Jesus Didn’t Turn People Away

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on January 30, 2022

Gospel Reading:   Luke 4:21–30  

Then [Jesus] began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

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

Last Sunday a pop singer, a member of a church which says being gay is unacceptable, posted a video talking about his struggle to keep his faith when he yearned for a relationship that would be for him of the same quality as his heterosexual friends.  He wants to be married, but his church tells him he cannot marry unless he marries heterosexually.

He’s not the only member of his church; he’s not the only member of any of the number of churches which believe that marriage is only between one man and one woman.  He’s fortunate in one sense: his family has been supportive and loving.  

And I bet that at least one person, if not a majority of the folks here this morning, want to send him a note and invite him to come worship with us next Sunday.

That’s not everyone’s reaction:  In the Facebook article about this person’s announcement, one reaction said:  Same sex marriage is wrong on so many levels. The bible says that it is better for someone like that to die then to be in that kind of relationship.  Any number of people responded in protest…but the original poster never changed his position.

The United Church of Christ, our congregation, believes that God welcomes everyone.  Sometimes it feels so right, so natural, that we forget that in much of the world, even here in Middletown, our stance is still revolutionary, still provokes the same reaction as Jesus experienced when he preached in his hometown synagogue, still results in folks being driven out.  

When our denomination voted to be Open and Affirming, when our church voted to be Open and Affirming, we were practicing a kind of hospitality which was costly, even dangerous.  When the UCC voted to accept gay marriage, we lost one entire Conference.  Conferences lost churches, local churches lost members.  And yet, we persisted and lives were changed, lives were saved.  

And there’s more.  Because the kind of outrageous, courageous, radical, world-changing welcome we began at that point, changed more than our welcome of LGBT+ people.  At some basic foundational level, it pushed the denomination as a whole, and our church in particular to re-think what it meant to be welcoming.

Before that conversation, before that discernment of God’s leading, we’d not thought much at all about how God welcomes people.  That’s because, I believe, we simply assumed that the way things were was the way things should be.  So, God called leaders of the church from among the white men, particularly the white men who wore suits, white shirts and ties.  Women led, of course, in the Women’s Fellowship, the Mission Committee action teams and in Christian Education.  But, almost without exception, the voice from the pulpit was one of those white men.  Sure, there were occasional Black leaders, particularly with Black churches.  And every once in a while, particularly in remote rural areas, women led congregations.  There might be the occasional closeted gay man leading a congregation…. but basically, we took our world as it was, as the way it should be.  And we thought that welcome meant that new folks would take us as their model, so that they’d look like us, dress like us, sing like we did, eat the same foods…

But it turned out that becoming an Open and Affirming denomination changed all that.   It looks to me as if you say, come as you are, people come as they are.  And if you say, “we welcome everyone,” and you live into it, well, then you’re going to welcome people who come as they are.  And it’s changed even what “us” means, changed us right down to the foundations.

Being Open and Affirming was no longer just about welcoming your uncle, son, sister, co-worker, about welcoming people who, other than being LGBT+, were just like us.  It grew and grew, resulting in changes no one imagined, because as we listened to God’s call to welcome LGBT+ people, we learned more about what welcome looks like… and it’s not a seat in the back by the door, wearing the costume of a straight white man…

The act of welcoming one, the experience of opening to concerns we’d never known existed, to lives, and cultures, and ways of being that we’d never imagined, well, that opened us to the ways our open doors were really closed, unless… you fit the picture.  And when we saw our reality, we began to understand that we’d only taken the first steps into a new and fuller reality, one that’s so much closer to God’s vision for our world.

What had always felt like threat – welcoming the other might make us lose something of ourselves – and thus had made us fearful and angry, has become a kind of wonder and awe, as we realize that welcoming the other makes us more truly ourselves.  We thought God wanted us to all be the same.  We’ve discovered that God wants us all to be ourselves.  No longer crammed into costumes that only fit a few, and them not as well as they thought. we are growing into a life in which we wear the way of life which works for us, the one God calls us to.  It’s focused on love, not on “one right ways”  

It’s as if we’re moving from being the folks who drive Jesus out the door to being the people who aim to live by the words of I Corinthians 13:  

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, 
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, 
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, 
but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, 
and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. 
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. 
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; 
as for tongues, they will cease; 
as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 
but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, 
I thought like a child, 
I reasoned like a child; 
when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. 
Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; 
and the greatest of these is love.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Does “Why” Matter?

