up to heaven as if it’s his job, and his job only, to live in that way which makes for community, builds peace, creates love.

In ascending, Jennings says, Jesus pulls us up after him, raising us up into heaven – if we can only see it.  

As I read this I wonder, just how much of my beloved past will I have to leave behind to follow Jesus into this new future?  It’s easy to write that all I have to put aside are those things which prevent me from seeing the future, but which are those things?  I can put aside racist attitudes (or at least I can aim to do that) and I recognize that those are bad things, but do I have to put aside the kind of music I’ve always loved, the music which brings me close to God?  I can leave behind my cultural attitudes about tattoos, but what about my love of peace, my desire for intellectual stimulation in worship?  

Is this only about those major, public issues such as racism, or is it also about the teeny household idols we hold in our hearts?

Everything I read in Jennings’ commentary tells me that replacing Jesus Christ with “me” – my likes, my family, my town, my country,….. my race is wrong, wrong, wrong.  All my life tells me that it all becomes enormously hard when you’re faced with giving up something that you really really love; all my faith tells me that sometimes that’s required.  And all my experience tells me that knowing when to hold on and when to let go is never going to be easy.

The Beginning of the Journey

Reading ACTS, by Willie James Jennings, WJKP, 2017

ACTS  Willie James Jennings, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017

During the next few weeks, I’m using some of the time freed up by “July at South Church” to do a close reading of Professor Willie James Jennings’ superb commentary on the Acts of the Apostles.  It’s my hope and plan to periodically add an essay on what I’m reading and how it affects me to this site.  

Professor Jennings’ book is thin, by commentary standards.  I own two other commentaries on Acts; each of them is at least an inch thicker than this one.  Each of them is filled with page after page of detail about the words, the context, the social situation, and even the condition of the oldest manuscripts.  In other words, each of them is all about the words.  Jennings writes about what the words mean for us today.

Each type of commentary is important – essential – to the scholar.  However, it’s possible to read Jennings’ commentary without ever touching the other; it is not particularly fruitful to read an analytical commentary without proceeding on to one which examines meaning.  

Jennings begins, in his introduction, by talking about why the Acts of the Apostles is important.  (I’m not going to go over his whole argument; but rather, just raise some thoughts which struck me as I read.)

In my childhood as a Hicksite Quaker, as I remember the lessons, we were the ones who followed pure, original, apostolic Christianity.  Everyone else was flawed; not so much that they weren’t really Christians, but enough that they were missing the “good stuff” that only we had.  “Look”, we were told, “at the Acts of the Apostles.  There you’ll see the model for how we do things; there you’ll see the proof that we are right, or at least the rightest, of all the Christian churches.”  Even the most modest of mid-twentieth century Quakers engaged in sometime triumphalism.  This is one of the most common ways we use the Bible:  look, we say, here’s proof that I’m right.  

The thing is, as soon as we say that, we’re wrong.  There’s a lot to be found in Jennings’ introduction, but the first thing is this: the Book of Acts is not a simple list of facts, like a tide table.  It is a story, and moreover, a story of how God has acted, is acting and will continue to act in our future.  History is not really about facts; facts are tools which storytellers us to help us see the meaning of history.

If we think of history as nothing but facts, it ossifies into something as solid as my grandmother’s gravestone.  There you can read her name, her birthdate, death date, and the name of my grandfather (they share a stone).  Those are the facts, but they are not the story.  The same kind of ossification takes place when we read Acts as a flat recitation of facts.  We know when Paul made his second missionary journey, perhaps, but we never look to see what that journey meant then or means now, where it points us into the future.

Jennings suggests that when we reduce history to “history for history’s sake”, we turn it into something that must be preserved without question, a source for answering “right way” questions, and thus something like the experience of the colonial life which seeks to recapitulate life in the world from which they came, without regard to current need.  (Think of the Congregational missionaries to Hawaii, trying to get the inhabitants to wear wool clothing, because, in their colonialist mindset, that’s what decent people wear.)

History is a story which lives in the spaces between the haves and the have nots.  Jennings calls these two poles empire and diaspora:  for Acts that means the Roman Empire and the scattering of Jews across the world (the Diaspora).  History, too often, tries to get us to choose between empire and diaspora.  We’re asked to either be the ones who have it all, or the ones who’ve lost it all.  The empire-ists in Acts only want actions and religions which support the hierarchies and structures of the Roman Empire; the diaspora wants to live as a body totally unconnected to Empire, turning away from anything which might cause the Jewish community to be assimilated.  Those two poles cannot be reconciled; they must live in constant opposition to each other.  

But, Jennings posits, Christianity lives in the spaces between Empire and Diaspora.  Christianity tries to build what he calls “the common”; a community which says there is something more important than being right; it is being loving.  It doesn’t matter where you originally belong: to become Christian is to abandon the values of each of those communities.

