You’re One of THEM. . . one of life’s losers

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on April 10, 2022

Luke 22:54-62

All applicable licensing on file in the First Church office

Arresting Jesus, they marched him off and took him into the house of the Chief Priest. Peter followed, but at a safe distance. In the middle of the courtyard some people had started a fire and were sitting around it, trying to keep warm. One of the serving maids sitting at the fire noticed him, then took a second look and said, “This man was with him!”

He denied it, “Woman, I don’t even know him.”

A short time later, someone else noticed him and said, “You’re one of them.”

But Peter denied it: “Man, I am not.”

About an hour later, someone else spoke up, really adamant: “He’s got to have been with him! He’s got ‘Galilean’ written all over him.”

Peter said, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” At that very moment, the last word hardly off his lips, a rooster crowed. Just then, the Master turned and looked at Peter. Peter remembered what the Master had said to him: “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” He went out and cried and cried and cried.

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.

Every year, every year, we get to this point and stall out.  Because, you know, the front story is nothing but success… crowds, palms, loud hosannas, the whole thing just says, “we’re winning!”.  You can just picture the disciples sitting around a fire in the evening and counting up what they’ll have next week.  They know it’s coming.  They’re going to be in charge.  They will be the ones who overthrow the compromising religious authorities.  They’ll tell the Romans what for.  Yes, the army may stay, but they’re going to be the one occupied country the occupiers respect.  

Yes, indeed.  The crowds are behind Jesus, and winning is inevitable.  

But, looking ahead, this week is going to be one of unending failure…. one bad day after another, each worse than the one before.  On Sunday, Peter is Jesus’ right hand man, next in charge, about to become really really important.  But by Friday, he’s cringing in the shadows, denying he even knows Jesus, frantic to save his own life.  On Thursday night, he’s willing to kill for Jesus, but on Friday night, he’s not even willing to stand with Jesus.

This week, this Holy Week, is the most important part of the story.  It lays the foundation for the triumph of Easter, because Easter is about winning despite failure.  Without Good Friday, without the betrayal of Judas, or the denial of Peter, the new life of Easter doesn’t make sense.

On Thursday, we know, Jesus will eat the meal we remember as Holy Communion.  We remember it because the story tells us it was his Last Supper.  But even more importantly, we remember it because it was a meal with people he loved, including the man who would betray him before the evening is over.  Jesus loved Judas.

Later in evening, after the arrest, Peter was hanging around the edges of the crowd at the Chief Priest’s house, trying to find out what was happening.  And it was there that he was caught – you sound like a Galilean, the maid said – he responded, not me.  Not just once, but three times, Peter denied he even knew Jesus, much less that he was a leader in Jesus’ movement.  And still Jesus loved him.

Being good isn’t easy.  Peter was all in, right up to when he realized that it might cost him his life, and that hadn’t been on his radar before.  Stuff happens, but we are still loved, still accepted.  

Following Jesus isn’t easy.  We try and fail, and try again, and sometimes fail again.  We work as hard as we can, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference.  It’s discouraging.

And part of the challenge is the illusion that what we do, who we are, isn’t worth much unless we succeed all the time, unless we always have it together, unless we never never fall short of the goal.  If there’s one thing to learn from this COVID epidemic, it is that the idea that we control our world, that everything will be good, and well, and pleasurable is fake, that life is not about unending success, . . . and, yet, in the midst of all this difficulty, we are loved, we are welcomed, we are strengthened to go out and do it again.

Years ago, when I was in seminary, we had a professor who was enormously intelligent, and notoriously impatient with students.  It seemed to me that one of the challenges that teacher had was that they didn’t realize how much smarter than most of the students they were.   Lfe is not all that different:  when all is going well, we don’t realize how well off we are, how much better off than some, or even what extra help our good jobs, ample funds, well-made homes, sturdy health, give us in navigating our world.

And then a pandemic hits, and while what we have is good, it’s ever so much easier to see what we don’t have – no more guaranteed health, no more sure work, no more this, no more that… and, if we pay attention, we develop more sensitivity to the challenges others face.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest rabbis of the twentieth century, once wrote:  “A religious person is a person who holds God and humanity in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.”

Peter failed, but he didn’t give up.  He took all his experiences and allowed them to enrich and strengthen his life, his work.  

That is the gift of this week of despair.  Yes, it’s about failure, betrayal and death.  And it’s also about new chances, new opportunities, about growing through all our challenges.  Don’t close your heart to the times when things have not gone the way  you wanted.  Don’t turn away from pain, even death.  Live with all life gives us.

And trust in the truth that no matter who we are, no matter where we are in our lives, no matter our struggles, no matter our successes, we are always loved by God.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

The Race is Long, but We Do Not Run It Alone

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on April 3, 2022

All required licensing on file at the First Church office

Philippians 3:4b–14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

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.

We’re gathered here this morning for two purposes – first, of course, we’re here to praise God, to bring our lives before God’s love and unfailing acceptance, to be reminded once again that, even as we fall short of our own goals, much less God’s, we are still loved, still valued, still part of God’s loving community.