All appropriate licensing on file in the First Church Office

First Church, Middletown CT, January 23, 2022                          

Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10

. . all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.. . .  And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. . . . So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

The United Church “is a teller of the Christian Story. . . . We have to get it straight ourselves before we can get it out.”  Gabriel Fackre, Abbot Professor of Christian Theology,  Andover Newton Theological School

There never has been a greater piece of nonsense than the notion that it doesn’t make much difference what a person believes. Christianity, some people say, is a doing kind of religion, and particularly in a time like ours. 

With so many evils to be tackled and so much healing and reconciling to be done, spinning your wheels over a lot of theology is a waste of precious time. 

The truth, of course, is the other way around. It matters enormously what a person believes. It matters enormously what kind of understanding a congregation has of the Christian faith. Everything we do or leave undone depends ultimately on what we fundamentally believe about people and issues and what we believe the purposes of God have to do with them.  – Oliver Powell, an excerpt from “The United Church of Christ: A Beautiful, Heady, Exasperating Mix,” A.D. Magazine (September 1975): 39–48. 

I’ve been aware of the fact that in perceiving difference we tend to judge the differences.  I wonder what it takes to get to the point where the realization, under certain circumstances, is that we’re different and that both of us might be right and both of us might be wrong, maybe at the same time.   Reuben Sheares II

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

Maybe you’ve seen it, too…. but I’m betting that even if some of you have, we haven’t all… so let me ask… have you seen the video of a man named Michael Junior and the singer?   So, let me tell you the story. . . 

Michael Junior is giving a presentation at a meeting in a huge auditorium.  As the video begins, he’s just called on a man and learned that this guy is a singer.  So, Michael Junior asks him, can you sing a phrase from Amazing Grace for us?

And the man does, and does it very well.

But then Michael Junior says to him, “can you do it again? But this time, sing as if your father’s just gone to jail, as if you’ve just been seriously injured.”  And the man sang again… but this time it’s not just a really good rendition; it’s heart-breakingly passionate, beautiful, powerful.

And Michael Junior turns to the audience and says, the first time the man sang, he knew “what” he was doing and he did pretty well.  But the second time he sang, he knew “why” he was singing, and that made all the difference.

Knowing our “why” matters.  It matters that we know why we do what we do, why we make the choices we do, why we live as we live. 

Many people do what we do, and they do those things for many reasons.  Their reasons are important and real, but they are not our reasons.  It can be good to do  because it’s the right things to do; it can be good to do because it’s just plain good business.  We can do good because that’s what we do.  But for us, those reasons are not our reasons.

What we do as a church, how we live as individual believers, how we understand our world, grows out of our beliefs that God has made this world, that we have been set here to create, sustain and share a world built on principles of love, justice, mercy and generosity.

Our faith drives our life together.  Our “why” matters.  

But – we in the UCC have a love/hate relationship with the idea of talking about what we believe and why we believe it.  As the ad on the bulletin cover says, “Dogma?  We Don’t Do Dogma”.  and that’s true.  Our church family believes in testimonies of faith, not tests of faith.  We tiptoe backwards away from any conversation that looks like it’s going to say, dogmatically, that this is the right way to be, or the right thing to believe.

So, talking about our why is hard for us.  

We don’t want to have tests of faith, for sure.  But we do want to understand that there’s something there, that it’s worth the conversation, and sometimes even the argument, to talk together about our beliefs.  Today’s lessons will help us see how and why this conversation can enrich our lives even when we will not end up with one right answer to everything.

Our Scripture lesson for today tells us a story of a return from exile…. just to set the context… there had been a war, and the leaders of the Jewish kingdom had been forced into exile; over time many of them became important officials in the Persian kingdom.  Maybe a hundred years later, their descendants began to realize that Jerusalem, their ancestral home, was in tough shape, and Nehemiah has been given the responsibility of going back to Jerusalem, rebuilding the walls, and re-establishing a strong and healthy community in the city.

When the Hebrew leaders came back from exile into Jerusalem, they found the city populated by folks who had been left behind.  The current inhabitants had stories about their faith, but the stories, much like telephone tag, had been mis-told, misunderstood, and not really followed… 

And so, as our lesson begins, Nehemiah has gathered all the people at the Water Gate.  Then he began to have the Torah read to the people.  Right up until this moment, they had not known why they were doing anything….  But as the Torah was read, and explained, there was great joy in their new understanding.    It was essential for the renewal of their community that they know and understand their ‘why’.

