Rising Up Out of Nowhere

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on October 23, 2022

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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

A million years ago, I bought a new car… I was excited – most new car owners are, of course – but I’d been wanting to own a VW for some time and this was the time.  So I took delivery of a brand new VW Beetle and happily drove it around town.  I loved that car.  

Sometimes my new car stalled at traffic lights.  Both my husband and I thought this was because the VW was my first standard transmission car.  Because, after all, the car was brand new, right?  And assuming it was driver-error was the easiest explanation.

Then came the day I was cruising down the interstate through Jacksonville, Florida, and the engine stopped running.  I was fortunate; I was able to get the car off to the side of the road, without being hit (or hitting anyone).  and doubly fortunate; after a few minutes, not even long enough for the engine to cool off, it started right up again, and I continued my trip to my mother’s home without another incident.  My husband and I thought, this time, that I’d gotten some bad gas.  And most of the time, the car drove perfectly.

Now my husband was a mechanic by trade and upbringing.  His dad had been an auto mechanic, and my husband prided himself on his ability to keep our vehicles running.  So when I returned home to Vermont and the car kept stalling out at intersections, even when he was driving, he realized there was a mechanical problem.  He worked on the car, and fixed it.  For a week, or maybe two…. and then one day, it stalled on him as he was driving me to work.  When I came home that evening, we no longer owned the VW.  He’d gone to a dealer and traded it for a Ford.

That VW was a lemon… an unfixable car, unreliable, and really unsafe.  Nothing changed the reality that it might stop at any moment.  But for all the time we owned it, right up to that last morning, we couldn’t see what was right before our eyes.  That car was bad, right from the first day I owned it, and our pre-conceptions kept us from seeing it.

I’m boring you with this long story about my lemon yellow VW (yes, it was what VW calls Texas Gold) because it’s a inside-out version of the same story Jesus tells in the Gospel lesson I read.  Two men went to the Temple to pray.  One of them lived in a land of delusion where he thought that all the things he did made him good and important.  The other saw himself realistically, and knew that no matter how good he tried to be, there were always going to be gaps.

For us, today, this is a story about seeing ourselves truly, about recognizing where we are as we recover from COVID.

Last week, I said that we still matter.  Even in a world where church has lost much of its influence, we still have an essential part to play in our world.  But here’s the thing:  we are called to understand where we are right now. 

We’re coming back from a dread disease which has warped every program we offer.  We’re living in a world where the way we’ve done church for the last 200 years no longer works.  But, in the midst of all that is different, we’re still trying to evaluate ourselves by the standards we’ve always used.

That rich man in Jesus’ story is simply describing himself in the ways he learned really matter.  his terms are useless; he just hasn’t realized it yet.  He doesn’t realize that God isn’t interested in his worldly successes, that to God this sounds like boasting.  

Now, we’re not boasting about the many things we’re doing well, right now.  Instead we’re taking things in the other direction.  We look around and say, oh look, we only have 45 people in church.  We’re failing.  

Oh, look, the search for our new pastor has been going on for a while; why don’t we have that new person right here right now?  

We think that if COVID is over, well, we should be right back to normal.  I’ve had a couple of people come to me in the last year with detailed plans for how we can re-make our church so that it matches the height of our successes maybe forty or fifty years ago.   Yes, I can imagine what this church looked like in 1948, when Ralph Christie was the pastor.  The records say we had 376 men who were members, and a total of 967 members.  I can’t help realizing, you know, that the Congregationalists of 1948 didn’t even want to name that women were members.  There’s no number for attendance, but the yearbook says we had 277 children in church school.  Those were glory days indeed, stalwarts in preserving the traditional stories of their world.

But those days are gone and they’re not coming back.  And that’s good.  In those days, they didn’t count women.  In those days, Black people were not really welcome.  In those days, gay people were really not welcome.  In those days, all the men wore white shirts and ties and worked in the power structures of the community…. and the women of this church wore white gloves and worked in charity, because there were few jobs for them out in the world.  We had numbers and power, and we lived then as we understood the gospel. 

Today we’ve moved from then.  Today we’re really working to live out our belief that everyone counts, even in a world where so many are thought of as disposable people.

Our anxiety makes it challenging to face the future with hope.  Things don’t look the way they did before.  We’re having to change how we present ourselves, and sometimes it just doesn’t feel right or fair.  It’s no wonder the rich guy in the story stuck to what he knew.  It’s just plain hard to admit to ourselves and to God that we’re not the big cheeses in town these days.

We live today in a world where everything, or almost everything, we’ve counted on has turned out to be less solid rock and more like walking on a trampoline.  That’s another reason why it’s so tempting to evaluate our progress today on decades-old standards.  We know what they were and it’s really hard to get it in our hearts that those standards no longer work, that, indeed they may not have worked as well as we thought even back in the salad days of our church.  

When he tells the story, Jesus makes it clear that it’s ok to not be perfect, it’s ok to not know the future.  This is a time for us to look forward with anticipation to ways of being church that best meet the needs of today’s world, not a time to look back to the ways that worked “back then”.

Recently, I read an article which asked: – “which is the best hymn style?” .  And the author ended this way:

So which do I personally prefer, today’s [new music] or the traditional psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? Answer: That’s the wrong question. The question I need to ask myself is more: “What music will best help this church encounter God in a fresh, powerful way, one that moves them to deeper devotion and greater obedience, so that we’re not just hearers of the music but doers of what God tells us through it?”  [https://baptistnews.com/article/yes-i-like-the-old-hymns-too-but-not-the-ones-you-may-think/#.Y1QkEy-B3Ax]

This is our opportunity today.  To step beyond our anxiety about a changing church into our hopes and dreams for the church for today and tomorrow.  God has a plan for this church; it’s our calling, our opportunity to figure out what that will mean for our life together.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

The Hunt’s Mill Bridge is Closed

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

Scripture:  Jeremiah 31:27-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: 
“The parents have eaten sour grapes, 
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” 

But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.  The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. 

Luke 18:1-8  Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

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.

On Friday, July 22, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) [closed] the Hunts Mill Bridge, which carries Pleasant Street (Route 114A) over the Ten Mile River in East Providence. RIDOT will completely replace the bridge and reopen it to traffic by the end of the year.  The bridge carries approximately 11,420 vehicles per day

The bridge is about a mile from my house.  And closing it is a major pain.  Close to 12000 cars go over it every day.  It is a major highway.  And the bridge was in terrible shape; repair/replace. . it just couldn’t be put off any longer. The road is to be closed until the end of the year.