The common is a place where we all can meet, where we are not fixated on the one right way, not the right Diaspora way and not the right Empire way, but rather coalesce around the Christian way, which has many right ways.  The story of the birth of the common is the story of Acts.  It is the story of moving away from the life of total disconnection while avoiding moving into the lifestyle of the Empire.

I think of this and remember so many arguments in church life that, in the light of Jennings’ introduction, are arguments about power, not arguments about carpets, or what kind of music to play.  It makes me think that in many ways, all life is a struggle between those who have power and those who don’t.  

The central concerns, the rightnesses of Christian faith, at its best, are about how we behave with one another and how we interact with the powers and principalities of our world.  They’re not about matters of taste or custom; those things can be important to believers, but they are adiaphora…. things that, however personally important, are not essential.  One of the most challenging tasks of the believer is to discern which things matter to our faith and which do not.  The Acts of the Apostles is the story of a beginning effort to figure that out.

What things do we think are central?  What matters to God?  When are we acting out of our sense that ours is the right wayand when are we acting as if we’re totally cut off from things? When are we bringing it all together?

Next time:  Chapter 1 – how it all began.

What Happened When the Stranger Came to Town?

a sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown CT on Palm Sunday, March 28 2021

Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. 

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 

             “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, 

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

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.

What went wrong?

Why did the Sunday crowds – the calls of support, the enthusiastic palm wavers – why was it all gone and forgotten by Thursday night?

We can’t just gloss over what happened, pretend it doesn’t matter,  and skip right ahead to the joy of Easter.  It matters; it changes the entire course of our understanding of what the world is really like and who Jesus is.

So – why did the raucous joy of Sunday die away into the disaster we know this week will be?

Is it because he was second-guessed by his companions, who were everlastingly saying “don’t say that, it’s dangerous” or “wouldn’t it be better if . . . “ or even “ when you’re in charge, promise to make my brother and me important people….”   Well, we surely do see signs of that, but it’s not his companions who kill him; not even Judas wanted him dead.  No, I don’t that’s it.  

I think it’s more basic than envy, or worry, or anything personal. 

I think it’s because he’s from Nazareth, and we know no good thing can come out of Nazareth? So Jesus was doomed to failure because of his background.  

Let’s look at this a little closer.  Does it ever happen that we discount people because of where they come from?  Do we listen to a broad Texas accent and assume that person is not well-educated?  Do we look at someone who’s just immigrated and assumed they didn’t know what they were doing?  If you’re a woman and a physician or a dentist, how often has a patient said they’ll wait for the real doctor?

And what if you’re really different… different enough that the police watch you?  Different enough that a store detective follows you throughout the store?  Does anyone look at you scornfully because you’re “from Nazareth”.  

If it’s never happened to you, can you imagine what it’s like for those who live this out every day?  Even here, even now,  it happens.  People get angry when they see  you.  People mutter, you don’t belong here…. you’re from Nazareth.  Or you’re poor.  Or you’re Black.  or a woman. . . Or you are Asian.  or you moved here from Hartford, or the wrong side of New Haven.  Nazareth isn’t just a place in Israel; it’s where people who are hated for existing live.  Gay people, bi-people, Black people, poor people, immigrants, and Asian massage parlor workers – they’re all from Nazareth, from a place where no one matters, where everyone can be treated like dirt by all the people don’t live THERE.

One minute Jesus was like Martin Luther King Jr at the Lincoln Memorial, with an immense crowd hanging  on his every word…. and the next, he was just another yokel from Nazareth, poor, powerless and nothing but trouble.

And they’re going to kill him for it.  

Because Jesus wants a world where everyone matters.  He’s not content with a world where “color doesn’t matter”; it’s not enough to say Asians love math.  He wants a world where everyone is welcome, as they are, without changing the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes, without doing their best to look like, act like, sound like, and even eat like, the people with the power.  

The Romans were as civilized as it got in their time… and they didn’t want to see Jesus succeed, because his teaching would destroy their empire.

The local power structure saw only another troublemaker from out of the boonies.  He was from Nazareth, not the big city and they didn’t want him opening eyes to the ways the world was wrong.

His own people feared his power, and one of them betrayed him.  No one gets away free from this one.  

Ibram Kendi says we are all putting down the people from Nazareth every time we close our eyes to racism and he’s right.  The person who sounds good so long as they’re saying what we want to hear became dangerous the minute they start naming the truth of discrimination.  

I’d already written and recorded last Sunday’s sermon when the news came of the shooting of Asian women in Atlanta.  Now, as I’m working on the Palm Sunday sermon, comes the news of yet another shooting in Boulder, Colorado.  Eight people, six Asian-American women, one week; ten more people the next.  Let’s be clear; we’ve not yet learned the lesson of Holy Week.  Hatred kills.  It killed then; it kills today.

