Do We Need a Savior?

A Service of Lessons and Carols

First Lesson:  Do We Need a Savior?  Genesis 4:2a-9

Do we need a Savior?  The median net worth for non-immigrant African-American households in the Greater Boston region is $8, according to “The Color of Wealth in Boston,” a 2015 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Duke University, and the New School. The household median net worth was $247,500 for whites; $8 for US blacks (the lowest of all five cities); $12,000 for Caribbean blacks; $3,020 for Puerto Ricans; and $0 for Dominicans (that’s not a typo either.)

 Do we need a Savior? 

Hurricane Harvey, in late August to early September, was the costliest tropical cyclone on record, inflicting nearly $200 billion (2017 USD) in damage, primarily in the Houston metropolitan area.  Two weeks later came Hurricane Maria. At least 500 people have died because of the storm and it might be as many as 1000.  We don’t know because the damage to infrastructure was so complete. Most of the island will get its power back by the end of next February, but some will not get it back until May.

Do we need a Savior?

As of early November, somewhere over 200 people had been murdered in mass shootings this year, 58 in October in Las Vegas, last month 26 in Texas.. and it is the 5th anniversary of the shooting of 20 little school children right over in Newtown CT.  And what have we done about it?

Our world is struggling, and this struggle is nothing new.  Hear this story from the book of Genesis:

Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.  In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions.

And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.

The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

Second Lesson:  How shall we live?  Micah 6:6-8

Micah writes:“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”  He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you  but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

 Yes, there is a lot that is wrong in our world.  But there is good news as well.  Last January, when Victoria Islamic Center, a mosque in Texas, burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances, churches and synagogues offered space, money, and helping hands—raising more than a million dollars for the mosque’s rebuilding. They broke ground in May and by September they were distributing emergency supplies to victims of Hurricane Harvey.

In 2017, Church World Service, our agent of emergency assistance in the world, distributed 150,000 hygiene kids, about 25,000 school kids and almost 2400 cleanup buckets throughout the world.  In Puerto Rico:  working through the American Baptists, CWS shipped over 22,500 hygiene kits, almost 9,000 bungee cords, 2,550 school kits, 330 tarps, 200 cast iron stoves, and 50 propane tanks.  Through the UCC, they are sending 5000 more hygiene kits, 1000 water filters and another 500 tarps.

There’s no way to count of good deeds, done in the name of Christ, all around our world.  Love comes quietly, without much fanfare.

We will never know how many people turned what they heard in church into deeds at home.  We will never know how many men didn’t harass a woman, how many people held the door open for a person coming after them, how many people made the day easier for a mom with a toddler, how many people stood up for the poor or dispossessed.

But we know that love was shared, Christ followed. For what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Third Lesson:  What are we looking for?  Isaiah 61:1-4

When Jesus began his ministry, as people listened to and became excited by his words and deeds, they began to look back into Scripture to find there the foundation of what he was proclaiming.

It was because he so modeled the words of the prophets such as Isaiah, that people began to proclaim him as the Messiah, as the one who would change their world.  And even today, when we hear these words of the prophet Isaiah, we hear the message of Jesus to us all.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. 

Fourth Lesson:  Who will show us the way?  Luke 1:26-38

One picture is worth a thousand words; meeting one good person can change a life.  We’re not very good with abstract concepts; we all need pictures to help us imagine what life can be, to help us believe that life is more than Wordsworth’s “getting and spending”.  And every really good picture has a backstory, something that will give it even more power, tell even more truth.   Here’s part of Jesus’ backstory:

If you were God, if you were going to send your Son to change the world, how would you do it?  Send him to a prosperous family?  One with a passion for education?  Money for good food?  Enough prestige to give his ministry a head start?  But who did God choose?  And what does it say about how God saw Jesus’ mission, Jesus’ work, that the Savior of the world was born to an unmarried couple, refugees from political oppression?  Listen to the beginning of the story of Jesus and think about why he was to come in this time, this place, this way.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Fifth Lesson:  Jesus comes to live as one of us  Luke 2:1-20

Born poor, homeless, soon a refugee fleeing to Egypt..

 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galileeto Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary,to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Sixth Lesson:  They Went Home By Another Way  Matthew 2:1-12

The first glimpse we have of Jesus’ power to turn the world upside down lies in this story of “wise men” (scholars, maybe, or Zoroastrian priests), who tactlessly told the current king, Herod, that his replacement had been born.  The government was relentlessly corrupt, and, in the end, the wise men, refused to cooperate.  They went home by another way.

 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another [way].

Seventh Lesson:  What Does “Right” Look Like?  Luke 10:25-28

In this story, Nicodemus asks the golden question, the one each one of us must ask of ourselves and of God. How will we live, which path will we choose, who will we follow, who will be our role model?  What does “right” look like?