The first couple of weeks were awful.   People didn’t notice the “closed” signs, so when they got up to it and couldn’t cross, they got angry and frustrated, had to back up the street into driveways, turn around and go about a mile out of their way.

We’re all kind, loving, safe drivers in Rhode Island (of course we are), but even the kindest driver isn’t happy about that, or about the detour, and the homeowners in the area were not amused at the number of people turning in their drives.

Now, add to that that the two bridges from East Providence, over the Seekonk River, into Providence are each being worked on – that sometimes traffic on the bridges backs up from one city into the other – and that there is no other way to get into Providence from the east unless you drive five miles north into Pawtucket….

And now you’re right where we all are at this time in our little COVID adventure.  It’s just all too much.  We can, and did, handle one thing – but then there was another, and another, and while we were a teensy bit off balance, more bad stuff, more disorienting stuff, happened.  Like I said, it’s all too much.

This past week I announced that Kortney had COVID – for the second time.  And on Monday, Shari discovered she had it also.  Mind you, the one thing we are sure of is that they didn’t give it to each other.  Shari was on vacation when Kortney got sick.  But because I’d seen Kortney, in the office, on the day she tested positive, I spent the next five days or so worrying that I was going to develop COVID.  It’s all too much.

Doesn’t this feel like the way things have been going?  Terrible things, irrational things, annoying things, dangerous things.  One thing, two things, and another…. and then one day. . , it’s all too much.

It’s not just COVID, tho that’s a major part of things, but also the changes that isolation forced on us.  The isolation of the last two years has been enormously disorienting.  

Now, as we seem to be coming out of things, now that we’re able to begin to claim some good learnings we’ve seen, we are anxiously waiting for our beloved past to re-create itself today.  Thanksgiving… right back the way it was.  School, right back the way it was… and church, right back the way it was. . .

I can’t speak for other areas, but here in church, the two year break has exposed something we had not been able to see so clearly before.  Here, right here, the church we knew before COVID was struggling, and the two years has not solved the problems.

Right here, right amid us, our church world has been changing.

It’s been changing for years, and we ignored it.  It’s been changing for years, and we hoped next year would be different.  Our church school has been slipping away and we’ve expected that the next great curriculum would make a difference.  In 1997, right about 25 years ago, we had over 100 kids in our programs.  We’ve never again had that many children.  Today, I’d we have five kids in the youth program and there is no Sunday school.

The same is true of attendance. Over the last 20 years or so, that’s dropped from 160 to 95, to, right now, about 45-50 here, plus about  20 on line.  

It was easy to say that tomorrow would be better, until COVID gave everyone permission to try not coming at all, and an alarming number of people have decided that getting the kids up and dressed and over here on Sunday mornings is just not worth the hassle.  

It’s all too much, way too much.

Lately I’ve been hearing more and more lines like this:  “when the new pastor comes, we’ll be able to get everything back the way it’s always been”, or someone saying, “we can’t stop that, we’ve always done it”.  

Let me be as clear as can be.  Your new pastor won’t be able to bring back the golden days of yesteryear.  They don’t exist.  What you and your new pastor will be doing is creating the exciting days of the future.  What will church look like?  How will you use this magnificent building?  How will you serve God here in Middletown?

It’s daunting, for sure, but it’s also exciting.  And it’s so deeply worthwhile.  

This isn’t the first time we’ve had to start new.  Our scripture lessons, first the Jeremiah and then the story from Luke, tell us about times when change had come, or when old things didn’t work anymore.  Jeremiah promises his hearers that God is making a new way, giving us a new covenant, promising that there will be a tomorrow and that God will be with us all the way.  

Luke tells a story about an unjust judge, who finally gives in and gives justice only because he’s tired of hearing from that nagging widow.  Now, Luke isn’t saying that God is like the unjust judge, that if we nag God we’ll get what we need.  Luke is saying that if even the unjust can be forced to be just, how much more can we depend on God who loves us.

Sure, in the midst of the exhaustion and disappointment of today, there’s a temptation to say “enough”, I’m outta here, to step away, to drop the work.  But I’m here today to say that we, here in this covenant community, are engaged right now in the most important work in the world.  What we’re doing is so important that it makes all our work worthwhile.  It’s so important that, if we have to leave every old habit behind to make it work again, it will be worth it.  Nothing is more important than our work. 

You see, God has called us to be beacons of light to people, including ourselves, who are discouraged.  You know anyone like that?  

God has called us to offer hope to the hopeless. God has called us to be creators of new ways for us to live, to be church.  Because we’re living in a world that really needs the power of reconciliation.  We’re living in a time when trust is thin on the ground.  What’s been happening to us, has been happening to a lot of other groups – people find it harder and hard to build community.  And yet, when they experience it, experience true community, they love it.  We know how to do this; we know how to build community.  We know how to talk about values, about what’s really important.  And the world needs our conversation, our action

God is with us in this work… has given a promise that we will have strength and vision to see what needs to be done, and the courage to follow that vision.  

This is a blessing… to be freed from the burden of re-creating church for the 1950s, to be empowered to meet the needs of today.  Yes the world has changed.  Yes, COVID has been awful.  But no, we are not lost.  We do not need to stay where we are.  

Let us move forward into the unknown future, trusting in the everlasting love of God.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Are We Asking the Right Questions?

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

Scripture:     Luke 17:5-6 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

A facebook friend posted the other day, celebrating the day, fifteen years ago, when her attempt at suicide failed. there was  a picture, standing in front of her dorm at Rutgers – and when I saw it, my all I was able to focus on, for a moment, was the name of the dorm.  Hey, I thought, I have a cousin with that name.

Talk about missing the point.

And how often doesn’t that happen?

Honestly, it seems to happen most often when we really don’t want to face the more important question.  I, in that moment, didn’t really want to acknowledge the pain my friend had experienced; heaven knows it would be easier to talk about who that person was that the dorm was named after, right?  Thank God I didn’t say it.  Thank God, there was enough time to offer an affirming hand and a blessing that she was with us.

The disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith.  He basically told them they were asking the wrong question…. if they had any faith, even as little as a mustard seed – which just isn’t very much – they could change the world.  They had already all the power they needed, but they were asking the wrong questions – they wanted Jesus to do the magic trick and give them power without their having worked for it.  