And secondly, we’re here to be refreshed and restored, equipped and sent out to live out that love and acceptance in our world.

That sounds easy, and sometimes it is.  And sometimes it’s surpassingly difficult.  In today’s Scripture reading, Paul is talking with us about the difficulties of life.  He, of all people, should have had it easy, he says.  He belongs to the elite.  He comes from the best of families.  He’d taking all the right positions – religiously, politically – in every way.  Think of  him as someone from the best family in Middletown, someone descended from Colonial settlers, someone who drives a great car and has a summer place down on the Sound…. and maybe even someone who went to Wesleyan or Yale.  Every single way that could be made easy for him, has been.

And yet, his life is one challenge after another.  Not one of those important things has turned out to be important.  Who he was born to be, doesn’t matter.  How much money his parents had, doesn’t matter.  What school he went to, what profession he undertook. . . not one bit of it mattered in the long run.

What matters, he says, is following Jesus.  What matters is getting your foundation right, building your world on God, not on who you are.  

Now, I know you’ve heard that before.  But it strikes me that today, it’s helpful to remember that this isn’t a quick kind of thing, it’s not a once and done experience.  We build our lives on Christ – and maybe we started in elementary school, building on a church school education.  And that was good.

Some things never change.  There’s very often someone who’s desperate to know the one right way to do something – maybe the right kind of dish soap, maybe the one right way to hold a vote, or the one right way to offer a prayer.  Or someone who’s struggling with addiction, someone who’s hiding their adultery or deception. . . someone who thinks they have better taste, or better fishing skills, or something, that makes them a better person. . .   In today’s portion, Paul is writing about thinking you’re better than anyone else.  The key for us today is this line:

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

He’s saying, to those who think they’re so important, that nothing else matters but one thing – following Jesus Christ.  We are not good because we’re naturally good, but good because we attempt to follow the way of Christ.  We’re not important to our community because we’re important, but because we attempt to follow the way of Christ.  

Whether or not we suffer from self-importance, this is true for us as well:  what really matters, what is the true north of our internal compasses, is following Jesus Christ.  

Around the times of the Reformation, when Protestants began to see that there was more to know about being Christian than just memorizing the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, we began to develop question & answer series – called catechisms – to help us learn what we needed to know.  One of the first, and one of the best, is called the Heidelberg Catechism (because that’s where it was written).  It begins with this question and answer:

What is your only hope, in life and in death?

That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

There it is again… what matters to us is Jesus Christ.  It is Christ who leads the way, Christ who shows us how to live.

When our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors came to this land, they wanted to re-create the church of Jesus Christ in a way which would be more faithful to Christ’s example than what they had known in England.  They weren’t sure what ways would be right, but they were sure that some things were wrong.  

Over the years, we’ve discovered that some of their ideas were no more than reflections of how things were done in their day, but others really did create a way to draw closer to God while creating a more loving community.  And always, we have learned, it is when we look to Christ that we are able to see our actions truly.

It is in looking to Christ that we find our true direction.  Christ is our north star, Christ the one who calls us to check out all the options, to look at those alternative or different paths.  It is Christ who helps us when we get so discouraged that we’ve not yet made all the changes we need to make in our lives, in our world.  

We are not alone.  We are never alone.  Wherever we are, wherever we go, Christ goes with us.  In the depths of the pandemic, when it all threatened to be too much, I’d listen to the anthem We Are Not Alone, sung by the Oasis Chorale, and be reminded that we do not travel this way alone.  Christ is with us.

It is Christ who gives us the courage to let go of what worked yesterday, but doesn’t today.  It is Christ who helps us see new ways, but ways that simply give us new paths to be the same faithful followers.  Jesus doesn’t care what color our carpet is; he cares how we live out our relationships with one another and with our community.  

We are not condemned to live all this out, depending on yesterday’s answers for today’s problem. The journey’s not done, but we are not alone.  

In Clarence Jordan’s “Cotton-Patch” translation of the Philippians letter, Paul says:

Brothers [and sisters], I don’t think I’ve caught on even yet, but with this one thing in mind, forgetting everything that lies behind and concentrating on what lies ahead, I push on with all I’ve got toward the prize of God’s invitation to the high road in Christ Jesus. So then, let all of us who are mature set our minds on this. Even if you should see things somewhat differently, this too will God make clear to you. Let’s just live up to the progress we have already made.

Here’s our future.  The questions aren’t settled, the answers aren’t clear yet.  But the map is right there in front of us – It is nothing more or less than the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The journey has begun, and now, as we do each month, let us join together to re-dedicate ourselves to following the Christlike path as we eat and drink the bread and cup of Holy Communion.

Let’s look forward to a faithful, if yet unknown, future in Christ.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Why?  Why Do Bad Things Happen?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on March 20, 2022

All necessary licensing is on file at the First Church office

Scripture:                                                                                                     Jeremiah 29: 1-9

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. . . . 

It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.. . . 

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.

Super Saturday yesterday:  Dean Sarah Drummond said “planning in this COVID season has been something like building castles in the sand” …. And much of the time, dry sand, with no stability.

Who here doesn’t know what she means?

