This Time, We All Won!

Congregational Church of Grafton UCC, April 16, 2017 Easter Sunday

Jeremiah 31:3b – I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.

John 20:1-18 – Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”

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

There are mornings, these days, when it just doesn’t seem worthwhile to turn on the radio, open the newspaper, and hear what’s happened since the last time we checked in on the news.

Yet another prep school has admitted they tolerated decades of teachers abusing their students.

A highly respected judge in New York City died in what looks like a suicide.

A shooting in this place, an assault that one, a bomb dropped on an enemy.

It sure seems as though, most of the time the world is stuck is some sort of Groundhog Day-type Good Friday.

We exchange insults and engage in violence. We are mired in despair and without hope – all because it just doesn’t seem as though anything we can do will make a real difference in our world.

It’s as if it’s a jungle out there – a figurative one, to be true, but a literal one as well. Figurative because, well, Massachusetts isn’t a jungle-type climate. But literal because whatever our climate, we’re behaving like a gang of unprincipled predators.

What other way is there to describe a world where a 69 year old physician can be dragged off an airplane, one where he’d bought and paid for a ticket… dragged off with such violence that he ends up losing two teeth, breaking his nose and incurring a concussion?

What other way is there to describe a world where the airline then goes on to blame the paying passenger, and helps spread the false word that the doctor is actually a convicted felon, as if that would excuse this level of brutality.

And as I watched the video of this terrible event, the thing that struck me was this: not one passenger stood up in the aisle and said “no more.” Not one person tried to stop the police. Yes, a number of folks made videos of the violence and those videos have made a difference, but when it was happening, no one said, “not here, not now, not ever.”

It’s as if we sit there muttering like the disciples at the empty tomb: “they have taken all the good away, and we do not know where to look…. Or what to do, or how to live.”

The temptation is to turn away from today’s realities, and to look back to what we fondly remember as the time when everything was good, until, of course, we remember that those good old days had their own set of challenges, and were no better than today in many ways.

We have, in our pain, in our distress, lost sight of God’s everlasting love.

We just want something to go right. In our lost-ness, we look in all the wrong places for that missing joy.

Maybe our children will make up for the sore spots in our souls by being so good in school????

Maybe having the latest gizmo will fill in that empty yearning to be acceptable.

Maybe a new kitchen will put a better front on our lives.

Maybe if we drink enough, or take another of those pills that almost made us forget the pain of our last operation.

Maybe the only way is – if we think someone was mean to us, we’ll just go ahead and be mean in return. Or we’ll attack the powerless, and make sure everyone knows they’re the scapegoats for all that’s wrong in our world.

But the thing is — none of it works. None of it makes things better. Self-indulgence doesn’t make things better.   Self-medication doesn’t do it; disdain, contempt and hatred won’t do it either.

Here’s the good news: today, the hatred ends. Today we step away from that eternal repeating Good Friday life. Because Christ the Lord is risen, and the power of indifference, the power of cruelty, the power of death…done, defeated.

Say it loud, say it strong: God has changed the world, evil will not triumph over good, death does not have the last word, nice guys will not finish last.

God has come back again, to give us another chance to catch the vision, to see how God’s world works, to recognize and respond to God’s mighty love.

This story wouldn’t work on tv. It doesn’t begin in glory, like some sort of heavenly Super Bowl victory, complete with swaggering disciples like the Patriots after the last Super Bowl. The Duck Boat parade? It was last week… a week too soon, and celebrating power rather than love.

This week the story begins in obscurity, powerty, contempt and dismissal. The story doesn’t move on to triumph after triumph. Jesus is a poor carpenter, from the land of losers.. an uneducated rube from the back side of acceptable.   This isn’t the story of some poor white son, born in a log cabin, orphaned at an early age, who by dint of charm, smarts, and a Yale education manages to make himself into one of the power brokers of the world.