We often avoid talking about our “why” because we’re so afraid we’ll fight.  So many of us have come to the United Church from other churches because, in those places, all they did was fight about beliefs, or because it was set up that if you couldn’t say yes to every proposition, you were thrown out the door.  

One of my theology professors, Gabriel Fackre, used to say that while there was one Christian path, it was wide, more like those wagon train trails with lots of alternative paths than like a one-right-road interstate.  Gabe said what was important was that we were all headed in the same direction, not that we were all on one right path.  And so he thought it was absolutely essential that we engage in conversation about where we were going and “why” so that each of us would understand our relationship with others and how we were travelling together.

It matters what we believe.  It matters what our “why” is.

Howard’s been reminding us about the many places where the United Church is engaged in mission by inviting our prayers each week for folks serving in faraway places.  But you may not have realized that our missions are one place where our “why” makes an enormous difference.

Some religious groups understand mission to be the act of reaching out to non-adherents of their group and engaging in activities focused on converting those people to their beliefs, establishing new religious groups, and so on.  We used to do missions that way; that’s why we went to Hawaii – to bring Christianity, bring salvation to a people who we understood needed that blessing.

But over the years, our “why” began to change.  Maybe it was that Congregationalist minister, Charles Sheldon, who wrote In His Steps and invited us to ask, what would Jesus do?, but however it came, our “why” began to be, because Jesus wanted all people to live in safety, to have enough to eat, to be openly and freely who God made them to be.  

We talked about it; we argued, we shared ideas, and our “why” became clearer and clearer.  Today, we understand that we do what we do because we are called by God to help create the world God wanted…. a world of  justice and mercy, a world where it matters why they’re hungry or broke, or abused or hated.  Then what happens to them matters, too.  

And yes, we’ll argue about the details, because this stuff matters.  You drink Pepsi, I drink iced tea, unsweetened – why on earth would we bother to argue about it?  But when stuff really matters, when it comes to how we understand and use power, or why people do bad things – well, those are important questions.  and important questions need serious, heavy duty discussion, and sometimes arguments.  Reuben Sheares, who was a leader of the UCC when I was first ordained used to say that he thought disagreement was essential for us, and would lead us to the realization that we’re different folks and that we could both be right and both be wrong at one and the same time.  Conversation, discussion, argument, all led to deeper understanding.  You can read more of what Reuben wrote in the essay in today’s bulletin.

Our “why” matters.

It’s worth talking about.

We may get into arguments, because this is important.

We need to dare to do it, to talk about hard things.

Because our “why” matters.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Is Our Life Together Built on Law or Love?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on January 16, 2022

When the United Church (of Christ) developed its Constitution and Bylaws on the “Basis of Union” principles it did in fact develop a principle of order new in the American scene of denominationally organized church life, based on principles of reformed ecclesiology.  The new element was a covenanted relationship of autonomous units of church life – a relationship delineated but not regulated by a Constitution and Bylaws.
Louis Gunnemann: The Shaping of the United Church of Christ, p. 15,

found in the essay, “The Quest for an Apt Metaphor” by Reuben Sheares II; undated

I Corinthians 12:   Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. 

I Corinthians 12:   Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.  You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. 

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

Worship Jan 16, 2022 All permissions on file in the church office.

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.

It was a few years ago, the day that John Dorhauer, who is president of the United Church of Christ, our denomination, came to the church I belong to.  He preached and then spent time with us afterwards.  I was sitting at one of the tables in our fellowship hall with a couple of friends.  They asked me, “who is this guy?  What do  you mean, he’s president of the church?” 

Like so many of us, they had joined our church from the Roman Catholic Church, and so I said, “well, he’s kinda like the Pope….”, except he has no power… and they were blown away by the idea that we all referred to him by his first name, and that he had no entourage, but was sitting at the next table, close enough to touch, with other ordinary members of the local church.

In the forty or years I’ve been in the UCC, I’ve never known a president of the denomination who wasn’t known to everyone by their first name.. Bob Moss, Joe Evans, Avery Post… right up through John Dorhauer.  The same is true of Conference Ministers… I’ve known quite a few, and with really rare exceptions, every single one of them was best known to his or her Conference by their first name.

