The Triumph of Truthiness

Congregational Church of Grafton UCC, November 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

© 2017, Virginia H. Child

 

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, email newsletter Nov2017

The Poverty of Abundance

Congregational Church of Grafton, November 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

© 2017, Virginia H. Child

Ain’t Gonna Study War No More

Congregational Church of Grafton, May 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community.

Justice.

Respect.

Love.

The building blocks of peace.

Amen.

 

© 2017, Virginia H. Child

 

 

 

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