As I’ve been thinking about this sermon all week, I’ve been constructing a mental list of all the challenges we’ve faced in the last, oh, five years or so:  

Remember opening the paper, or turning on the radio/tv every morning to find out what new horror had happened in Washington?  

And then, add on a new, creeping, epidemic…. Some weird, unfamiliar disease which seemed to really kill people, lots of people?  Remember those pictures of hospitals with refrigerated trucks outside the doors?

The epidemic got worse and worse: how many of us washed our groceries with Clorox?  Who here stripped to the skin every time they came home, to change into clean clothes before entering the main part of the house?  We lived in fear.

Yay, an election.  O my God, an insurrection!  Yay, a vaccine…. Oops, it needs boosters…. No, not another wave!!!

Missing high school, graduations, teaching in person., starting school and making friends… all gone, and for a lot longer than we had expected.

And now, today, a European war.  I don’t know how much more can go wrong.

We feel close to the edge.  This past week a number of you have shared with me your exhaustion.  And when we look back at all that’s happened, exhaustion makes sense.  It’s been a hard time, and it’s not over yet.

In our conversations, we’ve talked about the things we might do to lower our stress level…. more walks in the woods, maybe get a pet.. take naps.  

I stopped watching tv news about a year ago.  It just began to be all bad, all the time, and when the show was over, I felt worse.  And have you who use Facebook seen how easy it is to find yourself in an argument there?  In these tense times, it’s ever so much easier to get angry than it ought to be.  Read the newspaper instead, read it on line.  Nothing’s going to happen so quickly that we need instant news reports to survive.

Back in the day, I knew two couples in a local church.  As it happened, they were long-time friends of one another, all semi-confined to their homes because of failing health.  Visiting them was a delicate thing – though Frances and Joe were struggling, they were totally upbeat and always a pleasure to be around  But Alice and Larry lived for bad news.  They were so determined to find the bad in everything that it was difficult to be around them.  The day I met their visiting nurse after one of my visits was life-changing.  I discovered they had the exact same effect on her.  After that, it was easier to be with them, easier to cope with their worldview – because now I was not picking their gloom up and giving it houseroom in my heart.

Sometimes these days, it’s as if we’ve moved permanently into that world my friends inhabited.  No matter what good’s out there, we’re so overwhelmed, and rightfully so, with all the bad, that we’re losing the ability to see anything else. We’re exhausted.

I think it’s the shock of moving from a world where we pretty much knew what the future held, where our world was mostly stable. Our problems, when they came, were serious, but generally just about one person, one family, one company at a time.

Today is totally disorienting.

The real power and importance of our Christian faith is in times like these.  Christianity was built for the times when we can’t see the way forward, when we just don’t know what today is, much less what tomorrow will bring.

The reading from Jeremiah that I shared gets right to the core of things.   All the leaders, probably all the literate people, in Jerusalem had been driven into exile in Babylon.  Google tells me that’s about 1600 miles, or 5-6 months, walking all the way.  It’s not a competition, but I think we can agree that their experiences were as bad as ours.

And, it looks like, just as with us, they began to run out of resilience.  They had arrived, but it was as if they were in suspended animation.  What next?  Where would they focus?  On returning to Jerusalem?  Or on living in this new place?

Jeremiah, who had stayed behind, wrote:  settle into to your new place.  Don’t spend your time pining for yesterday, when you had nice tidy homes back here.  Build new lives.  Plant, harvest, marry, have children, encourage your children to marry and have children.  Look for what is good where you are, and trust that God will be with you.

We want to get settled and to know what’s going to happen, and live in happy expectation of better and better.  But God says to us, don’t wait until you know all that – you may never know!  Go ahead, build on what is there now.

We’re filled with worry about what might happen tomorrow…. Jesus said to us, “So, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.  Today’s trouble is enough for today”   Take a deep breath.  

Step away from the worries about a new COVID variant.  If it shows up here, we know how to deal with it.  We’ll bring out our masks, and go back to all the other cautions.  We know how to handle COVID when it comes.  But while it’s not here, by golly, we’re going to live.

Is the war in the Ukraine going to end soon?  I don’t know.  Will it spread to other countries?  I hope not.  Can I do anything about it?  Yes, I can send relief money and I can pray.  But I can’t stop it in its tracks.  So, let’s do what we can do.  Pray about the Ukraine.  Give of our resources to take care of refugees.  

In the midst of these terrible times, let’s follow Jeremiah.  Don’t let the bad stuff keep us from seeing the good in our midst.  We’re not asked to close our eyes to the evils in our world; we are only asked to keep an eye on the good as well.

Last week, the Civil Rights icon, and UCC minister, Andrew Young, celebrated his 90th birthday by preaching at First Congregational Church in Atlanta, Georgia.  He said:

“What I have seen after these 90 years is time and time and time again we come to the edge of a cliff and an angel comes in our path and rises up and we rise up and find ourselves in a new power, in a new spirit. And that’s where we are now.”

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Where Do We Belong?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on March 13, 2022

All required licensing is on file in the First Church office

Philippians 3:17—4:1 —  Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

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.