You might think that doesn’t matter, or that it’s just a matter of personal preference.  But it’s more than that.  It is a living out of our belief  in the essential equality of all believers before God.  We don’t bow before the President of the Church; we sit down for a cup of coffee with Paul or Avery or John.  They are people like us, they are believers like us.

As it is with those prominent leaders of the denomination, so it is with us.  Steve is our Moderator, I am your pastor for the time being; we are met with respect, but we are not given that kind of public attention which accompanies Episcopal bishops or the elders of a conservative church.  Because we are all equals.  

We are all equals.  Look again at what Paul said in our Scripture for today: Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Everyone has a gift. Every gift is important.  Everyone is worthy of respect.  We each bring something to the table.  We need every one of those gifts.  The church which constructs itself so that it can only welcome some people, or only hear some ideas, is a church with a severe hearing problem.  It will be too narrowly focused, it’ll suffer from an inflexibility of heart. And before it dies, it’ll hurt many.

No law, no formal structure compels us to be church together; we have willingly agreed to work together, first of all with one another, then with the churches of the Middlesex Association, and then the Southern New England Conference and the United Church of Christ.  

We have willingly agreed t to share our gifts with one another.  When the United Church of Christ was formed, in 1957, our ancestors took that longstanding Protestant belief in the equality of believers and formed a denomination that refused to be organized by laws which mandate actions.  Instead we created a new way of being church, one which put relationships above rules.

This matters.  It matters because it is the foundation upon which God seeks to build a world of peace and justice.  We cannot live, cannot thrive without the joy of working together, as equals, in God’s world. 

This is a particular gift that we bring to our community.  As we live out our belief that everyone has a seat at the table here in our church, we model that everyone has a seat at the table, out in the world. 

This is important because everyone does not share our beliefs, even within the Christian family:  I don’t know that we always understand how radical we Congregationalists are in the way we are church, but here’s an example of a church which lived in a different world:

For the past few weeks, on my drives over here, I’ve been listening to a podcast entitled “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”, a  megachurch in Seattle, Washington.  At one point, Mars Hill had an average weekly attendance of over 12,000 people, at several different locations in the greater Seattle area.  The folks who ran Mars Hill – their pastor, Mark Driscoll, and a board of elders – made all the decisions.  As the church grew and grew, the group of decision-makers shrank until it was basically just the pastor.  Without any constraints on his decisions – and with a basic belief that men were better than women, and pastors better than anyone else – Mark Driscoll grew into the role of a nasty, mean-spirited bully.  Driscoll was fired in 2014.  Organized in 1996, by 2015 the entire church was dissolved, though some members were re-organizing into smaller, more local congregations, none of which was associated with their former pastor.

Mars Hill did not believe that everyone had a seat at the table.  When you got right down to it, they didn’t even really believe that every member of a family had a seat at the table.  Men had seats.  Straight men.  Married men.  Married men with wives who didn’t work.  Married men with well-behaved children.  But not women.  Never women.  And don’t even mention the existence of non-binary, non-conforming, non-hetero people.  They weren’t even in the family, much less leading the congregation.   It took fifteen years for it to fall apart, and if you listen to the podcast, you’ll be horrified, as I was, at the pain their beliefs inflicted on so many people.  Their beliefs that some folks are better than others destroyed lives.

We believe that everyone has a seat at the table, that everyone has a voice in our life together, that everyone deserves respect, that no one is better than another.  We bring that gift to every place we live and work and play.

Our world needs our witness.  Let us share our gifts abundantly.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Choices, Choices

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on January 9, 2022

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” . . . .  Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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

One of the most challenging things about world-changing events is that they are seldom obvious.  Sure, we can look back and see how some event or another changed our lives, but right then?  Not so much.

Maybe we’re so involved in the moment that there’s just no time or space to see how it will change things. . . it’s the first week of college.  You’ve got to move into your dorm room, there’s a roommate to negotiate with, courses to choose, maybe some homesickness to weather. . . but it’s only later, when you think about that elective you chose because you heard it was easy, and how it changed what you intended to study, and led you to be a chemist instead of a social worker. . . that you realize that first week of college changed your world.

So, here we are, at the day we remember the Baptism of Jesus, the day we look at choices… how they work, what difference they make.

Christmas is over.  Most of us have taken our trees down, vacuumed up the needles, packed away the decorations, recycled the trash, and begun to put everything back where it belongs. 