We’re in one of those in-between times, liminal times, when the questions we used to ask no longer work, because the assumptions.  You could say that in this story Jesus is telling us that those old stories, those old questions, no longer work, that we need to put in the time to ask if the basic are still basic.

Look at it this way – three years ago, every meeting was in person – then came COVID, and we were forced to do everything on line… and now, we can not go back.  We can’t pretend that it’s not possible to meet online.  We have to factor in that new capacity when we think about the future.  Now, that’s pretty easy for something like online meetings because what they offer  is so clear.

But the ability to have online meetings is not the only change in our world, and it’s really not even the most important change.  Church itself has changed.  the world has changed.  

Back along, church had a honored place in our world.  Everyone belonged to a church, even if they didn’t believe in God.  Being a church member was a sign of respectability.  Church was a place to make friends in the community, a place to bring your children for moral training.  

In 1974, my home church in Vermont, averaged about 400 in church every Sunday; it was about the physical size of this building.  We had between 1000 and 1100 members – one in every 20 people in the city of Rutland attended our church.  When our pastor spoke out on issues, it was front page news in the Rutland Herald.  In our membership, we had a United States Senator, a member of the state supreme court (who later was a US representative), all the Protestant judges in town, and most of the Protestant lawyers.  We also had a faithful population of homeless people who were there every Sunday.  Our choir had forty members.  We were by every standard, a faithful, faith-filled, successful church.  Even as recently as 1997, that church had over 1000 members.  

Today, not so much.  Despite having completely leadership and a fully established presence in the community, today that church has 386 members.  Instead of the over 400 in church on Sunday, last year they averaged 96.  

Does it sound familiar?  It should.  It’s not just the story of Grace Church in Rutland, Vermont.  It’s the story of this church, of South Church, of almost every church I know.  If a church wasn’t healthy, or if they had a nasty problem of some sort, the numbers might go down.

There are, of course, some churches which are maintaining their membership.  Asylum Hill and Immanuel Churches, in Hartford, are doing well. So has the Old South Church in Boston, and here’s what they each are doing in their very different ways.  They are not asking yesterday’s questions any more.  They do not expect Jesus to do a magic trick and bring back 1990.  They are not saying “let’s just wait a little longer and see if the old days come back.”

Here’s the challenge they lay before us – because, never doubt, there is a challenge here.  It is possible to thrive in today’s world.   

But in order for that to happen, let’s think creatively about what our tomorrow will look like.  What are the hard things for people today?  Can we help people deal with life as they find it today?  What do we have to offer now?

We are enormously gifted.  We have money to back up our yearly giving. We have a building which offers us many options.  And we have a community of people who know how to solve problems, know how to ask good questions, know – and this is most important – know how to build community.  

The disciples asked Jesus to do the work for them, to give them pre-packaged, one-size fits all answers to their questions.  That won’t work today.  

At the beginning, I talked about the way we can miss the point, by choosing the easy, the painless, way.  The way I’m suggesting for us is harder, but infinitely more rewarding

Today, let’s ask Jesus for vision for curiosity, for courage and perseverance.  

Because God has a future for this church.  

It’s out there waiting for us to look forward into the future.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Sometimes, It Really Is Too Late

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on September 25, 2022

1 Timothy 6:6-10   . . .  there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. 

Luke 16:19-31  “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” 

“To those watching the livestream at home or listening to our podcast, please be sure to like our page and subscribe so that you can be reminded to join us again in the future.” 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.

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.

How late is too late?

The story tells us that the rich guy, the man who had had everything, died.  He was really dead, dead as old Marley, dead as a doornail.

And he’d gone to Hades.  This is, by the way, one of the places we learn that for the ancient Jews, heat is really bad – and so they describe Hell as hot.  

This was a well-deserved destination.  The rich guy, whose name is traditionally Dives, was one of those folks who never did a good deed today that he could put off until “next time”.  He was one of those guy who’d say, “God won’t mind if I skip this year, because I can always confess and God has to forgive me”.  Dives was a procrastinator when it came to doing good.

In this story one of the most obvious things Dives did was to ignore the poor people who were right outside his front door.

You’ll remember that in first century Israel there  were no retirement benefits, so Social Security.  The way poor people survived, to the extent that the system worked, depended on the generosity of those who were wealthy.  Generosity was a religious obligation.  If you had more that enough, if you had only “enough”, you were expected to share.

Dives didn’t share, didn’t help.  

And then they died, both of them.  Lazarus, the poor guy, went to heaven, but Dives, well, he went to the hot place.  Once there, he got thirsty, and asked Abraham. to ask Lazarus to come down to Hell and bring him a glass of water.  Abraham points out that there’s no cross-traffic with the good place, and Dives then begs him to send Lazarus out to warn his brothers so that they will learn better.  And Abraham says they’ve had plenty of time and plenty of opportunities to learn.  And Lazarus isn’t going to save anyone.  They’ve had their chance, and they’ve blown it.

There’s no time in this story when Dives “gets it”  

Sometimes, it really is too late.  

Here’s the thing.  As we follow the Christian path, we see popping up before us, all along our way, good solid reminders of our path.  Just like Dives and his brothers, we have the testimony of the Bible, the stories of Jesus, the memories of those who’ve gone before us, to help us see the choices we need to make.

And yes, we can always put things off until tomorrow.  We don’t need to do anything today.  BUT, today’s opportunities will never return.  And someday, on a day we most likely didn’t expect, there will be no more opportunities to do good.  I dare say the rich guy, Dives, thought he had all the time in the world to do good, if it ever seemed prudent and appropriate.  And, the story tells us, even after he’d died, he kept on demanding that others serve him.  Talk about not getting the message.

So, let’s be clear.  If we stiff our waitress today, we will never have another chance.  We might be able to be kind to her on another visit, but this visit is a one-time, non-repeatable opportunity.

It’s been said that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once said:

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

So, it turns out it’s not an important thought because Wesley said it, because he probably didn’t, but it’s important because it so clearly says what living the Christian way is about.  

It’s about now, 

it’s about serving now, 

it’s about loving everyone, where they are, as they are.

If we snarl at someone, if we turn our backs on another – those are times we cannot make up, not easily, and often, not at all.  If we step back from standing up for someone who’s being oppressed, if we say something that came out wrong and we don’t move to correct it, or at least look mortally shamed, we’ve lost an opportunity.  