Our Black Lives Matter banner made people nervous when we put it up, and I dare say there were people who wished we weren’t doing it.  It was a dangerous choice.  But the events of the past ten days should tell us that there is no other more effective way for us to lay right out there on Court Street that we want to shut hate down.  We stand against killing people…and hate kills.  

Jesus spent his ministry telling the truth.  It was his way of putting up a Black Lives Matter banner and it was dangerous then, as it is now, to say truth.  But it was even more dangerous then, and now,  to be the people from the Nazareth’s of our world.  We’ve begun to learn a lesson Black people, dispossessed people, have known forever:  you don’t even need to be doing something dangerous to be hated; people from the world’s Nazareths are hated because they exist.

Vice-President Kamala Harris spoke in Atlanta after the first shooting and she told truth: “Racism is real in America, and it has always been,” Harris said. “Xenophobia is real in America and always has been. Sexism, too.”  

We’d love to think we’re perfect, that whatever problems we have are minor faults and that none of us would do “that”, whatever that mean, short-sighted or greedy thing might be.  But Vice-President Harris is right.  Racism is real – and part of who we are – and that means those stuffy old Calvinists were right.  We are sinners.  We can work at our sins, but we can’t pretend they don’t exist.  

On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem with crowds calling his name; his followers saw all their dreams on the threshold of coming true.  The world, they all thought, was gonna change.  It did, of course, but not the way anyone wanted. 

The best person we ever saw was from Nazareth. And it got him killed, not because he’d done anything wrong, but because human beings were incapable of seeing the truth of a stranger come to town to tell the truth.

Jesus died for our sins.  And chief among them then and now is the sin of hating the stranger, the …the other.  So it was then, so it is now.

May God have mercy on us.

Amen.

Been Down So Long. . .

a sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown CT on March 21, 2021

SCRIPTURE READING:                                                                                     Ezekiel 37:11-14

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says 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.

Maybe you, like me, remember when Richard Farina died.  If you do, you probably know more about him and his work than I ever did – I was in my country music stage in those days, but I was at least aware of Joan Baez and that Richard Farina was her brother-in-law.  I only heard of him when he died in a tragic motorcycle accident and probably the only reason I remember him at all is the title to his only book: “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me”.   And, truthfully, I’ve never read the book.  The title was enough.  I’d been down often enough to understand the truth of the words:  been down so long it looks like up to me.

I don’t know about you, but seems to me that there’s a sort of truth there, and it points towards something really important.  Most of us get through childhood before we discover that there’s going to be tough spots in life.  But whether we learn it in a childhood spent in the foster-care system, or when a sibling dies – or we don’t learn it until we’re adults and thanking God we got on at the Tampax factory, or discover that our PhD won’t get us the job of our dreams –or in some other way, we discover that life is not perfect.  Not by a long shot.

The smartest, happiest, most blessed kid in the youth group is struggling with her identity.  Dad has a drinking problem.  I can’t seem to get out of debt.  Well, I don’t imagine I need to go on.  We all know it, or suspect it – life is full of hard stuff, and it doesn’t all turn out right.

The question isn’t, does this happen; the question is where is God in all this?  And that leads me to this morning’s lesson, from Ezekiel.  The lesson is part of the story of the valley of dry bones; a place where Ezekiel experiences God bringing back life to what the people think is dead.  “[the whole house of Israel believes]. . .our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely. .”  

Well, I don’t know about you, but that sure describes my own experiences when the world is going wrong.  Left out, let down, losing everything important, alone, everything important gone in some way or another.  My bones are dried up and my hope is lost.

But Ezekiel doesn’t stop the story there; he re-tells God’s promise:  “Oh my people I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live. .”   Live, live with God.  But live in a way eternally changed by all that’s happened.

My sister died when I was three.  I never met her; she died the day after she was born.  And yet her life, and her death, continue to be a part of my life, decades later.  God did not bring her back; God didn’t – in my opinion – even give us much comfort in the days following her death.   Not that people didn’t try; it just wasn’t much help.  We all, each in our own way, turned away from God for a long time, and we didn’t all come back.  But as time went on, I began to understand God’s presence in our world and the ways that line could be true.  I don’t think that, at the time, it would have been comforting if Jesus himself had knocked at our door to comfort my parents.  And I sure would have been confused.

What helped me “get” how God comforts us?  As I grew older (remember, I was three when this happened) I saw that we weren’t the only folks this had happened to – my father’s parents had lost two of their five children.  I won’t bore you with the details but it was clear that they’d dealt with a number of disasters, and it was God who had brought them through.  They were in church every week; they sang the songs, served on Boards and Committees, made most of their friends there; and they found something there which kept them going.  