If Christmas is all about feasting and decorating, about giving and receiving presents, then yes, it’s over.  But if there’s more to it than that – and we think there is – then really, it’s only just begun.  Because Christmas is when we are first presented with the idea that God has come to be with us.  And this day, the Baptism of Jesus, is when we remember our own choice to follow that baby.  No matter which day we were baptized, this is the anniversary of that baptism.  

Jesus came to bring to all the world a whole new way of being.  The scholars say that’s why John starts his Gospel with the same words that begin the Bible – “in the beginning” and why he ends the story with Resurrection in a Garden, evoking the Garden of Eden.   Jesus took the Jewish understanding of the ethical life, and belief that each of us bears the image of God, and re-presents them in ways which speak powerfully to the pagan world beyond Palestine.  

In the world beyond the lands of the Jews, the Jewish ethic of the value of every life had not penetrated.  Unwanted babies were thrown away, left to die or to be raised as slaves.  There were no organized ways to reach out to the poor, to prevent starvation; the poor, the refugee didn’t matter, and their powerless status served as a sign that the gods did not smile on them.  The idea that God loved everyone, that everyone mattered, was revolutionary.

“In Jesus we receive a love letter written in human (form) from the God who created the vast cosmos in the beginning, continues to sustain the universe even now, and values each and every one of us more than we can possibly imagine.” (David Lose)

When we choose to be baptized, or choose to live in response to our baptism, we choose to work to bring this expansive and inclusive vision of God to all the world.

Because God’s son came to be a human being, being human must be, at its foundation, good.  And if human being are, at their inmost core, good, then they each and all are valuable in our world.

The last time I stopped in the Apple Store at Providence Place Mall, and in the course of making my purchase, I had a long conversation with the Apple guy…. Right now, he sells iPods and watches, computers and gizmos.  But, he told me, he started out working for a big computer company up near Framingham; in fact, the company paid him to get a degree from Providence College and to take computer science courses at University of Rhode Island – then, just before he graduated, they downsized, and his job was gone.  In an instant, he went from being a highly-regarded IT guy with a future, to a sales clerk at Radio Shack.  Now Radio Shack’s gone, and he’s selling computers for Apple.  

I don’t think this is what he thought he’d be doing, or who he’d be, at this point in his life.  It’s just hard to guarantee a future.

Jesus came as a human, born to a poor and insignificant family in the poorest part of the Roman Empire to help us see that it’s not power, or position that matters.  What gives us value, is that God loves each one of us as we are.  God’s love for us doesn’t if that big, flashy job with the great salary goes away.  God loves us no matter who we are or how we earn a living.

When we choose to live into our baptism, when we choose to live according to God’s way, we make it possible for our world to see and experienced that accepting love of God.  We change the equation.  One light, by itself, no matter if it is wielded by Jesus Christ, is not going – by itself – to brighten things up much.  But together, we are a light that burns brightly.

Don’t think you can make a difference?  Don’t short-change yourself.  Each of you changes the world every time you choose to live out God’s love.  

Years ago, I saw a short movie that went like this:  a train’s about to leave the station. At the last possible moment, three college students jump aboard.  As they pile into the train car, they see a Muslim woman, wearing a hijab, sitting alone, and they start to taunt her…. Whatcha wearing there?  Where’dja get those tea towels on your head?  Ya know, here we use towels like that to wash the dishes!  As the taunts continue, the other folks in the car squirm in discomfort, but they do nothing.  And the Muslim woman gets up and leaves the car, with taunts trailing her out the door.

And then the scene changed… the same scenario – the same students, the same Muslim woman, dressed the same way, the same taunts begin . . but this time, the other folks in the car start complaining.  Hey, that’s not funny. . . we don’t do that here. . .and this time, the students stop, try to bluster an explanation, but everyone says, no, we don’t like that, and this time the students get up and leave, shamed by their peers.  

That’s choice in action.  Together, willing and choosing to follow Christ by saying stop when we see something wrong.  

Choosing to live into our baptism, to follow Jesus, doesn’t mean there will be no darkness, no sadness, no failure, no death.  But it does mean we will make a difference.  It does mean we will never be alone on the journey.  

Every day we have choices, but this is the most important one – to choose, once again, to live as Jesus calls us to live, to spend our energy building up our community, to turn away from casual meanness, to do the right even when it is hard.

Every day, we can choose:  

Will you, today, follow Jesus?