No, God’s love is shown to us in the story of a man who was betrayed by his friends, beaten by the authorities, executed in shame and disgrace, buried in a borrowed tomb. God’s love is shown to us in a failure.

The story is all too common. Jesus was betrayed by a friend, yep, I’ve seen that. The power brokers of his world run him thru a rigged trial; yep, seen that too. He’s killed, brutally, <sigh> yep, that too. And all his companions ran away — really, it wasn’t safe, so smart of them to have quietly disappeared. That all that happened to Jesus is so believable.

What’s hard to believe is what comes next, today, the story of resurrection, re-birth, beginning.

He was dead. He was buried. The story was over. But this is a whole new story. This story doesn’t fit our experience. This story doesn’t match our expectations. It fights with our understanding of how the world works, and so we struggle to understand what really happened and what it means for us today.

It was a morning like this one, a cold and damp start to the day when the women came to the tomb. They were still lost in the pain of Friday, in the emptiness of Saturday, and the damp chill of the morning fit their mood perfectly.

As they peered into the tomb, though, the axis of their world shifted. From that moment on, nothing was what it had seemed. There were no answers to the pain of the world, and then, they began to understand that violence had been defeated by peace, that hatred had been laid low by love, that nothing had been replaced by something.

This story makes no scientific sense. Dead people don’t rise. Sometimes we think, well, this was easier for those folks back in the day to believe. They didn’t know what we know about bodies and death, so of course they could really pick up on resurrection. Unfortunately, it’s just not so. They may not have understood the circulatory system back in the day, but they were really familiar with death in ways we’re not. In Jesus’ day when someone died, their family took care of the body. They knew exactly how final death was. Resurrection, a risen Christ, made no more sense to them than to us.

We know there’s lots in life that’s beyond scientific explanation. Science can’t explain why we love; heck, we can’t explain why we love. So, why should science be asked to authenticate this even deeper mystery of God’s love for us?

So, don’t get lost in the science; the story of the Resurrection isn’t a science report. It’s a faith statement that, despite all the evidence, despite everything that happens, we do not believe death is the final answer. Love has destroyed the power of death.

Something about this story rang true: that this whatever-it-was, this resurrection, was the power of forgiveness, was the power of love. This Resurrection shows us how to start again when all else fails… Resurrection makes the deep, true nature of God abundantly clear.

Those people, those people who were there, who had known Jesus, came to understand that the best, most accurate word to describe what they’d seen and experienced, was Resurrection. Jesus had been dead, They knew that for sure. And now he was not in his tomb; now they found themselves surely led, as surely as when he had been with them before.

While he was dead, they too had felt dead, stripped of all belief, all power, huddled together in fear. But now, they stood up and stepped out. Now they were strong again. Now God’s everlasting love had acted through Jesus Christ, to bring life out of death.

The Resurrection is the active power of God’s love, transforming and saving the world. The disciples were changed by Resurrection. It changed them, changed their world, and still is changing us today. They saw God’s love, and shared it, built on it, followed it.

Now, today, we who follow the Risen Christ are called to take hold of that love as well and to use it to change this world, our world.

“Life has a centrifugal force that pulls us apart. The flow of our days draws us away from each other” unless we work actively to choose differently, writes Connecticut pastor Milton Brasher-Cunningham. He goes on to suggest that it is the little acts of love, little signs of resurrection which counteract that force… that the force of love is draws us together to build community.

This is the core of our faith. In the midst of the worst that life can send, we serve a risen Savior, one who conquered evil and death, who endured torture and execution, , and through it all, taught us how to live, how to love.

Easter is a day that begins at the bottom of the ditch, lost in failure, despair, defeat — and comes back, begins again, climbs back up, Easter is a day of new beginnings.

Easter doesn’t end fear; it makes it possible for us to overcome our fear with our joy. Because the promise of the resurrection is that this wasn’t just something that happened once; it is a sign to all of us that there is always new life and possibility, forgiveness and love.