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” [Jesus] said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

And [Jesus] said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

Eighth Lesson:  Light shines in the darkness  John 1:1-14

And so, our Savior is born, bringing us a message of hope and light, a message with the power to change our world.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

May you have a blessed Christmas!

 

Making the Invisible, Visible

Congregational Church of Grafton MA UCC, December 3, 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9:  You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

Luke 1:39-55   He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 

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


Have you ever noticed how hard it is to see in the dark?  The last few night have been pretty bright, true… but how about those nights when it’s raining . . .and there are no white lines on the road . . . ?  It can get so difficult that you just don’t want to get out there.   Even though the lights on your car do work, it can feel as though they are simply not doing anything.

Christ came to be with us because living our world is often like driving on a dark, rainy night with no lines on the road.  We struggle to see our way, worry about driving off the pavement.

Sometimes, we just plain give up.  I know I’m very cautious, reluctant to take a chance, on those proverbial dark and stormy nights.  When it’s dark and hard to see the way, we move ever so tentatively.

Listen to one reaction to being caught in the dark – from Isaiah 64 —

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!   When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.  From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.  You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.  We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.  Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. 

Do you hear it?  The author’s complaining to God:  You hid yourself and we transgressed.  It was dark, and we couldn’t see the way, and so we stumbled.  Please don’t yell at us; we couldn’t tell what to do.  Help us, for we are your people.

It was a dark and stormy night.  And who here today does not think we are living in dark and stormy times?  How many of our admired leaders seem to have gone wandering in a place where they can’t tell right from wrong?  How often have we struggled to see the right thing to do?  Even when the sun is full out, there’s a darkness in our world.

And in this month of Advent and Christmas, comes Light into the World.  Light comes to help us see in the darkness.  In the lesson we heard this morning, Mary sings about the Light and what it does for us, when she says:

[God’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. [God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. [God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 

Light shines in our world when we see those things happening.

When the proud lose all that gives them pride, when the powerful lose their power, light is beginning to shine.

Most of all, when the lowly are raised up, respected, loved and sustained, God’s light shines upon all of us.

When the hungry are fed, there is the spirit of God.

When the rich don’t take the largest portion, while leaving nothing but the dregs for everyone else, there is God.

That’s why Jesus came.  That’s why we call him the Light of the World.  Because with Jesus, we can see the way forward.  With Jesus, we can tell when we’ve gone off the path, veered off the road, when we dragging our car too close to the brush and scarring up the paint job.

In our public life, Jesus shines a light on the disgraceful cupidity of public officials, of those who have the power in their hands to make life generous or hard.

In all our world, Jesus shines a light on our personal behaviors, helping us to see the other as real and worthy of respect.

And in our private lives, Jesus gives us direction, helps us know right from wrong, keeps us company on our daily grind, gives us strength to continue to be witnesses for love and justice.

All this month, we’ll party, celebrate, give and receive gifts.  Sometimes, the gatherings will be with friends, sometimes family, sometimes work… and I know that some of them will not seem to have anything much to do with a Light coming into the world and turning everything upside down.  After all, we’re also celebrating the longest night of the year this month.  And when it’s dark and cold, gluttony can feel pretty good.

But underneath all that self-indulgence, all the office parties, and whatever, lies a truth that the darkness cannot hide.  Jesus Christ, the light of the world, has come to live with us and everything has been changed.

Power, gluttony, greed, misbehavior may seem to rule for a time, They will harm many, help no one, except those who revel in that sort of thing.  But their power is fleeting; it cannot change the inner reality of our lives.

In the wonderful book, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis creates a world ruled by a White Witch, where it is “always winter and never Christmas”.  The White Witch confronts Aslan, a lion and a representative of Jesus Christ. Aslan’s power changes the world… a prisoner of the witch, is racing along in a sleigh with her when he notices that the witch’s powers are declining:

Now they were steadily racing on again. And soon Edmund noticed that the snow which splashed against them as they rushed through it was much wetter than it had been last night….

Emilie Griffin writes:   After a few moments Edmund realizes that the White Witch’s spell has been broken.

All around them, though out of sight, there were streams chattering, bubbling, splashing and even (in the distance) roaring. And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realised that the frost was over. [Lewis]

Patches of green grass and green tree-branches were beginning to appear throughout the forest. Aslan had broken the White Witch’s power. [Griffin]

Though the Witch fights it every step, Edmund can see more clearly than she. Her slave the Dwarf holds Edmund hostage and keeps yanking on the rope that binds him. But Lewis writes:

This didn’t prevent Edmund from seeing. Only five minutes later he noticed a dozen crocuses growing around the foot of an old tree—gold and purple and white.