Will you turn away from anger?  Will you avoid gossip? take only your fair share?

Will you turn toward good?  Will you hold the door open for the next person?

Will you stand up to our world’s bullies?

Will you come back again next week, to praise God, and renew your faith?

Today, and every day, Choose Christ and live.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

all necessary licensing & permissions are on file in the church office, First Church Middletown CT

Starting All Over Again

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on January 2, 2022

Jeremiah 31:7–9

7For thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
“Save, O Lord, your people,
the remnant of Israel.”
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.

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

Every morning, when I was little, every morning, I got up, went downstairs, and my mother made me breakfast.  Every morning.

It didn’t matter what else was going on.  She made breakfast.  On Christmas Day morning it was a fancy breakfast, but every day there was breakfast…. cereal, toast, fruit, juice….  The milk was fresh, the cereal good, the dishes clean… every morning.

And when I was six, I could not imagine anything else.  She had always done that; she would always do so.

There’s a part of me that’s still astonished that my mother isn’t hiding somewhere in my home, waiting for morning so she can come out and make breakfast.

Well, of course, you know, and I know, that my mother is not hiding in a closet, waiting to come out and fix me breakfast.  But, I suspect we all also secretly wish that would happen… that the day would come again when someone would do their very best to take care of us, provide our every need.  Even those of us who always wanted to “do it myself”, remember the trust that we had, or the hope that we had, that someone, somewhere really cared for us, and that nothing bad could happen.

And of course, bad things did happen.  Even when we were small children, our parents weren’t perfect, sometimes not even close.  Even then, our parents couldn’t protect us against all harm.

Hold that dream in your mind, and compare it to the promise of Jeremiah:  see I am going to bring them from the land of the north…. with weeping they shall come and with consolation I will lead them back…

We all have that hope in our hearts that there exists a place where someone – our mother, God, the CEO of our company – will keep an eye out for us, will make us breakfast every morning.

And we’re all doomed to disappointment.  Because it just isn’t going to happen, not in the way we want.  

The prophets tell us that the Jewish people lived in the hope that when a Davidic king was finally back in charge, that every bad thing would stop, and everyone would be brought back with consolation.

But it didn’t happen that way. It doesn’t happen that way because it was never designed to work that way.

My mother didn’t get up every morning energized by the hope that she’d be able to make my breakfast every day for the rest of my life.  In fact, I dare say she was glad to shoo me off to college where, she hoped, I’d learn to fend for myself.  In much the same way, I do not believe that God intended for us to live in a system of perpetual happiness, with our every want and need supplied.  One of my commentaries says that God never intended Scripture to be a kind of existential lollipop, a kind of sweet and peaceful ease in perpetuity.

In fact, I think the real, substantive, nutritious plan of God is for us to find our joy, not in peace but in the struggle.

And maybe part of the struggle we face is the temptation to live back in that dream of nostalgia.  In September, Ted Koppel did a segment for CBS Sunday Morning (a show I never see), about Mt. Airy NC, where tourist go to get a glimpse of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.   They go out of a yearning, Koppel reported, for a time when neighbors looked out for neighbors, where everyone lived in peace, and a fumble-fingers like Barney Fife could actually be a sheriff’s deputy.  

I really haven’t seen the story, but when I was reading about it in Wednesday’s Washington Post, I was struck by one point.  Koppel pointed out that the Mayberry everyone loved, that we yearned for, really only existed in the minds of the writers in California.  In the real world of that time, we were tortured by Vietnam, rent by the strong emergence of the struggle for civil rights, and disoriented by the changes of the sexual revolution.  But in the Mayberry on our tv, everyone was good, and kind.  Mt. Airy, Koppel reported, was filled with tourists, looking for a “real” Mayberry.

I’m going to suggest that we can travel far and wide looking for that place where we’re safe and cared for – we can even go to Mt. Airy, or Disney World – but the reality of our life is that the best place to be isn’t a place, so much as it is a way of living.  You can live in one of the most beautiful places in Connecticut – you can even live in Glastonbury – but if the best you can do is get into a literal fight at the School Board meeting – well, it’s not going to profit you one little bit.  That is not what God put us here for.

Forget the fight in Glastonbury.  What about the passengers who rise up out of their seats on the airlines and punch the flight attendants in the nose? And what about the famous politician who, just before Christmas, told a crowd of folks that it was a waste of time to “turn the other cheek”?  