A million years ago, I lived in California.  It really wasn’t my choice; I was then in the Marines and I’d been transferred to a base not far from the original Disneyland.  Even though I’d not chosen to go there, I was glad to go.  I wanted to see more of our country.  I was excited to make the trip and looking forward to seeing places I’d only heard about.  The first time I saw a real, live, Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe train engine, I was thrilled.  

California was everything I’d expected… look, over there is San Juan Capistrano, and Laguna Beach…. and deserts and orange groves, and even the occasional cactus.  But there were things I’d not expected.  I had not expected that everything would be brown…. brown houses, brown roofs, brown yards, brown, brown….

Most of all, as I look back on that time, the thing that most disconcerted me was that the ocean was in the wrong place.  I was born and bred on the East Coast of the US.  Here the ocean is always to our east.  But in California, it’s in the west.  Now that seems simple and clear, but it turned out that, somewhere in my subconscious, it’s an important factor in my navigational skills.  I can’t tell you how many times I’d take off to visit cousins who lived north of Los Angeles, and I’d find myself seeing signs that said “welcome to San Diego”.  I was in a new place, and could not reliably find my way around.  I was not sorry when I received new orders that returned me to the East Coast after only a few months, orders that returned me to a world that felt like home.

I bet most of us have had similar experiences…. we’ve moved to a new place where, no matter how nice, there’s something that just throws us off, makes us feel like perpetual visitors in a place we’d thought would be home.  Or you’ve taken a wrong turn on a long drive and found yourself totally lost.

I think something of the same thing happens when we’re betrayed by someone in whom we’ve put our trust.  We thought we knew what was what, but it turned out…. that our hero really does have feet of clay.  Maybe it’s not so much, but sometimes… it’s like the scandals in the Roman Catholic Church… and the accumulating pressure makes you abandon your trust in what has been the foundation of your lives.  

Today’s Scripture reading from Philippians speaks to that kind of disorientation I’m talking about.  There is a foundation upon which we can build with confidence.  There is a foundation which carries us through those times when we’re totally disoriented.  There is a base on which we can build a life that has value and purpose.

Where do we belong?  We belong to our brother, our friend, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Our citizenship, when you get right down to it, is with God.  

Now, just because I’ve said it, and even though it is true, it’s also true that there are and will be times when we’ll find we are still lost, still feel as though everything that gave us meaning is gone.  There are and will be times when we question everything we know and believe.  “Where is God when there is war once again?” is a real and powerful question – and really it’s another whole sermon.  Today, I want just to say that in those times in my own life, it’s been the community that has carried me through.  It was the community which welcomed me back when I couldn’t believe.  

The words from Philippians are important because it’s so easy to get distracted into putting your ultimate trust into something or someone other than God and God’s community. 

We can put our trust in our continuing good health… and maybe, for some of us, that’ll last right up to the day of our death.  But for most of us good health is a relative matter.  

We could put our trust in our business acumen…  or in our smarts… or in the power of the box office…. or in our own innate ability to get people to follow us.  Those are all real, but they are secondary powers.  You can be a great business person, but the question is still there — to what purpose do we do these things?  People will follow you, but to what place?

It is in our following God that we find the answer to that ultimate question… what point is there to all this?  

Here’s the point:  our task, our goal, our purpose is to build community, to create a world that is built on peace, practice justice, lives mercy.  We can best do that when we build our lives on the foundation of God’s love.  Then we can allow that belief – for instance, that God’s accepts everyone, that every one of us was made in God’s image – to inform our business decisions, or guide our teaching work…. to influence every other decision we make.   

There’s a story which circulates on Facebook from time to time – about a small child who, having heard in church that God welcomes everyone, takes that lesson to school…. and sits down at lunch with another child who’s been deliberately ignored by all their classmates.  The friendship of the two children changes the dynamics of the classroom.

That sort of thing won’t happen magically every time it’s tried, but it will make a difference, when we keep on trying.  

So, where do we belong?

On the side of those who seek to build up.  

Standing with those who are suffering.  

Working with those who seek an end to the dividing walls of hostility.  

Gathered with our siblings as one community of love throughout the world.

We belong, body and soul, in live and in death, not to ourselves but to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Tearing Down or Building Up?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on March 6, 2022

All licensing is on file at the First Church office

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’
and
‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

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.

One of the accounts I follow on Instagram is Bostonhomeinspectors.  The person who runs it posts photos of the things he sees when doing home inspections.  Sometimes the pictures of something old that still works… an ancient doorbell – pull on it and a wire pulls on a bell inside the house…. but more often, the pictures are startling – the dryer vent fan that exhausts onto a window screen, covering it with lint – and sometimes they’re downright dangerous – the leaking pipe dribbling down onto a junction box…. the deck supports that don’t actually touch the ground.

I’ve come to the conclusion that building a strong and safe building is about more than looks – those decks look ok, at least from a distance – but in fact they’re not the least bit safe.  And I’m convinced that house inspections are a really good idea. 

We’ve begun the Lenten season, the time set aside for us to do our own “house inspection”…. to look more intentionally about what we’re doing, how we’re living, what we’re making important, what we’ve put at the center of our world.