That happens, of course.  It’s part of life.  We’re rushed, we’re upset ourselves, we’re afraid of the repercussions, whatever, there are days when doing good is just stinking hard.  But God gives us the vision, the strength we have so that we don’t have to live in our worst places.  God gives us what we need to live in our braver spaces, the place where we can look beyond our own troubles to help others, the times when we can say “no” to nastiness.  The real problem is not that, from time to time, we mess up.  The real problem is that we forget to use the strength we have to do good, or we forget that God’s forgiveness gives us new opportunities.

Do good, now.  Stand up for the oppressed, now.  Love our neighbors, today.  Serve God, right this minute and all the days to come.


© 2022, Virginia H Child

It’s the Little Things that Matter

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on September 18, 2022


Luke 16:1:13  …..“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. . .  .

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 three years pastors all over the world shudder to realize that we’re back to this very very strange story about the cheating manager.  It’s not that there is a cheating manager… people cheat, we know that.   What’s strange is how it seems that Jesus approves of his actions…. and that is strange, because it’s really hard to see any part of the way of Jesus here.

Let me pause and give you a little scholarly background… because I think we can all agree, something’s not quite all there about this reading.  The scholars tell us that this section (the technical word is pericope)  is kind of a mishmash.  Even the greatest scholars of the Bible don’t really understand all about this pericope.  Personally, I think that Luke was getting tired; it was the end of the week, and so he didn’t really think through everything, and assumes things that we just don’t know.  But it does seem clear that he’s trying to tell us that Jesu thinks that wealth burdens the wealthy.  The cheating steward works to use his master’s money, for instance, to put others under obligation to him…. in other words, getting this new money puts people into debt, moral debt, ethical debt… but it’s not a free gift.  In fact, it’s a bribe, intended to purchase their support in the future.

This story is trying to help us understand that wealth weighs us down, that the attempts to protect our wealth cause us to do things, to behave in ways that are more self- protective than community-protective.  God offers us a kind of wealth that can’t be bought, can’t be sold, and isn’t any part of the corruption of possessions.

It’s a big concept, but it’s worked out in so many little ways. 

I’ve come to understand that these strange stories are here in the Bible to push us to think about our faith in ways we might not if all the stories were as clear as the one about the Good Samaritan.  Everyone gets the point of that story right away.  But this one… oh, this story begins with frustration and makes us really think.

Jesus said, there once was a man who had a manager who was doing a terrible job, losing money hand over fist.  The boss decided to fire the manager, who, learning he was about to lose his job, ramped up the teaching and, started settling his employer’s accounts receivable at a discount, taking a hefty bribe each time.  His boss praised him… and it looks like Jesus admires him too.

But then comes the stinger.  Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. . .   Look again at that dishonest manager… he was at least consistent, unfaithful in every act… it seems to me that the first thing Jesus suggests here is that we not be surprised if someone who’s mean to the unimportant is also mean to the more important, even if they take caution to do it behind their back.  There’s more here, but that’s enough for today.  Little things matter.

Maya Angelou, the author and poet, wrote: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time. Remember this because it will happen many times in your life. When people show you who they are the first time believe them. Not the 29th. time. When a man doesn’t call you back the first time, when you are mistreated the first time, when someone shows you lack of integrity or dishonesty the first time, know that this will be followed many many other times, that will some point in life come back to haunt or hurt you. Live your life in truth. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. You will survive anything if you live your life from the point of view of truth.”

Little things matter. 

Little things matter all out of proportion to their size or visibility.  I don’t know how many times in the last week, in reading a news story or watching tv coverage of the ceremonies around the death of Queen Elizabeth, people have mentioned some little thing that this very important woman did, some little thing that gave value to the other person’s life.  “She handed around the sandwiches, like she thought I was important,” one woman noted.  It was a little thing, and it gave great value.

Little things matter.

Every once in a while, someone does something spectacular.  Just a few days ago, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, along with his family, gave his company away to a trust.  Future profits will be dedicated to combat climate change.  Now that’s a spectacular act.   The lesson for us in today’s reading is that we don’t need to be Yvon Chouinard, we don’t need to be able to give away billions.  Yes, those big “gives” are spectacular, and we’d love to see more of them, but really they’re not representative of real life.  

In real life, it’s the little things that matter. 

Every year at Christmas, Julie Hurlburt has masterminded a sit-down Christmas Dinner for 300 or so people.  That looks like a big endeavor, and we’re understandably intimidated by the idea of doing it this year without Julie – you’ll remember she said she wanted to retire last January – but we’re going to do it.  One of the ways we’ll make it work is that we’re not going to ask any one person to do all that Julie did. While some of the jobs are big ones (we need someone to be the overall manager, for instance), we’re also going to need dishwashers and food servers, shoppers and cookie makers.  Everyone’s small contributions will add up to a joyous meal for 300-400 people on Christmas Day.  It’s going to be a project where every contribution will make a difference.  And it will be one of those times when little things will matter, a lot.

Little things matter.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

The Lens that Transforms

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on September 11, 2022

1 Timothy 1:12-17      I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. 

Luke 15:1-10  Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

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

There’s a whole lot of backstory to these readings about tax collectors and sinners, especially sinners… The first thing is that for far too many times, all this talk about sin is used like a stick to beat us with.  And the definitions of sin kinda end up being limited to specific acts, like it’s a sin to steal, or whatever.  It’s all the more powerful because, looked at from a very narrow angle, it’s all true.  Stealing is bad, and bad things are sins (or sins are bad things), but that’s just the narrowest, and I think, most dangerous way to think about or talk about or do something about sin.  But, at its worst, and strongest in our memories, are those memories of going to Confession or having a parent lay down the law, or going to the principal’s office – being told off for whatever.

That backstory makes it a lot harder to hear what this is really about.  You see, sin is, at its root, nothing more or less than being separated from God.  Sure, you might see the results in some mean act or another, but sin sin is more about the why than the what.

Years ago, when I was the pastor in Putnam, up in the northeast, the Quiet Corner, of Connecticut, we learned that some of the folks who used our food pantry also visited other pantries up and down I 395, getting groceries at each place, and then selling those groceries from the front room of their apartment in the town’s low-income housing.  This led to a really thought-provoking conversation because some of us wanted to bar those who were “cheating” from our food pantry while others didn’t.  Yes, for sure the folks who were selling “our” food were cheating, but why was their model working?  Wouldn’t the folks at the housing authority have preferred to go to the grocery store?  