It’s a simple but powerful metaphor: winter cold suggesting the deathblow of evil in human lives; and springtime to suggest personal transformation and the redemption of the whole human race.[1]

Well, here we are in winter; it’s not as cold as it might be, but it’s cold enough in our world for the homeless to freeze, for the hungry to go empty away.  It’s cold enough in our world to take from the poor and give to the rich.  It’s time for light, real light, everlasting light.  It’s time to make the invisible, visible, and so we welcome the Son of God, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.

Amen.

© 2017, Virginia H. Child

[1] http://www.explorefaith.org/lewis/winter.html

An Unexpected Gift

A Meditation offered at the Congregational Church of Grafton (MA) UCC on January 1, 2017

Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

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 cannot begin to imagine how disappointed Joseph must have been. Engaged, looking forward to beginning a life together, making plans, anticipating the joy of companionship, and then. . . the news that his fiance, the woman he had planned to marry, the heart of his life, was pregnant.

An unplanned, unexpected pregnancy is always stressful, even when it’s a gift of joy, but not so much when the parents-to-be are not yet married – and hardly ever, when the father is someone else. It would be a disaster in the here-and-now. Back then it was even worse – even life-threatening for Mary. The news, it’s fair to say, shattered Joseph’s hopes for the future.

And somehow I find it hard to believe that the idea that God was the father of the child was any more believeable or acceptable or comforting when Mary offered her story, back in those pre-scientific days, than it would be today.

We don’t often talk about disappointment and the Christmas season in the same breath, but all too often this is a time of the year when the disappointments of the last twelve months come more readily to mind, and so it’s worth remembering that, at least for Joseph, Mary and their families, this story begins with deep, unremitting disappointment. It is for us a sign that even in the best of families – and what family could be better than Joseph’s and Mary’s? – even there, things do not play out the way they were expected or planned; even there, there is disappointment.

Have you ever been disappointed? Has there been a time in your life when things didn’t play out the way you wanted, expected, hoped? Have there been times when you felt like Joseph?

Has it ever turned around?

It did for Joseph. Now, you know and I know there are realities that can’t be changed. And the facts didn’t change for Joseph either. Mary was still pregnant. He was still not the father of the coming child. He still couldn’t see how he could marry her.

In the midst of all that, however, Joseph made a choice which changed everything. He chose to treat Mary with grace. He could have condemned her publicly. He could have destroyed her. Instead, as the story goes, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace”, he planned to dismiss her quietly. That quiet choice of grace changed Joseph; changed Joseph’s world.

With that choice, Joseph made it clear that he was a man of love, and not a man of hate. He made it clear that in the midst of the deepest disappointment, even disgrace, he would not turn away from grace. And his openness to grace, opened him to God’s grace, to the rest of the story. His choice of grace made everything else possible.

If Joseph had chosen anger, had chosen revenge, what would have happened when the angel came to him in a dream? Would an angel even come to a hate-filled Joseph? But Joseph chose grace, and an angel told him the rest of the story.

The rest of the story – that Mary was telling the truth, that he could still marry her, raise the child – that his hopes were not destroyed – well, we know how that turned out. They married, raised Jesus and their other children, made a home filled with love, grace and a sense of purpose and laid the foundation for a new way of living.

Let’s not forget, in the joy of Christmas, that the birth of that child began in disappointment.

Let’s not forget, because it helps us understand the disappointments of our own lives.

Let’s not forget, because it helps us remember that we don’t yet know the rest of the story.

God gives us the choice; we can live in our disappointments, we can continue to be frustrated, angry, distrustful about the things which haven’t worked out the way we wanted or hoped. Or we can look ahead with the grace of Joseph, seeking the best way, God’s way, trusting that there’s more story to come, that we don’t know the rest of the story.

This is the first day of a new year, and with the new year, comes the opportunity to step beyond the disappointments of 2016. In this new year comes the opportunity to be unexpected gifts of grace to our world, to step away from the stuckness of pain and anger, and to step out into the world.

How may we be unexpected gifts to our world?

How can we be good? How can we model grace? How can we show love and trust, in the face of disappointment, discouragement? It won’t be easy, it never is, to move beyond that bad stuff, but Joseph tells us it is possible, with grace and determination. Joseph tells us there’s more story yet to come, when we determine to follow God’s way, to live in hope.

Come forward this morning to the table of the Lord, and there dedicate yourself to be, in this new year of 2017, a person of hope, a person of determination, a person who will seek to follow the way of Jesus Christ, not just today, but throughout the year. Then take away with you the everylasting love of God, to be with you and guide you, each and every day.