What does our house need to have?  Our Lenten prayer hymn will remind us  that the house we’re aiming to build will be one gathered by love, built to be safe for all.  It will be a place which practices forgiveness, where we can dream, and hope.  And above all, it will be a house where all are welcome.

One of the quotes for today is from Margaret Mitchell’s book Gone With the Wind.  GWTW  is an astoundingly clueless book about how noble white people were willing to give up everything, including their lives, to protect their way of life – a way of life that was self-indulgent, profligate, and build on the buying, selling, and working to death of Black people.  

Land, Margaret Mitchell writes, is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything.  Not only is she wrong in saying that, land is not the only thing in her make-believe world that matters.  For the heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, land is not what’s important; land is the means to her end – which is to have what she wants when she wants it.  Being good, in her world, doesn’t matter.  Being kind, being just, showing mercy – none of those things matter.  Land matters, winning matters, getting her own way matters.  If you remember the story, at the end, Scarlett has lost everything – husband, child… 

Maybe the most striking thing about the story, read in this day and not when it came out, is how little anyone seems to understand about right and wrong, how unexamined their lives are.  

The life that is never examined is a life which all too easily can go astray.  And that’s why we have Lent, a time to examine our lives.

So, are there places where maybe instead of ramps or strong steps, we have stumbling blocks?  Are there places where maybe instead of an open door, we have one that only works from the inside out?   Have we allowed our understanding of the world to grow in this past year, or are we still holding on to the assumptions and expectations of an era gone by?

When I was a young girl, my family lived in Pennsylvania – and each summer we packed up and came up to my grandfather’s cottage on Martha’s Vineyard for a month.  If we left anything important at home, we either had to go without or my parents would have to spend money to buy something that they’d already purchased… and we didn’t really have enough money to spend it that way.

My mother started the packing process about 4 weeks before we left.  Our spare bedroom slowly filled with piles of summer clothes, sweatshirts, light jackets, socks…. towels, sheets, the right kind of soap and shampoo, and even cooking essentials.  And of course, it all had to fit in our suitcases and trunks.  Limited space meant she simply could not pack every single thing we owned…. some things would be left behind.  And every once in a while, if the process was skimped, something would get left behind, and we’d have to re-examine what we were doing.  I learned early that packing was not a process to be undertaken lightly, that it wasn’t to be rushed.

Likewise, Lent isn’t a process to be rushed.  I know how much simpler it feels if you can just make a list and check things off, but if we rush through the process of Lent, we’re like to find we’ve just given our spiritual homes a lick and a promise.  We’ll discover that we’ve overlooked some part of our lives that really needed to be examined.

If I had said, last month, our world was filled with overwhelming problems, you would have agreed.  And I think we’d all pretty much had it with all the bad around us…. we just wanted it all to end.  Instead, we cannot close our eyes to the ways in which our world has just gotten worse.  Yes, sure we can put our masks aside in many places where we had to wear them just a little time ago.  And we’re safer going out in crowds than we were last month.  But last month there was no war in the world; this month there is.

This month there is war, and moreover, war which bring to our minds echoes of other wars; those echoes ratchet up our own fear.  We stare with horror at the tv stories of people fleeing Ukraine; or the photos of buildings going up in flames.  Our hearts break…   We want to do something to help, we wish we could make it all better…  Now this coming week, we’ll publish a list of places which are organizing help – with local connections, from our denomination, and other groups – and today we have sunflowers – the national flower of the Ukraine – in our worship space.  Some of us wear blue and yellow colors, some of us have posted those colors on Facebook pages and other places.  

Some of those things might seem insignificant, but none of them are.  Every step we take matters because we are not alone.  As we stand up for Ukraine, we join a great throng all over the world.

It is for this work of solidarity that Lent prepares us.  This year, the work and the preparation for the work will go along together.  This is no year for quiet withdrawal from the world for the next six weeks, but it is a time for us to search our hearts, and in the searching, prepare for the joy of Easter.

Let us get ready!

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

What Makes our Foundation Strongest?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on February 27, 2022

Today’s recording starts with the sermon and then begins again in the prayer time. As always, all licensing information is on file in the First Church Office.

Luke 6:39-49 — [Jesus] also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 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.

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 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.

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”

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.

You can imagine the scene.

It’s 1620, in the unsettled years of the emerging Protestant Reformation.  

You’re in Leiden, in the Netherlands, where you’d fled when it was no longer safe to be a radical Protestant in England.

You’re gathered with all your friends, all your family – your belongings, everything you have, piled in barrels and boxes off to the side.

And your pastor, the man who’s led you for years, is speaking to you for the last time.  For these many years, this person has helped you along the Christian path, has helped you discern God’s particular calling, in this time full of changes.  This pastor has been the source, the foundation of your faith.

Now you have been sent forth, you are leaving, and he is staying behind.

Today, you hear his last words….