Well, maybe.  But when we looked more closely at the problem, we realized the housing had been built in a beautiful part of town for sure, but a part that was a half hour walk from the Price Chopper… a half an hour walk down a steep hill, which meant a little more than half an hour up that hill, with groceries.  Maybe not so do-able with a toddler?  Certainly not doable if you were of an age to have walking problems.  And there was no public transportation in town.  We decided that our frequent flyer at the food pantries was really offering a public service, and extending our ministry to a place we had no way to reach… 

Who sinned in this case?  The folks who were taking that food and re-selling it?  Or the planners who never thought about how dirt poor people would get to necessary services? Or someone else?

You see, vision is an essential element in understanding what sin really is… so, let’s spend some time thinking about vision, what warps it, and how we can learn to see more clearly.  This is no blame game; it’s an opportunity to sharpen our eyes.

You’d think it should be easy to know right from wrong, but it turns out that clear moral vision is more rare than perfect physical eyesight.  It is as if our moral senses can be affected in much the same way our eyesight can be… by things that keep us from seeing clearly, by experiences which cloud our vision, by accidents that “scar” us and make it harder to see rightly.

Cataracts happen when something clouds the lens of our eyes.  For us, thinking about our moral vision, that’d be something like aspects of our privilege, our experiences.  If you’ve had a cataract, you know how sneaky they are… it takes a while for them to affect your vision and even longer for you to realize how bad things have gotten.  That’s the way it is with our own experiences, and how they can limit us.   

Tim Cotton writes of a recent visit to his downeast Maine camp:  …while my guests were here, they borrowed a kayak and a canoe to cruise around.  When they returned the craft, I assumed that the canoe would have been overturned on the beach because that’s how you leave a canoe on a beach in an area where you get significant rain that sometimes comes out of nowhere. Not because of concerns about water getting in the boat but because it’s easier to flip it back over than to flip it over twice. Once to empty it, and once to right it for a paddle up-lake. There is also less chance for a canoe to float away if left on the shore hull-side up.  But the guests were Texans. . . and I recalled that it rarely rains in Texas, and right side up would be appropriate in most all situations in that fine state. . . . We always think that our way is the best, which is just not the case. Each of us navigates life with values instilled in us by the people, places, and experiences we come from. We carry that forever. 

I think it’s natural for each of us to assume, absent any other input, that our experiences are everyone’s experiences.  And that’s the foundational false assumption that leads us toward a “cataract” about our privilege, our special knowledge, a blindness to the ways our experiences and resources have influenced our ways of success or failure.

Moral “cataracts” form like scar tissue where we’ve found ourselves

As human beings, our vision, our understanding, even of our own lives, is limited by so many facts, as if they were glaucoma or cataracts or macular degeneration.  Christ calls us to do for our souls what an ophthalmologist can do for our eyes… and, in giving us a vision of what our world is supposed to look like, helps us get beyond those constricting experiences of our own lives.  

The first step towards good spiritual vision is recognizing that we’re not seeing clearly.  You might think that of course we know when we aren’t seeing right, but that’s not so.  I remember getting my first pair of glasses when I was in sixth grade.  While I knew I was having trouble reading the blackboard, I never realized that my vision was the reason all my lines were slanted… when I put the glasses on, with the correction for fuzzy vision AND astigmatism, I was astounded.  In fact the entire world then looked slanted to me, while my eyes and brain adjusted to the new input.    

Something of the same – no, that can’t be right feeling – can happen when we first realize the extent to which our life experiences have blinded us to the experiences of others.  We think, ‘no, I got through college with little or no debt; I worked hard, had two jobs, so you can do it too’….. our experience of survival  can make it harder for us to realize how the costs of education have risen…  Or we think, “I have no privilege, I got no special help” without understanding, for instance,  that not everyone expects their children to get an education, that some, in fact, don’t want their children to get that excellent education.  Someone likely enrolled at Wesleyan this fall despite pressure from family and friends to stay home and go to the local community college – all to keep them from being lured away from home and family and community.

Our Bible, our stories of Jesus, our history of welcoming the other, of standing up for the rights of the oppressed, of asking the difficult questions and then making the hard decisions, all are something like lenses through which we are able to see life as it was meant to be.  

What God asks of us, when it comes to sin, is to open our eyes to the discontinuities between God’s vision for this world and the realities in which we live.  

We participate in that sin when we wilfully close our eyes to the pain of our world; we participate it when we act without considering the effects of our choices, or when we act knowing that what we do will hurt people and we’re going to do it anyway.  

We renounce our participation in the world’s sin when we take the time to open our eyes to the world, when we reach beyond the blocks of our individual experiences to reform our lives, and rebuild our expectations, to move beyond our limitations into that vision which God holds before us.  And when we turn to do that, then it is as if we, too, have been found and carried on the shepherd’s shoulder, returned to our true home.  Not condemned.  Loved.  Loved and welcomed home.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

You Spent How Much for Bread?

Permissions on file at First Church Middletown CT office

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on September 4, 2022

Scripture:      Luke 24:28-35 — As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

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.

$4.99 for bread when you could have gone to the factory store and gotten a cheaper loaf for 1.99.

$4.99 for bread when you could have gone to the factory store and gotten a cheaper loaf for 1.99.

The deacon was excoriating her pastor for wasting the church’s money.  The pastor should have gone to the factory store and gotten it on sale – their cheapest loaf that week was $1.99.  You know that loaf – the bread is white and puffy, flavorless and less than 24 hours from total staleness. Instead the pastor had gone to a bakery and gotten a loaf of something dark, like rye or pumpernickel, sturdy, tasty and nutritious.

I’ve got to say, this is something I’ve never experienced… getting chewed out by the deacons for purchasing expensive bread… and – never having heard it before – it really hit me.  

It’s not that I’ve not heard concerns about the expense of communion supplies, though usually it’s around the grape juice.  The thing about grape juice is that mostly, we can’t use a whole bottle on Communion Sunday, no one likes it enough to take the bottle home, and it doesn’t keep for a month.  It doesn’t ferment either…. it just gets undrinkable.  Well, we’re Yankees; the whole idea of a new bottle of grape juice every month can make us grumpy. 