How are we to live, in this world?  In this time?  Do we worry and wish for that world where everything goes well?  The one where our privilege kept us safe?  Here we are in a world where everyone is angry, where it doesn’t even feel safe to go to the grocery – again!  What happened?  How can we make this world worthwhile?  

God put us here to build community.  God put us here to be ambassadors of love.

God put us here to tell the truth.  Tell it with tact, tell it with kindness, but tell it true.  It is our calling to help others see the way the habits and customs of the centuries have harmed those on the outside.  It is our calling to help others see the way our world really works.  It is our calling to change those habits – in ourselves, in our community, in all our world.

God put us here to live in a way that makes for peace.  In a world rent by dissention, weakened by mistrust, it is our calling to make things better, by stepping away from anger and distrust.

God put us here to create places where people are welcome, where they feel safe, where all can be known as they are, and loved, as they are.

God put us here to follow Jesus Christ.  Maybe sometimes that’s as comforting as having someone make us breakfast.  Today, it’s so much more.  Today, we are called to change our world.

Amen.

© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Make It All Make Sense!

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on December 19, 2021

Luke 1:39–45 (46–55)

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 

Back in the dark ages of time, before I went to seminary, I occasionally ate dinner with friends.  One time, her parents were there visiting, and after dinner, we were invited to play cards.  It was a new game to me, and I wasn’t sure about it but we started and we were having a great time – I was doing well, and thought I was winning – but then my friend’s dad said, no you can’t play that card… and the rules turned upside down.  So I followed the new rule, and began to get ahead – and then the rules changed again.  Thoughout the game, the rules changed erratically, and always in favor of my friend’s dad. I never did feel as though I understood what we were doing.  I lost, of course.

It was, in my mind, utter chaos.  I still don’t know if the rules were that complicated, I was that slow in picking them up or the dad was cheating.  I’ve never played it again.  But the chaos of that game was utterly disorienting, and took the fun out of the evening.

You know what I mean? 

Just as we think we know the rules, just as soon as we begin to get our balance again, it seems as though something changes with COVID and we’re turned topsy-turvy, what seemed so sure, even safe, no longer sure… and right around Christmas, too… a time when we count on doing what we’ve always done, a time when the stability of the usual means so much, and it seems so broken.

I think that this year, this COVID, has thrown us right back to something about our faith that we don’t often see.  It’s thrown us back to a truth we’d rather hide.  Chaos is part and parcel of our world.  

Chaos is part and parcel of our reality.  We try to hide the chaos, we’re frustrated and embarrassed when it shows up, but it is there.  Much of the time we try to control that chaos – we make laws, we have customs and habits – and hopes and dreams – but chaos is always right out there on the edge of life.  And this year, it’s closer than ever.

That’s bad.  But it’s also good, in a weird way.  It’s good because it helps us see more clearly than in decades just what good it is that faith brings to us.

Into a world with its own version of cataclysmic chaos came a baby.  Jesus didn’t magically “make it all right,” as much as we might wish that were so.  What he did, and continues to do today, is that he helps us see and live out a way which takes the energy of chaos and helps us use it to form lives of meaning and purpose.

Mary touched chaos with the visitation of the angel, and her immediate thought was to go see her cousin Elizabeth, who had likewise been touched.  The two pregnant women, pregnant under the strangest of circumstances, embraced and in their conversation found a way out of chaos.  Mary proclaims that way in the words known as the Magnificat:

“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.” 

Those words are a declaration that in the midst of a random world, there is justice.  In the midst of an uncaring world, there is love.  In the midst of everything that can go wrong, there is still meaning and purpose to our lives.

We are made to live out God’s spirit.  The true counter to chaos is not a new and better COVID protocol, as much as I’d love to see that.  It’s not even a perfect vaccination, and everyone in the world signing right up, as much as we’d all like to see that.  The true counter to chaos is a Christmas dinner, open to all, served to anyone, welcoming the poor and the rich.  The true counter to chaos is a bell choir, started this fall, and already producing music which lifts our hearts.  The true counter to chaos is Heather Kennedy and her many colleagues who care for us when we are ill with a compassion which goes beyond the minimum required.  The true counter to chaos is love.