Amen.

© 2017, Virginia H. Child

You Get What You Expect

Congregational Church of Grafton UCC, November 19, 2017

Matthew 25:14-30 – so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.

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.

Three slaves, three servants… and one master, one CEO.  The big cheese is going away, but he wants the business to keep going, so he gives each of three people a share of the action.

One guy gets 10 talents – a talent is an ingot of gold, weighing 75 pounds, and each ingot is worth, at today’s prices, $1.5 million.  So – 10 talents of gold is right around $15 million dollars.  The next guy gets 2 talents of gold, about $3 million.  And the third guy is given one ingot, $1.5 million.

The boss tells them to take good care of the money, and leaves on a trip.  Years passed, then the boss returns.  They all get together to go over the accounts, and for a while, all goes well.  The first guy doubles his money, and the boss is really well pleased.  The second guy doubles his money too… and all continues well.

But now here comes the third guy, the one who had the one talent of gold.  The boss says, “so how did it go for you?” and the man responds, “I knew that if I did anything wrong, if I lost any of your money, you’d blame me and deal hard with me, so I did the safest thing I could imagine – I dug a hole in the back yard and buried it.  So, here it is, I’ve even cleaned the dirt off – I’m bringing your ingot back just as you gave it to me.”

His boss went ballistic.  “You thought I’d be hard on you if you lost anything?  You could at least have deposited the ingot in the bank and gotten interest!!  You had what it took to try things out, to take a chance, to experiment and instead you chose to bury your talent in the back yard.  Get out of here and leave that ingot behind.”

Don’t  you wonder, at least just a little, whether or not that boss is justifiably angry.  Sure, the one ingot guy’s afraid of him, but is he really such an ogre?  Or is the one ingot guy reasonably afraid because he’s done absolutely nothing with his big chance?

The other two guys had no problems taking chances with their money.  They went out and traded and invested and each of them doubled their money.  It could have been otherwise, you know.  Investment and trade are both risky; in fact, there are very few sure things in this world, except maybe, if you bury your gold in the back yard, it’ll still be there when the boss comes home.

The two successful guys were not intimidated, not hiding in fear.  So, is the master really so terrible?  Or is the third guy’s fear based in his own view of the world?  Is his fear, and consequent refusal to use his gift, reasonable?  Or does his fear paralyze him into immobility, and does it make his picture of the boss come true?

 

We all know that, from time to time, fear does paralyze decisions.  In the early days of our Civil War, Union generals nearly lost the war by letting their fears control their decisions.

Too often, that happens in our daily lives as well.  It’s as simple as worrying about how to put the table together for Thanksgiving, or as challenging as choosing a college, or taking a job.

Or as serious as whether or not to report the boss’s harassment, or whether or not to make a public comment about some local issue.

And fear can warp reality.  That third guy, the one with one ingot, had let his fear of failure warp the reality of his boss.  The boss, in giving him the talent, had given him permission to take chances, to use the talent…but his fear told him the boss was mean, greedy, and vindictive, and that picture pushed reality right out of the picture.

 

If we have talents, we have permission to use them.  That doesn’t mean that figuring out how to use our talents is going to be simple or clear.  Last Sunday afternoon I went into Boston, to Jordan Hall, to hear a concert by the Thomanerchor, a chorus of boys and young men between the ages of 9-18 from St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, Germany.  It was a great concert, lovely music beautifully presented – and parts of it were like being in heaven.

The Thomanerchor has been singing together for 800 years… yes 800… much of the great German church music over the centuries was written for them… music by Heinrich Schutz, by J. S. Bach – who led the choir for over 25 years — music by Mendelssohn, and it was that music they sang on Sunday.

I thought it was wonderful, and then I read a review of the concert.  The reviewer recognized the quality of the singing, but asked whether they were really using their talents as they sang the same kinds of music they’d been singing for at least the last 500 years.  Yes, what they were doing was/is beautiful, but does singing the same music in the same way for all that time, restrict their growth?

The Thomaner Chor is really good at what they do but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to deal with that question.  Just because we’re good at what we do, and we’ve been doing it since forever, doesn’t mean that we’re using our talents well in this time and to the needs of this world.

Now we all know that it’s much easier, and often more immediately rewarding to continue doing well what we’ve always done well.  That’s the safe thing, the one which runs the least risk of making people angry.  Stick to the familiar, keep singing the same songs, offer the easiest answers, concentrate on making things look good, all the while avoiding anything the least bit anxiety-producing.

 

I’ve mentioned before that I once served South UCC in Grand Rapids MI.  In the 70s, South had been a large church, over 1000 members, almost 500 children in the church school.  By the time I arrived in 1999, they had fewer than 200 members, and about 10 children in the church school.  They were still in the same building; there was a fully-equipped church school classroom for each of our students.