The reports say:  “He took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the Reformed Churches, who were come to a period in religion; and would go no further than the Instruments of their Reformation. As, for example, the Lutherans: they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw. For whatever part of God’s will, he had further imparted and revealed to Calvin; they will rather die than embrace it. ‘And so also,’ saith he, ‘You see the Calvinists. They stick where he left them; a misery much to be lamented. *For though they were precious shining lights in their Times; yet God had not revealed his whole will to them; and were they now living,’ saith he, ‘they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light as that they had received.’ “

I seriously doubt that Pastor John Robinson, standing for the final time among his congregants, whom we know as the Pilgrims…. I doubt he realized the long-term effect of his words, but, when they are taken seriously, they are indeed one part of the foundation of our church life together.

We follow Jesus Christ, and that is the same, yesterday, today and forever.  But how we do it?  It changes.  Sometimes daily.  And it’s been Pastor Robinson’s words which have pushed us to understand that we are not locked into repeating the past just because we’ve always done it that way.  He said, “the Lutherans could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw”.  Don’t take it as a slam on Lutherans.  It’s a plain truth about human life.  

Pastor Robinson reminds us, however, that we need to be open to seeing how our world has changed, is changing.  Our denomination, some years ago, re-discovered this idea and put it this way:  God is still speaking.  

Of course, we’re not always ready to listen.  And sometimes we find it challenging to accept the changes that march before us.  Sometimes it feels as though the bottom has dropped out of everything we thought was great.  It’s one thing to change worship by adding heat or air conditioning to the space.  It’s another to do something that makes us less comfortable.  

Here’s the reason I think Pastor Robinson is right, that we must be open to change and new ways.  The testimony is found in the words of our Gospel reading…. Jesus asks, why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  and then, a verse or two later, tells a story about a man who built his house on sand instead of rock.  When the river burst against (the house), immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.

The stories are typical of Jesus – he wants us to understand that these stories are about us, right here, right now, not just stories from long ago.   Those specks in our eyes – in this case, think of them as the things which accumulate and keep us from seeing clearly. When our perceptions are cloudy it’s more difficult to make sound decisions, so it’s as if we’re building on a foundation of sand.

But so far, I’ve been talking about the down side of getting stuck in the past, or in the customary, or in the warm-fuzzy, never challenging parts of life.  Let’s turn that around.  What this means is that we need not be stuck.  We do not have to keep reproducing yesterday, or remain in a place that no longer speaks to today’s challenges.  We are free.  

We are free…. free to examine our assumptions.  We are free to put aside the strictures of yesterday which hurt so many people.  We are free to welcome the outcast.  We are free to be our true selves.  We are free to follow God.

This isn’t easy.  Many of us have been taught all our lives to stay in our lane.  It’s easier that way.  And looking around doesn’t mean thoughtlessly adopting new ways just because they are pretty, but taking the time to work out what they say, in the long run, about God and about us.  Working with change means we need to take the time to understand who we are and what we believe.  Think of it as the difference between just taking everything for granted, and coming to understand what’s happening and why.  It’s often challenging, but so rewarding.  

As we do it, as we learn our past and plan for our future, we become ever more free in Christ, and the foundation on which we stand is strong and firm. 

God is still speaking.  We are still listening.

Amen.

How Does It Work in Real Life?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on February 20, 2022. All licensing is on file at the church office.

Scripture: Luke 6:27-38

 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 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. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 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.  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. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 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.”

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

Last week, one of our folks was telling me how sometimes all the talk about doing this or standing up for that can feel overwhelming.  and we mused together about the challenge of saying enough while not saying too much….  It’s one of the conversations I’ve had over and over in my time here.  It’s an important conversation because following our way of life is supposed to be about balance, but all too often slips over to one side or another, falls out of balance.  

Maybe the urgency of fixing our world crowds out the time we need to sit in contemplation.  Maybe the pain of the world makes it imperative that we turn away to a place of peace.  Maybe so much change that church needs to be a place of constancy with no possibility of adaptation to changing times, maybe so much turmoil in our personal lives that we just yearn for one place where all is always well…. whatever’s going on, an over-emphasis on one part of the Christian path can distort church life, even as – to outside eyes – it looks as though we’re the best church ever, that we’re on the one right path…

One of the reasons I love today’s Gospel reading from Luke, is that it drives right down the center line of our faith live…. keeping the needed balance between our personal needs and the needs of the world.  It does that by centering the whole enterprise on love.  

In Luke, you don’t do good deeds because those deeds need to be done, but because they are manifestations of God’s love for you, and your love for the world.  Whether those deeds, those actions are about how you deal with others or about life within your household, love is the foundation upon which they are built…. love for the world, love for your family, love for yourself – all built on God’s love for all creation.

Some years ago, our national church put together a statement entitled “Toward the 21st Century”.  It is another way of saying the same thing – life together is a matter of balance, all built on a foundation of love.  You’ll find the entire text in today’s bulletin, and it’s there because I believe it makes our purpose and way of life clear.  It provides something of a measuring stick for our life together.

We are, the statement says, a church attentive to the word. We are a faithful people.   We are a dedicated people. We are a worshipping people.   

We are a people who have cast our lot with Jesus Christ.  We have been baptized, dedicated to God’s service, and we found our lives on a time set apart to name our priorities and reaffirm our commitments.