Good Friday does not rule our world. We are not defeated by pessimism and failure. We walk in the way of Christ, in peace, love and joy. This time, we’ve all won.

Christ the Lord is risen today.

Amen.

 

Getting Ready

  • The pastor’s left!  What shall we do?
  • We’ve got an interim, and he/she’s great!
  • Hmm….isn’t it time for us to start to search for our next pastor?

Everyone goes through the cycle.  And every step is important.  The steps are most important when a church has been through great trauma — whether that trauma is the death of a pastor, misconduct of one or another sort, or some other kind of disaster.  This is particularly true, however, when the cumulative affects of trauma have affected the way the church deals with its pastor, with one another, with its world.

Trauma affects how we deal with the world around us.  Men and women come back from war zones and their way of living in our world has changed – they’ve experienced trauma and it has changed them.  The same is true of a church – no matter how seriously, how intentionally, the church names what has happened — those experiences will cause the church to react differently.

A church that has worked through an experience of sexual misconduct will have more clearly named guidelines for working with children and increased sensitivity to the implications of adults who “want to work with children”.

A church which has had an untrustworthy relationship with one pastor will find it difficult to build a trusting relationship with their next pastor.  If this isn’t named, isn’t recognized as a “sore spot”, it is entirely possible for the difficulty to last through succeeding pastorates.

As a church begins the process of writing a profile (the formal prospectus for candidates), the temptation is for us to put the best face on everything, to breeze right on by those “sore spots.”  So, a church which knows it wants to grow, and knows there is potential for growth in its area, positions itself as that very kind of church, and ignores the parts of its history which make it difficult to trust any leader, much less one who is going to propose the kinds of wholesale change which church growth requires.

This is particularly so if the church in question has been rolling along for fifteen or more years with very little innovation, with things staying pretty much the same, and the pastor confining himself to preaching.  Any church finds it difficult to move abruptly from a laid-back, hands-off pastor to one who is entirely hands-on.  But a church with trust issues is likely to meet that kind of change with a reaction that reminds me of teen-aged oppositional-defiant behavior.  Everything is wrong, unless and until it’s proven right.  Every change is evil, until it isn’t.

The worst of it is, that traumatized church most likely doesn’t think there’s anything wrong.  Folks there simply do not know that in healthy, trusting churches, they expect their pastors will try things out, expect the pastor to be responsive to their concerns, expects that new things will happen and some of them will fail, even as most of the succeed.  The default setting in a healthy church is “how can we make this happen”, while in traumatized churches, the default setting is “I don’t think that will work, let’s say no”.

So — getting back to that profile… which option is likely to get our traumatized church the best fit as pastor:  “Hi, we’re “GreatChurch”, everything’s fine here, but we want to grow.” or “Hi, we’re working church, we’ve had some problems, and sometimes we struggle to understand what’s happening… and we think God wants us to thrive.”

Go with the first option, whitewash over all your history, and your next pastor will be really disappointed, will lose faith in you, and if he/she is really good, will be gone within three years.

Go with the second option, tell the truth, be open about your problems, and the level of your willingness to work, and the pastor you call will be equipped with the knowledge and skill set to lead you into the future.

Preparing a profile is not just about putting something together, but about drawing as accurate a picture of who we are, where we are, and where we think God is calling us — as is absolutely possible.  In that way, we do our part in the search for the next,  right, settled pastor.

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

 

Finding Treasure

A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Grafton UCC on December 4, 2016

Isaiah 11; 1-5   A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse . . . The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

Romans 15:4-9, 13 May the God of green home fill you up with joy. . . (The Message)

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

The last few weeks, I’ve been working my way through the last unpacked boxes from my move to East Providence, Rhode Island. . . eight years ago. Every box holds a surprise. . . that’s what happens when you hire the movers to do the packing. I’ve seen them pack the trash, and once opened a box in which they’d packed an open can of olive oil. It didn’t travel well.