As I tried to understand what had happened to South, I began to realize that at some point, they’d decided to bury their talents.  In the 60s, they’d been asked to host a meeting  at which Martin Luther King, Jr would speak.  They’d declined out of fear that all “those” people would damage their church building.  Over the years, they had routinely refused to try out anything new their pastors’ suggested, and gradually, those pastors stayed for shorter and shorter periods of time.  Church school had to be the same as always, programming had to be for their kind of people, everything had to be the same as it had always been.  And so, on September 9, 2001, South Church closed.

Why?  Why do people take that path?  Why do they refuse to try anything new, refuse to let go of the tired past?

I think a lot of it has to do with our fear of failure.  We’re afraid that if we try and fail that we’ll be the laughing stock of our world, or that we won’t be loved or accepted by God, or our families, or the world around us.

 

Our response to the opportunities to use our talents has a lot to do with how we see our world.  If we envision our world as a place where failure is the ultimate disgrace, if we think of God as out to get us, then we’re going to be really really risk averse.

It’s hard to imagine trying when we know that every attempt which falls short of perfection will make us look like fools or make us feel unacceptable everywhere, but is that really where we live?  Is that the world we live in?

No, we who have chosen to follow the Christian way live in a world where the only disgrace is to not try, where every attempt is worth the effort, whether or not it completely succeeds.  Our world lives under the loving watch care of God.

It is our work to create and sustain a community where trying is encouraged, where failure is not condemned, where love is the order of the day, and where we recognize that this world is imperfect.

In order to do that, we try it out for ourselves.  So we try new foods, Sing new hymns, experiment with different ways of doing worship come up with different ways to do mission outreach.

We do the work necessary to understand the needs of today’s world, rather than trying to apply the responses which spoke to the needs of 1950.

In all we do, we seek to model God’s every-welcoming love to a world that is fractured by a drive to perfectionism, an intolerance for falling short of the glory of God.

We are risk-takers for God.

Amen.

© Virginia H. Child, 2017

 

The Triumph of Truthiness

Congregational Church of Grafton UCC, November 12, 2017

Psalm 15:  O Lord, who may abide in your tent? . . . Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth. . .

John 18:33-38:  Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

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.

Truth, it’s said, is stranger than fiction.  And sometimes, it seems as though it is fiction.  It certainly feels that way these days, when you get into it with someone who has said the most amazing things that you know, know are just plain not true.

And it gets worse when someone says, so what makes you an expert….and you are the certified expert….

My friend David Gaewski, who’s the New York Conference Minister, wrote recently: “I don’t mean to sound “full of myself” but…. If an MD tells you that your kid has chicken pox, and you say, “no, he has the flu” then what’s the point of MDs; likewise if an M.Div tells you “this is what a Good Samaritan is” and you say, “no, the Good Samaritan packs a semi-automatic” then what’s the point of theological degrees?”

It seems to me that we’re in the midst of a world that’s throwing away all our history of the power and effectiveness of education, and have fallen back into a world where “truth” is whatever we say it is, no matter what observable facts testify.  So, we have people denying climate change when anyone who lives on the coast of the United States can tell you that tides are coming higher than ever before, when we who live in New England can say that it’s snowing less, barring the occasional bad storm.  They’ve been making snow this week in Vermont – making it, not plowing it.  And yet people say there’s no change.

Pilate’s question tells us that the search for truth isn’t a new one, and truthiness, the preparation of false news to appear to be true, isn’t new either.

Truth is all about factual accuracy, so the dictionary says.  Truth is that which is in accord with fact or reality.  But I’m going to suggest that part of our challenge these days is that truth is not primarily about factual accuracy, but about the foundation upon which those facts lay.  It is with the lens of truth that we assign meaning to facts.

So, what is truth?  The person who says that more compromise would have prevented the Civil War is building on a truth that says the Union needed to be sustained, even at the cost of the continuation of slavery.  But that’s not our truth.  Our truth says that God made all people to be companions in one community of mutual trust and support.  With that truth, we realize that there was no sustainable compromise available.

The truth we live with, the truth we build our lives upon, is a truth which is founded in our faith.  Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life…”; our truth is epitomized by Jesus.   It is when we live in his way, when we practice his virtues, when we share his love, that we most clearly live truthfully.

Truth is sometimes hard to live with.  It calls us to examine our own lives, to recognize the ways in which we have allowed falsehood to lure us away from God.  We close our minds to truth when it would mean giving up what we love, what gives us pleasure, or what speaks to the anger in our lives.  In fact, the stubborn persistence of our self-centered minds can make it entirely impossible to see truth when it’s before us.