We are a church inclusive of all people.  There are to be no barriers at our doors to keep out those who would follow Christ.  The statement says, we seek to be a fully inclusive community of faith, sharing bread and cup with all who see, in Christ, the way to our common future.  

We remember that there have been, still are, invisible barriers, and we work to remove them, that all who would follow this path are welcomed, and enlarge the covenanted community. 

We are a church responsive to God’s call.  God calls us to repair the world, to work for peace, to free the prisoners.  We are called to do this not only out in our world, but here in this place, that we might not just proclaim peace, but live it out in our life together.

We are a church supportive of one another.  We care about one another, even as we recognize that we are not perfect, not all identical, and – truth be told – sometimes annoying to each other.  This community is not built on our individual affinities, like a Harry Potter Fan Club.  In places like that you expect to find people with whom you have much in common.  But church is a community built on a common commitment to a way of life.  In this place, the illiterate and the erudite sit next to one another in mutuality and equality because in this place, in this fellowship what brings us together is our common desire to follow Jesus.  Nothing else matters.

Our is an Open and Affirming Church.  We proudly proclaim our belief that Black lives matter.  We believe that everyone deserves enough to eat.  And our commitments are not words only.  We welcome and include, we work and study.  We act to feed the hungry.

But those actions, in this fellowship, must be accompanied by an equal desire to reach out to one another in mutual support.  Just as we are called to be ONA, we are called to care about one another’s concerns and fears.  When one of us is ill, we hold them up in prayer.  When one of us suffers, we extend a hand of comfort and companionship.  

From the other direction, a church which is so totally focused on comfort and support that it has no space, no energy, no urgency to reach out to love their neighbors and work for justice, is a church which has become a comfortable club for people who have replaced Jesus with themselves.

We seek a balance, a sense that there’s more than just one facet to our faith.  Within that balance, of course, some of us specialize.  The folks who count our offering each week are just as important as those who serve on the front lines of our public work.  Those who create and maintain our prayer ministry complement the work of those who are teaching us about racial justice.  The person who comes in and makes sure the sound system is up and running is as important as anyone else here.

Some things, we all do.  We’re all pledged to be kind.  We’re all pledged to question the usual way.  We’re all pledged to care about one another.    We’re all pledged to gather regularly and praise God in worship.

…because we are a church that is attentive to the Word, inclusive of all God’s people, responsive to the needs of our world, and supportive of one another.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H.  Child

Earthquake Time?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on February 13, 2022

Scripture Reading:  Luke 6:17–26

All licensing is on file in the church office

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

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

The words of today’s Gospel lesson turn the world upside down.

That’s why we want to block them, re-dress them in innocuous illustrations, make them sound like a sort of Hallmark sentiment, try to rinse all the radicality out of them that they might be no more than ignored background.

But power will out; change will happen, and our world will be turned upside down.  

First, a few words about the Beatitudes.  Yes, despite differences in the details,  — Luke describes this as a level place, Matthews says it takes place on a mountain – this portion from Luke is describing the same event as Matthew.  There’s a lot to be brought forward in thinking about why the two authors present the event differently, and why there are differences in the lists, but for right now, the important thing is – this lesson is central to who we are as Christians, and underlies everything we do. 

In the world outside the doors of this building, who you are, where you come from, how much money you make, how much power you have…. all those things matter.  If  you’re so stinking wealthy that, like Jeff Bezos of Amazon, you can try to get the Dutch government to tear down a historic bridge so your “huger than anyone’s” yacht can get out of the harbor where it was built…. well all that means you’re really really important.

But not in here.  

In here, importance is about Jesus.  We’re not working because we want to earn money, or even brownie points with God.  We’re working because God loves us.  We’re working because we love the vision of a world where the hungry are filled, where those who mourn find joy once again, where wrong is righted, where justice and mercy prevail.

Out in the world, CEOs get 40% pay raises, while workers struggle to pay their bills.

Out in the world, powerful people walk away from their crimes, unpunished, while those without power, particularly Black people without power, get stuck in an endless routine of jail, fines, joblessness… 

In this room, in our community, that world is turned upside down.

Some of us have money, lots of money.  Some of us have close to nothing.

Some of us have PhDs, some of us barely finished high school.

Here in this place, each one of us matters.  And we carry that belief out into our world.  It’s not just an equality that works in this space, but outside, we step back into our worldly roles. 

God has invited us, called us, to bring that radical equality out of this space and into our world. This is why we do what we do.  We feed the hungry because that’s how we hear God’s call.  We are kind to the folks running the cash registers at the grocery, because that’s part of God’s call.  We allow ourselves to feel the pain of those who have been left out, because that, too, is part of God’s call.

Some of this, let’s be clear, is pretty easy.  The whole world thinks the proper work of churches is stuff like feeding the hungry, or operating thrift shops, even maybe running tutoring programs… so long as it doesn’t bother people – by which they mean, clean, well-fed, well-off white people – when the poor, dirty, smelly, come around.  