When I was in seminary, I had a number of classmates who were Presbyterians – there was a friendly rivalry among us… we’d tease them about their need to “go by the book” and they’d give it right back about the truth that we had no book.. we were the Un-tied Church of Christ.  But under that friendly rivalry, was a truth that we can all hold onto.  God has called  us to create order out of chaos, to live (in the old Presbyterian way) decently, and in order.  This is the gift of the babe of Bethlehem…. meaning, purpose, order, justice, mercy and love.

Amen.

permission has been obtained through CCLI for all music.

© 2021, Virginia H. Child

Here Comes the Hard Part

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

Scripture: Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” 

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

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.

Here we are at the third week of Advent, closer and closer to Christmas, to the birth of Jesus, and instead of a story about Jesus, we get a story about his cousin John, whom some scholars believe was also Jesus’ major rival.

What’s more, this is one of those stories that bigots over the centuries have turned into anti-Semitic propaganda.

What’s up with that?  Why this story?  Why here, and what does this story mean for us today?  

Our reading takes place in a particular place, at a particular time, and it’s helpful to understand that.  The Israelites of that day, lived in an occupied country.  They were used to what that meant; in the Middle East of that time, their land was the main highway between the Egyptians and the Persians, the two main powers of their world.  If you know European history, it’s something like the situation of Alsace and Lorraine in the decades of war between France and Germany, or something like Catalunya or the Basque country in Spain.  In other words, not only did they not have much control over their land, but they were always in danger of just plain disappearing, being assimilated into the dominant culture.

Along with the cultural questions, the religious leaders of the time were expected to help keep the peace in the occupation of the land by the Romans, and the government of the many and various, but equally slimy Herods, not one of whom was worth a red cent.  The poorer you were, the less power you had, the less you trusted the Herods, and the less you thought of the heads of the Temple in Jerusalem, who couldn’t win for losing.  

If they stood up for the am-haaretz, the poor of their country, the Herod of the day, or the Roman governor would smash them down.  

If they supported the Romans, they ran the risk of rebellion.  

Into that context stood John the Baptist, trying to call folks to repentance, naming names, and getting into trouble.    

There’s one level on which this is a story about the conflict between taking care of  yourself and doing the right things.  It’s a story about people who, bereft of effective leaders, begin to take things easy.  It’s a story about the foundations belief in Judaism that right believe is shown by right behavior.  Yes, it’s a story about specific people in a specific time, but it is not just about them, and then.  It is a story which applies to here, and now, and to every time and place where we are tempted to substitute saying the right things to living in the right way.

John says that some folks have been defending their wrong actions by claiming that they don’t have to worry, that they “have Abraham as their ancestor”… to which he responds, “big deal.  God can make descendants for Abraham by the dozen; you didn’t do anything to make that happen.  If you can’t be bothered to live up to Abraham, you won’t last long.”

You know, it’s not about literally being a descendant of Abraham.  It’s about privilege, the thing that these days, we call “white privilege”.  And around here, sure it’s about being white.  But it’s also the privilege of having been born here, having gone to a better school than others, being smarter, having more resources, or any number of other things that give us a step up in the world.  John’s saying that having been given that step up, we now need to live up to it, and help the world around us.

Then he starts telling how – share what you have with those who don’t have enough.  Do your jobs honestly, don’t cheat, don’t over charge.  This isn’t a place for a long list; he’s simply responding to the jobs the people there have, and pointing out how they could do them more faithfully.  

So, what he’s really saying is that, whatever you have – money, power, influence – use it to make things better.  Be honest, be loving, be just, be merciful.  Live out your faith.  Be who you say you are.

He’s saying that we’re no longer bound by the expectations of our world.  Instead, we are freed to live under the commitments of our faith.  We don’t have to stop with what we think is possible; we are freed to think towards what needs to be done.  It’s not about the limits of possibility or practicality; it’s about the call to build on God’s foundations – what does our world need?  How can we get there?

Today in the Christian Calendar, is Joy Sunday.  that started because Advent had been celebrated as a kind of Lent, no meat, no eggs, no fun… and this Sunday was a day off from that denial.  But today, it’s Joy Sunday, because on this day we see the practical meaning of the idea that we are freed from the sin of living within custom and assumption.  Today, we see how Jesus will show us how to strike off the bonds that prevent sharing, block love, make it too easy to think “me and mine first”.

Today is Joy Sunday because today we see the first signs of our freedom coming, a new and better way to live.  And that is the best thing of all about Christmas.

Amen.

© 2021 Virginia H. Child

Permissions to record/share the music have been obtained through CCLI.