Learning to recognize, to speak, to stand up for truth is not always easy, but it is always important.  That’s because the truth we speak makes us who we are.  When we say things we know are not true, we change ourselves as much as we change the world.

The story’s told of Thomas Monson, who leads the Mormon church, that when he was in the Navy, he was known for refusing to drink alcohol.  His church absolutely teaches abstinence, but that’s not what was important… what’s important is that he matched how he chose to live with what his church taught.  He lived the truth he believed. Mormon or UCC, that’s our call – to live the truth we are taught.

When we live our truth, we make it possible for others to see truth through us.  I think of the person who joined one of my churches, early in my ministry.  She told me that she’d come to try out church because she saw a difference in how people who attended church handled disaster, and she wanted to learn how to live that way.  She saw truth in the lives of people like you and me, and came to join us.

Living our truth, openly, lovingly, without shame or excuse, is the only reliable path to opening conversation and creating community with those who, these days, struggle to know what truth is.

“Fake news is as old as time,”[1] and so are the attacks on anyone who claims authority for a different answer.  My friend David tried to tell a neighbor what the story of the Good Samaritan was really about, and his neighbor told him he didn’t know what he was talking about, even though David has studied the Bible in graduate school and is an expert on the subject.  But David’s conclusions challenged his neighbor’s expectations that a “good Samaritan” was someone who would use violence to destroy instead of love to change.  The only hope for a change is that as his neighbor sees David, learns to know him as a man who speaks truth, who acts in love, that his person integrity will give his words a deeper power and authority.

Without truth, it’s hard to imagine trust, and without trust, it’s hard to imagine a functional society.  We all know, I think that in today’s world, trust is thin on the ground, and all too often, our default setting is to disbelieve.

I heard the other day of a meeting in a church, set up to allow people to talk about a mutual issue important to them all.  The sound system failed, and some of the folks began posting on Facebook that it was all a conspiracy to keep their side’s voices from being heard.  Right now, that community is gasping for life.

So, what is truth?  Pilate walked away before Jesus could answer, but really he didn’t need to answer then and there for us to learn what Jesus knew truth to be.  He explained Truth to all of us in the Sermon on the Mount, as he talked about how to live with authenticity, how to bring together our words and our deeds, how to make our lives coherent.

He said a lot in that Sermon….it’s in Matthew, chapter 5, in your Bibles, and well worth your time.  But here’s the quickie version:

  • Truthful people don’t make more of themselves than they should.
  • Truthful people are compassionate.
  • Truthful people are concerned for those who have no power.
  • Truthful people are merciful.
  • Truthful people create peace.
  • Truthful people don’t quit when folks give them a hard time; they stand firm in what they believe.

Truth doesn’t require turning away from disagreement and debate, for it is from such reasonable conversation that further light and truth can break forth.  But it does require turning away from argument and hatred, for truth cannot co-exist where hatred flourishes.

Jesus says that to live with truth is to be the light of the world.

We are called to be that light, to be truth, to be ambassadors of love, servants in this centuries-long work of bringing forth a new world, built on love and proclaiming truth.

Come now, and become a bearer of truth in the name of Jesus Christ.

Amen.

© 2017, Virginia H. Child

 

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, email newsletter Nov2017

The Poverty of Abundance

Congregational Church of Grafton, November 5, 2017

2 Corinthians 9:6-15  . . . God loves a cheerful giver

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

Have you ever thought that giving money to the church is something like paying God off?  . . .like we’re thinking, well I’ll give a good pledge and in return God will keep my family safe, make my business grow, protect me from getting arrested when I drive too fast…or whatever?

You see what I mean?  And when we think like that, when stewardship feels more like a euphemism for a sales pitch, when it sounds like God is hustling for a pay raise, we find ourselves thinking, golly, what’s the least I can offer without totally offending God?

When I first started attending church, I knew nothing about stewardship or offerings; I only knew that plate was going to be passed, and I needed to put something in it.  But what?  How much?  A dollar seemed cheap, but ten dollars was extravagant – remember this was back in the 70s…  So, I figured that between the music and sermon I was getting the value I’d get out of attending a movie, and gave what it cost for a regular movie ticket.  I figured I should pay for the value I received.

Well, while my offering was more than appropriate, I had the whole thing backwards.  Because stewardship, offerings, giving to the church, isn’t about paying for what we’ve received any more than it’s about paying God off to guarantee a good life.

It is about one of the bedrock principles of the Christian life, and that principle is encapsulated in the phrase in today’s lesson:  God loves a cheerful giver.