But this complaint wasn’t a Yankee whine about wasting the rest of the bread.  The leftover bread cubes had an ultimate destination – depending on which deacon took it home.  One deacon made bread pudding; another made croutons – in fact, you could say there was a quiet contest among the deacons to come up with the most interesting way to use the bread. 

The complaint was one that said the bread the pastor bought was too fancy for the occasion.  Think about that.  We’re going to shared bread and cup with Jesus Christ, and the deacon thought the bread was too expensive.  And think about this – the deacon, in the course of the conversation about Communion, about the core, the center act of our worship, tore down her pastor and made that person feel like dirt.  

Communion is the time in our service when we are closest to Christ.  Like those folks along the Emmaus Road, it is in the eating and sharing that we recognize Christ in our midst.  

The story from Luke happens just a day or two after the Resurrection, as two of Jesus’ followers are on their way home.  They’re joined on the journey by a stranger, and in their conversations, the stranger has a way of telling the story that makes sense to them… clicks with their heads, their thought processes.  But it’s not until they sit down to eat, that they realize this is not just some random meaningless connection, but that they’ve been talking with Jesus, that it is Jesus who sits with them… and when that recognition hits them, they beg him to stay… with the begging, he disappears.

Much of our faith is about how we’re to live with others – how to be kind, why it’s essential to work for justice, what it means to be merciful.  But this story, and the others about eating with Jesus, are about a different part of being Christian.  These stories are about where our strength comes from, how it is that we can continue to be kind when others are mean, or hold our tempers when the world yells obscenities at us.  These stories, and especially this one, are about spending time with Jesus.

Now, I’m not talking about the historical Jesus, as if he is literally sitting at our Communion table, probably wearing a t-shirt and sweats.  I don’t know, maybe for me it’s all about getting lost in stuff like what’s he wearing, how long is his beard, who does he look like, what does he look like… that all makes a real physical presence so unlikely and even unwelcome.  All that aside, I believe that Jesus is with us each time we celebrate Communion, and he’s here not so we can admire his hair cut, but so that we can receive some of the strength he gives to all who follow his way.

The Jesus who welcomes us to this table is that person we encounter when we read this story of Emmaus, and imagine ourselves, maybe in one of the rest areas on the New Jersey Turnpike, actually meeting someone at lunch, having a conversation that made our picture of our world shift into focus.  Because when we read about him, when we imagine ourselves in conversation with him, we are carried away to where he is.  

Have you ever had one of those life-changing conversations, maybe over a cup of coffee at a bookstore, or during a baseball game… this is that kind of place and time.  Rachel Held Evans once wrote  The church is not a group of people who believe all the same things; the church is a group of people caught up in the same story, with Jesus at the center.  That’s what I’m talking about…. this isn’t an encounter with a list of things we have to believe, this is a meeting of all different ways to live out the same goal.  This is like, but better than, the lunch I had last week with classmates from our time together at seminary.  We’ve been meeting for lunch two or three times a year ever since our graduations – through marriages and divorces, through children born, adopted, grown and now grandchildren, through various kinds of ministries… and sitting at table with Jesus is even better.

It’s easy to miss all that.  It’s way too easy to think of Communion as just one more thing to do.  It’s too easy to think, this bread’s too expensive, after all it’s not a real meal.  And in this post-COVID time with our little pre-packaged sanitary, gluten-free offerings, it’s even easier to count the cost of the package and worry about money instead of what’s really important.  Isn’t that just like life, though?

How often is it that we focus on what something’s going to cost, when cost isn’t that important, and lose sight of what it’s supposed to bring.  How often do we find ourselves worrying about being like everyone else, when the real goal of our lives is to be like Jesus?  How often do we worry about the right clothes, or the right car, or the right kind of grass in our lawn, when what’s really important is how welcoming our home is, or being the person who reaches out to the lonely, or sends cards to the sick.

Today, Jesus invites us to this table as a way of helping us re-calibrate our priorities in this new season.  Come to this table today, not to save money or to spend it, but to be with companions.  Come to this table, not to be seen as a Christian, but to live as one.  Come to this table today to eat with Jesus, and to learn to live with love, joy, justice.  Come because here you are welcomed with love everlasting.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

It’s a Dangerous World

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on August 28, 2022

Psalm 27

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? 
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? 
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— 
my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall. 
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; 
though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident. 
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, 
to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. 
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; 
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. 
Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, 
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; 
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! 
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” 
Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me. 
Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. 
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation! 
If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up. 
Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. 
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, 
for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence. 
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; 
wait for 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.

Psalm 27 is a psalm of comfort.  It is a psalm of strength, a psalm of trust.  It’s a psalm that unflinchingly recognizes that bad things happen to good people, that you can lose everything, and yet – in a way, with God, it is impossible to lose God’s presence.  

And it is with that sense of God’s underlying support that we are able to keep moving forward.  This psalm describes for us the source of our daily life’s purpose and strength.

Here’s the thing:  often, I think, we hear stories of folks who seem to have surely known what wanted them to do, and had the courage and focus to stay on that path and something about those stories makes it seem as though those are things that only happen to people who have “special opportunities”.   We who get up and go to work, well that’s not something we have to work on, or worry about.  And that’s wrong.  Faith, courage, strength – they’re all part and parcel of every  Christ-following life.

Look at how often we read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis at the end of World War 2 for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler.  We admire his bravery, but it’s really hard to imagine ourselves in any situation like his.

Or think about the woman in the middle portrait on the bulletin – Lucretia Mott, was a Quaker leader, important in the work for the abolition of slavery, then active in working for the rights of women – all in a time when a woman speaking publicly was unheard of.  A wife and mother of six, in her spare time she helped found Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.  We admire her, but for most of us, doing all those things, being that influential is simply beyond our experience, and – I’m afraid – that perception makes her reliance on God’s support out of our reach as well.

Then there’s my third example.  In many ways, she’s also famous, but famous in a different way.  She never moved in national circles; she lived her whole life in one town, dying where she was born.  Her name is Gertrude Chandler Warner; she’s the author of the original Boxcar Children series for children.  

I never met Miss Warner, though I served the church she attended.  She was devoted to helping her community, her church and her world.  Her life, I believe, is an example for what any of us might do with our lives, whether we’re in Putnam or Middletown.  