This time, I’m finally finding the shades for some of my lamps (I’d long since given up finding them and bought replacements), and just last week, found the treasure of a model ship my father had when he was a boy. Most of the treasurers that are surfacing are things I loved, but hadn’t thought about in years.

They were things I loved, but I hadn’t thought about in years. But when they came out of the box… I was thrilled to see them again.

Our Old Testament lesson today talks about another treasure, perhaps equally packed away and lost. . . and today is when we pull it out, remember again how important it is to us, how it speaks to our condition. The world this lesson describes is not yet here, and particularly helpful to us in a year in which that world seems further away than usual.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse – what a lovely metaphor! We’ve all seen how a tree can seem dead, and then in the spring a shoot comes up out of the stump once again. Here, this story is suggesting that something of the same will come from Jesse’s family – that a new offspring, descendant, will come from that family which seems to have died out – and will bring with him all the attributes of God’s ideal society.

This sprout will have God’s spirit – the spirits of wisdom, understanding, counsel and might, of knowledge and a proper respect for God. He will not jump to conclusions or believe fake news reports on Facebook. He’ll look at people through the lens of justice and mercy, rather than revenge and punishment. Fairness and faithfulness will mark him out.

Traditionally, we think of this sprout as Jesus, and so it is understood, but it is more than that. Every person who lives and acts in justice, love and mercy is, themselves, a sprout of the stump of Jesse, a true follower of God’s way.

This lesson is not only a testimony to the calling and mission of Jesus; it is our own calling, our own mission. This Advent season is all about reminding us that Christmas is – at it’s heart – not about candy canes and sweet carols, so much as it is about the tough and dangerous work of being agents of peace, tellers of truth.

I think the dream that our lives might be worthwhile is one we all share; and then, as I’ve heard, we grow up, and give it up – unless we’re fortunate enough to be teachers, or medical people, and pastors, people whose jobs virtually require them to do good. But we’re missing something important there, for it’s not the job we have that makes our lives worthwhile, it’s how we live it. And these days, that’s even more important.

These days, we are all called by God to be people who live worthwhile lives.

We are all called by God to create together God’s vision of harmony.

We thought we’d gotten there. We thought we now lived in a world where things would only get better and better, and now we’re beginning to realize that’s not true.

Yesterday, a picture showed up on my Facebook feed – it’s a t-shirt and on the back it says “ROPE – TREE – JOURNALIST” “some assembly required”. This is a different world than we thought it was.

What can we do, though? We’re consumed with Christmas preparations, and besides, we’re not leaders of industry, billionaires, or members of the government. What can we do?

I think, at the most basic level, we are all capable of doing what needs to be done, because we are all capable of being friends. And friendship is the most powerful tool in the work to change our world.

Friendship builds community.

Now, I’m not talking about the kind of friendship which means you invite your best buddies over for pizza to watch the Patriots. I’m not even talking about being friends with your dad or mom. I’m talking about the basic power of friending to change the atmosphere in a room, to change the tone and tenor of society. I’m talking about standing up for the “other”. I’m talking about refusing to laugh at jokes about killing journalists, or jokes about immigrants. I’m talking about naming falsehoods, about advocating for truth.

Most women my age know how this can change things. Back in the day, when I first started working, we had some guys who liked to tell raw stories, to do things to embarrass the women in the presence. And maybe afterwards, one of the guys would come over to say, “I didn’t like that either.” But it wasn’t until that guy, or a bunch of the guys, would stand up and say, “don’t tell those stories”, that the stories stopped. It wasn’t until they made their friendship, their alliance, with we who were powerless clear and open, that their friendship changed our world. That’s what we are being called to do today, not just for women, but for everyone who’s living in fear today.

You see, what they, what the haters of our world are doing, is sin. I might go so far as to say it is blasphemy. For God made us all of the same substance. We are all human beings, and we were made to know and to care for one another. When we speak of another with scorn, when we classify someone as one of “them” and then put them down, suggest they don’t “deserve” the same treatment as others in our land, that denies our God-given humanity.