God loves cheerful givers.  Cheerful givers, not cheerful purchasers.  Giving is part of who we are.  We give socks to the homeless, money to the needy, our presence to the lonely, our energy to this fellowship so that, as a church, we can give to our community.  We are a community of givers, not takers; givers, not purchasers.

Now we give to particular needs most of the time.  A house burns down and we gather clothes, toys, kitchen supplies to set a family up in a  new place.  That’s exciting and immediately rewarding.  It’s harder to get excited about giving to pay for cleaning supplies, as necessary as they are.  But the foundational reason we give is the same whether we’re responding to an emergency need or purchasing Dawn for the kitchen.

We give because God first gave us love.  We give in response to what God has done in our lives.

Chrysostom, one of the great preachers of the early Church (his name means golden tongue in Greek) once wrote that when we are giving alms, helping someone out, we shouldn’t just be thinking about that person, but remembering who it is who loves us.  So, give to whatever – give time, talent, or treasure – but in your giving, remember that your gift, the act of your giving, is itself a gift to God.

Psalm 115 begins:  Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.   You see what I mean?  Good giving, God-blessed giving, is all about love; it is a joyous response to what we’ve seen, what we’ve experienced, what we’ve known about God.

During this fall, we’ve heard testimony from three different people – each of them in their wonderful ways, told us how they had met God here, that this company, this fellowship, grounded them, made them welcome when they weren’t sure where they belonged, and continues today to give them strength for each day.

For some of us, being here is like when I go home to Woodstock, to my family’s church, and can sit in the pew my grandparents sat in – and almost feel as though I’m sitting next to my grandmother.  For others, this is a new place, and it’s glorious to realize that here is a family where I belong; here I’m not the one who’s different.  And other times, this is the place, the group, through which I can work to help heal the pain of the world.  For all of us, this is a place where we can give with joy, in response to God’s love.

This, also, is a place where we can practice the practice of loving.  Here we try to love one another, and when we fail – because failure is part of the reality of life – here we are dedicated to figuring out what went wrong and aiming to be better at it going forward.  We’re a kind of school of love.  And every time we give – whether it’s socks, or money, or time, or whatever – we practice that love.  And every time we practice, we get a little better.

We are investing in our ability to grow love.  We are investing in the future when we give to this church.  Our investment is one of love, to be sure, for we love this building, this fellowship, one another.  But it’s also an investment of resources, our time, our talents, our resources.  It’s much more than an investment in the maintenance and continuation of the building, as important as it is.

But let’s be clear.  If the building, as beautiful as it is, burned to the ground tomorrow, the building would be gone, but the church would still be here.  The church would re-build, but the building that would be put up would not be “the church”, it would hold us, shelter us, but not replace us!  Our building is important, but it’s not us.  It is we who are called to be love in our world.

Too often, when offered the opportunity to give, we measure our ability, our abundance, by what we don’t yet have, and so we feel as though we don’t have enough, and our giving is constrained.  We say, oh, I can’t afford this, or I’d like that, but it costs too much… and think of ourselves as people who don’t have enough.  And, of course, we don’t…. we don’t have enough to indulge our every wish.

But we have more than enough of what really matters.  We have enough food for today and tomorrow.  We have heat in our homes, water comes out our faucets.  Our cars run, mostly reliably.  Our children have schools to attend, clothes to wear.  Most of all, we have the gift of the knowledge of God’s everlasting love.

When we count up what we have, instead of listing what we don’t, we can see that we really do have “enough”, and our lives can be seen through a lens of abundance rather than scarcity.

We are a people surrounded by abundance, called to a life of generosity.  Today, I’m asking us all to respond with generosity to the love which God has extended to each of us through this congregation.  Give back to God a token of the love which God has given to each of us through Jesus Christ, and be one of God’s loving and generous disciples.

Amen.

© 2017, Virginia H. Child

Ain’t Gonna Study War No More

Congregational Church of Grafton, May 28, 2017

Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address: Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. . . . Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

Micah 4: 1-4 . . . they shall beat their swords into plowshares. . .

Matthew 5:43-48 . . . But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

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

I was raised to be a pacifist, one of those who refuse all military service out of devotion to the clear pacifism of the Christian Gospel. And yet, at an early age, I began to see the paradox of our commitment to that way of living out the Gospel. My mother’s younger brother, and her oldest nephew – both also devoted, committed Quakers — served in the Pacific campaigns of World War II. They killed people.

I knew the evils of the other side in the war and yet everything I learned in church said they’d made the wrong choice.

Our life, our faith life, was steeped in contradiction. We worshipped every week in a meetinghouse that was almost brand new when Revolutionary War forces fought the Battle of the Brandywine right on our doorstep. Our building was a hospital. We of the church school joked that the dark stains on our benches were the blood of the Marquis de Lafayette, who’d been wounded in the battle. It was no joke that there was a mass grave behind the meeting house, where the unknown dead of the battle had been buried. There we were, pacifists one and all, and yet living on a battlefield.