I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that Frederick Buechner in his comments about Job in today’s bulletin has the right of it.  There’s more going on than we’ll ever understand.  It’s not the understanding that’s the strength of our relationship with God – it’s the companionship that really matters.  In the depths of crisis, we’re probably not going to be able to perceive God’s presence, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  The story’s told that when he was deeply depressed, Martin Luther, the great Reformer, used to remind himself, “I am baptized.” so that he could remember that in baptism, God had promised to be with him forever.  Baptism is the outward and visible sign of God’s promise to be with us forever, good times and bad.  

Our hope is that we will be prepared with a faith in God that can endure the toughest times;  but remember, even those who knew Jesus gave him a hard time when Lazarus died.  The best among us doubt when the worst happens.  If, when those bad times come, you cannot perceive God, you are not alone.  God is still with you.

We are never alone.  God is always with us.

Amen.

Evil Produces Evil; How Shall We Respond?

Luke 6:45:  The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.

On Wednesday morning it was Georgia which captured my interest.  Who would win?  What would happen in the Senate?  During my morning Zoom meetings – Tea with the Pastor and the Staff Meeting, I kept an eye on the results and the day was looking better and better.  The returns were promising, the Zoom conversations had been great.  My next Zoom meeting was with the Interim Search Committee; we were having a lovely time talking with one another, making some plans for the future, when in the background of my computer screen, I saw the headline “Capitol on Lockdown”.  Suddenly a day which had brimmed full of promise, re-filled with horror.

We all had many of the same experiences – a day was proceeding, much as you hoped, and then… absolute and complete horror as we saw, together, a mob running up the steps to the Capitol, surging through the halls, driving the members of Congress into safe hiding places.

It wasn’t hard to see what that mob wanted to do – they sought to disrupt the process of certifying the votes of the Electoral College in the deluded belief that, if they succeeded, Donald Trump would simply continue to be President.  (In point of fact, if they had succeeded, Nancy Pelosi would become President until things were straightened out.)  I could almost appreciate the irony that if there’s anything they’d like less than Joe Biden as our next President, it would be Speaker Pelosi.

But there was no space to appreciate irony on Wednesday.  Actual live, theoretically human, people paraded in our Capitol wearing sweatshirts that said “Camp Auschwitz – Work Makes Freedom” or “6MWNE” (six million [Jews] were not enough).  Some of the police who were supposed to protect our government opened barriers for the mob to swarm over the building, even while others put their lives on the line.  In the midst of all this, a United States Senator was photographed encouraging the rioters. The President encouraged them as well.  Today, the Capitol is littered with debris and five people are dead.  

How do we understand and cope with the depths of depravity we saw?  How do we deal with our own anger?

On Wednesday morning, at Tea with the Pastor, we were struggling with the nature of evil – does evil really exist?  Much of the time, we believe that people are basically good.  We have stepped away from that old Puritan belief in everlasting evil.  But then come days like Wednesday, and scenes such as I described.  It is nothing but evil to celebrate the murder of Jews.  It is nothing but evil to step away from your responsibility to protect.  It is nothing but evil to incite a mob to violence, or to take advantage of that violence to make money.

But evil cannot prevail.  That is the truth of the Resurrection.  Christ rose from the dead as a sure sign that love overcomes evil.

How do we live with our feelings?  I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s incredibly angry.  Over the years, I’ve learned two things about times like this, times filled with frustration and anger.  First of all, we’re still in the middle of things.  It’s natural and expected that we’ll be tossed this way and that.  it doesn’t mean we’ve been thrown off our foundations; it means that things are still happening.  But we don’t have to indulge those feelings.  If you’re angry, you’re angry, but it’s not exactly where you’ll be in seven days.  

And the second thing I’ve learned?  It’s not to make decisions before I have to, not to take action until it’s necessary.  Give yourself time to think things over, to see how it all plays out.  We’re not going to forget, but we don’t yet know all we will, especially over the next two weeks.

In the meantime, we’re not going to ignore what’s happened.  We, here in Middletown, will wait to see how things play out, but our Senators – Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy – are in the midst of things.  “This is a time,” writes Tony Robinson, “to do the right thing.”  Love doesn’t mean ignoring evil, or giving evil unlimited permission to do what they want.  All people are welcome in God’s love, but all behaviors are not.  

Bill Moyers points out that there can be no “moving on” or “looking to the future” before facing the truth. People have broken the law and they are being arrested, will be tried, and will be jailed.  Rioters have lost their jobs.  Those who instigated, encouraged and supported the riot are being investigated.  While we wait for clearness as to what happened and who was involved, we have a job.  Our work, our calling, in the midst of all this is to continue to proclaim the power of love.

Where some proclaim that it is the Christian way to “stand up for America” and try to tear down our democracy, we will continue to live our belief that the Christian way is a way of welcome.

We may still wish that evil did not exist, but today we know it does.  Out of the strength of our faith in God’s everlasting goodness, however, we will be church, love God and serve our neighbors.

Blessings, 

Virginia