Hope is thin on the ground in this Advent season, but that doesn’t mean we’re not looking for it, not hoping for it, not wishing for it. Today, I’m saying that hope is created by our intention to be community for one another, creating places of trust and safety.

Last month, I asked all of us to pray for those with whom we were angry. This month, I want to ask us to do something more active. I want you to keep aware, all month, to speak up for those who are slandered, or who are met with slurs, to watch out for that fellow rider on the MBTA who might be in danger. I want you to smile and say something friendly to every immigrant you meet. When someone asks why you’re doing this, I’d suggest you respond that it’s not about Clinton vs. Trump, but it’s about an atmosphere that’s released the vilest strain of bigotry…and that it’s simply not faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ to be a bigot.

That’s not going to be easy. It might not even be safe, so use your own good judgment. If you can’t safely say something, maybe you can quietly record an incident on your cell phone.

Do what you can, with what you have, follow Christ this advent by building friendships and creating community.

Amen.

© 2016 Virginia H. Child

 

 

 

Christmas Greetings to All!

It’s that time of the year – the lights are on the houses, wreaths are on the doors, trees are on their way to our living rooms. The busyness of the season threatens to overwhelm us – go to a grand-daughter’s Nutcracker performance in the afternoon, and attend a Christmas party that evening… and when will you get the shopping done, the packages wrapped and shipped?

Most years, all that activity is nothing but a background to the Christmas Story, to the story of the arrival of God in the daily lives of us all. But this year, it seems, more and more, to mirror the general turmoil of our world.

Christmas comes, this year, to a world where the idea of peace and goodwill to all people is suddenly suspect.

Christmas comes, this year, to a world where the values we hold dear – that every person matters, that it is morally wrong and simply unacceptable for people to starve to death or die because they couldn’t afford a doctor, that every person has a right and obligation to literacy — all those values are under attack.

Christmas comes, this year, to a world suddenly aware that there really are people who believe that some people are more important than others, where it’s ok to rob the poor to enrich the wealthy, so long as you do it by manipulating stocks, where it’s acceptable to mock the disabled. Christmas has come to a world where we now meet people who say that “white is right”, who would deny gay people the right to live undisturbed lives.

Christmas comes, this year, to a world which desperately needs to hear, once again, the story of a child who taught us that the poor matter more than the wealthy, who taught us that God welcomes everyone, who taught us that the values of honesty, decency, fidelity, and trustworthiness are the marks of God’s way.

For years, we’ve assumed that everyone shares those foundational principles. Though founded in our understanding of Christianity, we felt they made such clear sense that, of course, everyone agreed with them. This year, we know that’s not true.

This year, Christmas is much more than a reminder to stock up on wrapping paper and eggnog, or a time to enjoy the light in our children’s eyes as they see their presents. This year Christmas comes to remind us that we are at the front lines of a struggle for the soul of a people.

This year, Christmas comes to remind us that we are not alone in the struggle to build a compassionate and just world.

This year, Christmas comes to encourage us to keep walking in the way, to listen to the souls of those who have chosen hatred, to continue to testify to them of the power of redeeming love.

This year, Christmas comes to empower us to stand with those who are afraid, who are persecuted, dismissed, rejected.

This year, Christmas comes to remind us that the Christ Child was despised, rejected, condemned for being an outsider, poor, from the wrong side of the tracks. The story recalls to us that the Holy Family fled as refugees from persecution to the land of Egypt. And in those reminders, we are called to the true message of Christmas, to the description of what “peace on earth and good will to all” looks like:

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
            and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
            for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
            for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
            His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
            He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
            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.
            He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
            according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

Christmas blessings to all!

Virginia

The Rules of Prayer: Showing Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

© 2016, Virginia H. Child

The Rules of Prayer: Looking Beyond Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

© 2016, Virginia H. Child