But when we start talking about Jesus’ radical call to wake up to the ways we are called to dissolve invisible walls, and rise right through glass ceilings, well, things get more difficult.  The world thinks we live in a world with finite resources, finite opportunities.  If someone who has nothing gets something, it must come out of my pot, my pile.  

They’re wrong, but that’s what they believe.

We believe, because Jesus teaches  us, that there is enough for everyone.  Even more, Jesus teaches us that in building a world based on sharing, we will create abundance for all.  Whether it’s a Christmas Dinner or a Black Lives Matter event, this is the underlying truth.  When we work toward a world where we all have enough, we work to create a world where all have plenty.

Outside our doors, war threatens in the Ukraine.  Outside our doors, protests in Canada mean people are out of work in factories.  Outside our doors, it’s all me first, I’ve got mine.

But in our fellowship, we are following the path of Jesus; we are turning the world upside down.  

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Head and Heart and Hands

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on February 6, 2022

Luke 5:1–11 — Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed 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.

Life, the good life, is about balance.

And getting balanced, achieving balance, maintaining balance, is doable… but, like so many things in our world, it works better if we pay attention.  

Think about it….. how often do we do things in the same way that we always have, like Simon, fishing in one way, maybe always from the port side of the fishing vessel? and have never thought about letting down the nets on the other side, doing things from a different direction.

I don’t know about you, but changing things up to see things from the other side, or at least another direction, is not my default setting.  

My default is all about doing things in the same way, preferably at the same time….

My saving grace is that I’ve learned, over the years, that my default is a sure road to nowhere, that even my life needs both routine and out of the box in order to continue to be faithful to God’s call.  

It’s church life that taught me this.  I didn’t come up with it on my own.  It’s reading stories like today’s Gospel lesson and realizing that when Simon tried another way, he found abundant gifts – think of every one of those fish as a little wriggling opportunity – that he would have missed had he not followed the call to try something new, something different.

Church can be like that as well.  We, too, can fall into habits that keep us fishing from one side of the boat, which prevent us from see the gifts just waiting for us when we’re open to new ways, other ways, of being

At it’s best, church, like individual life, is a balance… the way our bulletin cover puts it – for churches – is that at its best church life is a never-ending circle of belief, compassion, and action.  No one of them is primary, no one of them is the single most important.  The three work together to create a balanced way of being.

In the UCC essay I included today, John Thomas, who was president of the UCC from 1999 to 2009, wrote of a visit he’d made to Emmaus Homes in Missouri.  Emmaus was founded by German immigrants, part of our denomination, who had learned that faith called forth compassion, and compassion led to action, and so they had created this beloved place for people with developmental disabilities and epilepsy to live in safety and comfort, surrounded by love.  He tells of the resident, who believed that a mural of the Emmaus story in Luke, where the disciples meet the risen Christ, was more importantly, a mural of the day Jesus visited her home.  John adds, “what our resident friend may not have grasped with her head she knew in her heart.”  

Jesus is where head and heart and hands come together.  Whether it’s the Emmaus of the Bible, or the Emmaus of St. Charles MO, Jesus is there where head, heart and hands work together in harmony.

Just as that’s true in our church life, it’s true for our personal lives as well.  We are made to use our minds, to think things through, to check out the long-term implications, to learn the background history, and even to understand the math behind the proposals.  But life is so much more than head can ever show us.

I kinda think of it as head stuff is just one dimension of our world.  And there’s so much more.  When it all plays out the way it’s supposed to, our head knowledge should help open our hearts, to call us to care about what we’re learning.  And, as much as I love academia, I’m not talking here about making us love the abstract, but to draw us inevitably to love the world to which our studies expose us.  In many ways, that’s just what we’re trying to do with racial justice – move from a head knowledge of the evils of racism to a heart which cries at the pain we now see at the base of Black life.   Our head knowledge breaks open our hearts.

The broken heart of compassion yearns to do… compassion, at its best, calls forth action.  I learn about a wrong, I feel the effects of the wrong, now what can I do.  Think of what we’ve done, year after year, through the Christmas meal that’s led by Julie.  Think of the volunteers, who come from all over, because they know what food insecurity is, and because they feel they have to do  something.

Sometimes we get stuck and keep doing the same thing over and over, even when its time has come.  I’ve known plenty of folks who, having lived through the Depression, could not stand to leave a roll on the table when they went out to eat.  They had plenty of money, and good food in their larder, but the experience of being hungry all the time had never left them.  My own mother told me she took up smoking to kill the pangs of hunger as she worked as a nurse, because she did not make enough money to afford adequate food.  When life was better, she was hooked on smoking, no longer hungry, but unable to stop.  She died at the age of 64 of emphysema.  Sometimes we hold on to things we do well beyond their use-by date.

And so we work our way around to our heads.  It’s a constant process, this learning to fish from the other side of the boat.  It’s not just move from this side to that one and now you can forget about it.  We need to always keep up with what’s going on around us, with how the world is changing.  So the interaction of head, heart and hands is circular, not linear.

Head, heart, hands – the building blocks of Christian community.  Knowing, loving, changing our world, one day at a time, that we might be a community steeped in love, immersed in mercy, and moving towards justice, today and always.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child