Miss Warner started as a first grade teacher in 1918, and taught until 1950.  I met plenty of her students when I lived in Putnam and uniformly they thought she was a wonderful teacher.  When she’d been teaching for maybe ten years, she wrote the first Boxcar book, and then, in the 1940s, re-wrote the story to make it more suitable for early readers.  But the whole of her life, her bravery, is not that people still read her books, though they do.  It is in the way she lived her life, just as bravely as anyone who is famous today, but in a homelier way, a way much closer to how we can live, how we do live, our own lives.

Listening to God, Miss Warner was an active member of the Congregational Church of Putnam, where she taught Sunday school and was the Church Clerk.  She volunteered for the Red Cross and other organizations.  

When, in the early ‘60s, the state of Connecticut sought better ways to help the residents of the dreadful state training schools, Miss Warner helped change the attitudes of people and opened the opportunities for regional centers.  In short, she was doing what any of us might have done if we’d been in that time and place.  Individual, daily, acts of bravery and focus.  Each of those activities took a certain focus, a determination, a sense that there were things to do.  

Psalm 27 is something of a magnifying glass, a reading that helps us see more clearly just what we are, or are not, doing with our lives.  We need focus.  Without focus, we can still do good things, but they’ll not have the effect they might, if we took the time to focus our efforts.

Someone once (probably more than once) asked me how I managed to flunk out of the University of Florida in just three semesters.  I started my first year with high scores on the Florida Placement Exam, admitted to Florida as a special scholar. Three semesters later, I had a 1.0 GPA and a one-way ticket to Parris Island SC to be a Marine.  Why?  Well, that scholar status got me a pass into the stacks of a seven story university library.  

My last semester, I’d go there in the morning and read my way through the stacks, one book after another…. none of which had anything to do with my courses.  I read everything, but with virtually no focus.  I probably learned a lot, but none of it furthered my goal, insofar as I had a goal. I had no focus, no purpose to my reading.

Sometimes it seems as though we’re living our whole lives with the same lack of focus as I had in that library; Psalm 27 is a way of finding the track and staying on it, because it constantly calls us back to God’s hope for us all, that what we do, how we live, will reflect our grounding in a life of love, justice and mercy.

That clarifying focus is everywhere in the Bible – here, it says, is what really matters.  Here, it tells in one story or another, is what happens when you lose your focus.  Here’s a path for you.  Here’s a promise that our failures don’t mean we get kicked off the boat, fired from the team.  God does not forsake.  God helps us keep our focus.

There are hard decisions before us, challenging choices about what we should do, times when we’ll have to risk it all to do the right things, to take the right path.  This psalm assure us that, as we take this seriously, God will be with us, encouraging us to step up and take the courageous step.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on August 21, 2022

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 
 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, 
and before you were born I consecrated you; 
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; 
for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. 
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, 
“Now I have put my words in your mouth. 
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow, 
to build and to plant.” 

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 thinking a lot about truth, about what it is, and how to deal with it.

Now, you might expect that it’s all the stuff in the national news that is making me thing about the nature of truth, and I suppose that’s part of it… seeing how little some people think of truth.

But much of that isn’t really about truth, it’s about facts.  Did President Biden win the election?  Yes, that’s a fact.   Facts are demonstrable, provable, verifiable.  Truth, well, that’s something else altogether.

It seemed to me that today’s reading from Jeremiah is one of those Bible selections that can be read either as about facts or about truths.  I first thought about this in seminary.  You’ll remember that I’ve said I was raised in a Christian denomination considerably more liberal than the UCC, and it never occurred to any of my teachers that the Bible contained anything other than truth.  The idea that it might also contain facts was astonishing to us.  I’m not sure my teachers believed that Jesus was a real person, and I know no one believed that the miracles of Jesus were based in fact.

So, when I was studying Jeremiah at Andover Newton, with one of the world’s experts on Jeremiah, I was doubly astonished to discover there were people who believed that because the words said “before I formed you in the womb” that it was a polemic against abortion, or because the words said, “I am only a boy” that it literally meant Jeremiah was a little kid, maybe an eight-year old?

Doubly astonished because not only was that so unlikely to be factually true, but because for me, those interpretations or explanations meant that you missed the real point of the story.  

So, here’s what I think the story is about at this point.  God is calling Jeremiah to speak truth to the people of Judah in very troubled times.  Think of it this way…. Jeremiah has a job as dangerous as Liz Cheney’s, trying to speak truth to people who not only don’t want to hear, but don’t want him to have the opportunity to speak.  Speaking, in his time, and in his place, was dangerous.  But God was calling him, and so he tried to avoid the truth of the call by saying he wasn’t an adequate choice.  He was trying to fool God into letting him go.  

At the same time, and this is the truth I saw this week, Jeremiah really believes he’s not equipped for the job.  He can’t see the truth of his own abilities, and so he’s ducking, or trying to duck, the call to exercise what he doesn’t really believe exists.  He sees the danger, knows what’s likely to happen, and doesn’t feel up to it.

Who can blame him?  Who here has not, from time to time, found themselves denying a truth because it was too challenging, too frightening?  Friday night I was reading an article about leadership: the author was describing being sent to a basic school, where for the first six weeks, because of his prior experience, he thought he could skate.  One day, he wrote, I realized that the newbies, the students who’d never studied this before, were learning more than me, because they knew how little they knew.  And I thought I knew everything that was important.  His attitude changed that day, and recognizing the truth of his ignorance, he began to get so much more out of the training.  He saw his truth and it re-ordered his life.

Seeing the truth, not allowing facts to mislead, is one of the great skills of the Christian life.  It’s not easy to move from assuming that facts are truth, to understanding that facts are only part of truth, that facts always exist within a specific context, and that context is part and parcel of the meaning of those facts.  

This past week there was a story in the NY Times about a home appraisal in Maryland.  The owners wanted to appraise their home so they could get a loan and they expected, after having put tons of money into it, that the value would have risen considerably.  They’d paid $450,000 for the house, and done $40,000 of improvements, for a total of $490,000.  Homes in their neighborhood had gone up about 42%, so they expected a value closer to maybe $600,000.  But the appraiser said it was only worth $475,000.  In a neighborhood where values had gone up 42%, their home had lost value.

They tried again, made some changes in the interior – changed out photos – and arranged for friends to be there for the appraiser instead of being there themselves.  This time, with no other changes, their home appraised at $750,000.   