And, in a sense, isn’t that where we all are… pacifists in one sense, but living in a world that is, all too often, a battlefield.

And so we stop on this weekend to contemplate, if only for a few minutes, that conundrum, that paradox. Our faith tells us to turn the other cheek, to pray for those who persecute us, to walk the second mile, give up our coat, and yet. . . we recognize that sometimes that just doesn’t work, just doesn’t stop the aggression, and then we find ourselves doing that which we know is contrary to God’s hopes, dreams, plans for us. And how do we live with ourselves?

It is that very conundrum which drew me away from the Society of Friends. I admire the commitment of those who follow the path of total pacifism, who refuse to carry a weapon, or to serve in the military in any way.

The clerk of the meeting I belonged to when I was in college was a professor of physics at the University of Florida. In World War II, he’d been asked to work on the Manhattan Project, to develop and perfect an atomic bomb. He refused, and spent the war picking pineapple in a detention camp on Hawaii. I admired his willingness to pay the price at the same time as I realized that he depended on those who were willing to serve to keep him safe.

All of that led me to understand that when John Calvin said we were all imperfect, when he built a whole system of belief on Romans 3:23 (all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God), he was recognizing the inherent paradox of Christianity. Yes, we are to refrain from war, but sometimes war is necessary because we are not perfect, because it’s not possible for us to be perfect, certainly not all the time.

But that doesn’t mean war is glorious. That doesn’t mean it’s all glamour and noble death – or even glamour and honorable life. War marks every person who participates in it. We just don’t see the scars.

We don’t know the story of the ninety-year old veteran of the European conflict who still has nightmares, almost every night, about what he saw and did. We just see an old man, well-preserved, but in full possession of his hands and feet, not outwardly marked by war, and so – today or on Veteran’s Day – we glibly offer “Thanks for your service” and go on by, not knowing he’s still paying the price.

We don’t know the story of the younger guy who drinks to forget that grandma he had to kill during the Korean War. We never hear the stories of the veterans who come back these days from the Middle East. We don’t see the father tracing his son’s name on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

We try to forget the truth General William T. Sherman uttered, years after the Civil War when he said “all war is hell”. The latest figures suggest that about 750,000 people died in that War, more than half the total number of Americans killed in all wars.

The question still is how do we live in the tension of being a people dedicated to peace in a world torn by war?

In so far as there is an answer, I think it lies in looking again at those texts we heard this morning. Micah tell us that under God’s leadership, people will beat their swords into plowshares. In the text from Matthew, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. And therein lies the seeds of the peace which endures.

Micah calls us to work to create a world in which it is safe to put aside the tools of war, to take up the work of day-to-day living. And we know that’s not just about saying “it’s safe”, but making the world safe. We make our world safe for all by creating a community where all have access to basic needs – jobs which pay enough to live on, education which educates, health care which everyone has access to, law which is enforced equally, and a social climate where contempt and shame are simply unacceptable.

It is economic instability which drives conflict between people, communities, nations. You have, I have not, and I want the same as what you have. At least at first, I don’t necessarily want what you have, but I, too, want access to good schools, jobs so my kids don’t go hungry, maybe the chance to go to Disney World…

In Matthew, Jesus calls us to love our enemies. Make no mistake, that’s one of the hardest things to do, to love those who have nothing but contempt for us, to care about those who are trying to destroy us.

Perhaps we might begin by trying to understand our enemies. Instead of assuming that everything “they” say is wrong, everything “they” dislike is their bigotry or greed or whatever, Christ is calling us to pay attention, to take the other’s concerns seriously. We cannot love those whom we ignore.

This weekend there will be parades and prayers, remembrances and military honors. They’re all good, all needed, all important. There will be speeches, medals will be worn, and maybe the last World War II vet will slowly ride down the street in the back seat of a convertible, in much the same way the last Civil War vets rode back in my early childhood.

Our faith calls us, however, to take an additional step. It’s not enough to put flowers on graves, to decorate markers with American flags. It’s not enough to shake my hand and thank me for my service. There is more for us to do, because we are the peace-loving followers of Jesus Christ.

Men and women are still dying for our country today; we best honor them by standing up for peace here, and when we have the opportunity, standing up for peace around the world.

People still lose themselves, lose their lives in war. Can we not offer them in thanksgiving our commitment to build a world constructed of love, laid on a foundation of mutual respect?

Community.

Justice.

Respect.

Love.

The building blocks of peace.

Amen.

 

© 2017, Virginia H. Child