Yes, you heard me right.  The first appraiser said the home was worth $475,000.  The second appraiser said it was $750,000.

What was the truth here?  The truth seems to be that the first appraiser met the owners, who are Black.  The second appraiser met the owner’s friends, who are white.  And being white made the house worth almost $300,000 more.

Tell the truth and shame the devil.

It’s truth we need to get behind why the facts are what they are.  Yesterday, I read an article which discussed whether or not going to college is worthwhile – their primary evaluation was whether or not you made more money after going to college than if you had never gone.  No one will be surprised to hear that there’s a wide variance in results.  The top 19 schools are all medical schools, for instance.  After that, there are law schools, and business schools like Babson and Bentley.  The only unexpected high-success school, for me, was Princeton Theological Seminary.  Apparently, Presbyterians pay a lot better than I ever imagined, and Princeton Seminary is a much more financially rewarding place to study than even Princeton University.  Who knew?  

There are almost 4000 schools on the list; things get really interesting when you head to the bottom of the list.  The very bottom is populated by beauty colleges and independent yeshivas, but just above those schools, and the for-profit technical schools, you begin to find schools like the Inter-American University in Puerto Rico, where a former dean of my seminary went, and colleges for the native American community, and then community colleges and historic Black colleges, HBCUs.  They’re all mixed together, and if you only looked at the facts, you’d think that Benedict College was not all that different from the McCann School of business or the Advanced Institute of Hair Design.  Benedict is a small, Black school, in South Carolina.  Many of the kids who go to Benedict come from families where no one has ever gone to college before.  Their prep is abysmal, their challenges daunting.  Once you know the facts of the school’s background, know just who they’re hoping to educate, you realize that the worth of the school cannot be measured by how much money their graduates make.

Truth provides nuance to facts.  Facts are flat, truth is multi-dimensional.  When Jeremiah dug in his feet and tried to argue that he was not qualified, God provided a different view, the view that’s not quantifiable, the idea that some of our options have more social value than others.

Facts can say that we don’t make a difference, but truth says there’s more to what we do in life than facts can ever reflect.  Facts say we are only worthwhile when we can contribute to the community in some quantifiable way… either by working outside the home, or caring for children…. something that might be best described as work.  

A friend who’s living at an over-55 community tells me that she has neighbors who are still canning their vegetables for the winter, even though they live alone and can eat all their meals in the dining room, because without that canning activity, they don’t think their lives have value.  Facts say, unless they’re producing, they don’t matter; truth says that everyone matters, whether they can add to society or not.

Today’s lesson from Jeremiah calls us to a way of life which values truth more than fact, values people more than their usefulness, values love more than anything else.  Let us join Jeremiah in listening for God’s truth in our lives.


© 2022, Virginia H. Child

Baptized into One Body

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on August 14, 2022

Scripture:     I Corinthians 12:12-26 (The Message): Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.

I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.

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.

In Saturday’s New York Times, David Brooks offered an essay about the importance of friendships, and not just friendships, but friendships which cut across class lines… and I thought, “aha, those kinds of friendships that our children make in church, or at church camp!”

Because, you see, children who are part of friendship which cut across the social lines that divide us one from another – those children – do better in life than kids who don’t.  He writes:

One of the most powerful predictors of whether you rise out of poverty is how many of the people you know are well off.

The size of the effect is astounding. Cross-class friendships are a better predictor of upward mobility than school quality, job availability, community cohesion or family structure. If these results are true, then we have largely ignored a powerful way to help people realize the American dream.

Now the essay is focusing on upward mobility, but I don’t think the positive effects of cross-class friendships are limited to just making more money or living.  That’s because cross-class friendships are just one example of the reality we explore in baptism.

Baptism, you see, establishes the ultimate cross-class friendship.  Think again about what Paul describes in our lesson from 1 Corinthians:  Your body has many parts – limbs, organs, cells – but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body.  We are all part of something, something that is incomplete without what we bring to the body.  

Today, right now, we are more complete now that Maeve is part of the body. 

There’s more to this – because, you see, baptism, in its proclamation of radical inclusivity, drives inclusivity in our wider world…. not overnight, but inevitably.  That’s because baptism is a foundational acknowledgement of humanity.

Look at it this way:  we only baptize human beings.  We don’t baptized dogs or cats or cows or sheep.  We baptize humans.  Therefore, anyone we baptize is human.  Baptism is an absolute affirmation of our humanity.

That means that when slaveholders insisted that their slaves must be baptized, they were acknowledging that slaves were human beings – not sub-human, not animals, but people, and people loved by God.  When we said Natives had to be baptized, we were acknowledging their humanity.  I don’t think every slave holder understood what they were doing, but that doesn’t change the truth of the offer.  

Baptism is Christianity’s response to the attacks on any of us who have been told that we are not fully human for whatever reason – women who’ve been told they are second class, trans folks, GLBTQ+ people, Black people, brown people, all POC, folks with intellectual challenges, immigrants, people who don’t dress right, eat right, talk right – it doesn’t matter to God, and it shouldn’t matter any of God’s people.  Because God has recognized that each any every human being matters.  

Once you acknowledge someone’s humanity, you can no longer legitimately deny them the right to live as they are, as who they are.  They are real, as they are; they do not need to change to be human.

This applies to everyone, to the whole world.  You don’t have to be baptized to be recognized as a human being.  It’s not about being baptized, it’s about our unconditional welcome to every human in the world.  It wasn’t baptism that made slaves human, it was God who made everyone human.  Baptism helps us see that truth, and pushes us to make it real in our lives.

Baptism destroys the idea that the church is a club for like-minded people.  And when we live up to our calling, we naturally create cross-class friendships.  When we create those cross-class, cross-race, cross all the dividing lines-relationships, we change ourselves and our world.

It’s not easy, but that’s what we’re here for, that’s why we baptize.  The struggle to change, to recognize the meaning of baptism, is the struggle of our world to grow closer to God’s intention for us, to be a place of peace, justice, love, acceptance, mercy.  

Every time we baptize someone, we stand up for the equality of all humanity.  And every time we seek to live into our baptism, we take part in that difficult, but foundational, struggle.  Maeve doesn’t yet know what’s out there for her, but her parents have promised to teach her, and we have promised to help them, not just here, but standing in for every congregation which takes baptism seriously.

Today we blessed Maeve and her family, and we thank them for reminding us of the power of baptism to make our world better.