A pastor’s work is . . .

I’m part-time at the church I serve; we plan for me to be there on Sundays, half-days on Mondays and Wednesdays, maybe a half-day on a Tuesday, and a full day of writing and planning done at home.  It’s a nice plan, but this was a week where the plan didn’t really work out at all.  And Monday was Memorial Day!

After church on Sunday, I went to visit Ernie and his family at the CCU of our local hospital.  He’d had a bad heart attack… and died on Tuesday evening.  Tuesday afternoon, I attended a planning meeting for an ecumenical Vacation Bible School, and we began talking about an ecumenical service for the 10th anniversary of 9-11.  On Wednesday, I arranged for a substitute to attend a board meeting in my place, visited with Ernie’s family and then attended a meeting of the Search Committee and after that meeting, helped a couple of members find our new web site.  On Thursday I had several conversations with members of another family, planning a memorial service for their mother, for later in the month.  It was late on Friday before I was able to get to studying the texts for Sunday.  Saturday, we had Ernie’s memorial service — a wonderful service for a wonderful man.  In the meantime the guest speaker who was to lead a program on Sunday was interviewing one of our members and studying our historical records.  I finished my sermon about 10pm Saturday night.

Not all weeks are so full.  Usually I get worship planned by Monday, and the sermon mapped out by Wednesday.  But this has been one of those times which happen from time to time in all churches — Ernie’s was the third funeral in about a month and we still have three parishioners in varying places of needing pastoral care.  Taking care of those more urgent needs puts a pastor behind on the more administrative-looking stuff.  Getting everything in, while keeping to a part-time calendar can be a challenge.

Oh, and did I mention the molar which suddenly needed dental attention?  Or the sore shoulder which is resistant to the urging of my physical therapist? Or that dratted trigger finger — both annoying and painful?  Any one is no biggie – but all three at one time?  Well, let’s just say that when you can’t use your left shoulder or your right hand, some things become more challenging!

Through all of this, I’m impressed by the way in which our fellowship extends its love to those in need.  And by their flexibility when the less urgent just doesn’t get done.  That’s one of the great characteristics of the small church, I think.  We’re less likely to be consumed with delusions of perfection.  And I’m grateful for the rest of my life — for the time I get to spend in study and fellowship  with friends from the church where I have my membership, and for the time I spend making music.

God has blessed our church, and God has blessed me.

The Last Full Measure . . .
A sermon preached at the Congregational Christian Church of Somerset MA on May 29, 2011

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.

Today I want to talk about death and dying, about heroes and the rest of us — about the real importance of life and why we remember on Memorial Day.

But to get there, I need to step back a little and put “me” in context. As a child I lived in southeastern Pennsylvania and every day on the school bus we passed a historical marker that proclaimed that the Battle of the Brandywine had been fought there on September 11, 1777. I lived on that battlefield. Our house had been there; my father’s boss’s home was General Howe’s headquarters. The battle was fought in two locations along the Brandywine — first near the Quaker meeting I attended, and second on the grounds of my elementary school in Chadds Ford.

The pews of our Quaker meeting had strange dark stains on the wood and we all believed they were from blood shed when the meeting house served as a hospital for soldiers – British and American – who were wounded in the battle. We thought the blood of the Marquis de Lafayette, who had been wounded and treated there marked the wood. And we knew that not every soldier treated there made it home. There was a mass grave behind the Meeting House for those who died that day.

And when I went to school, we all looked forward to recess because it wasn’t that uncommon for us to find bullets in our playground during elementary school recess, or maybe a uniform button. Our school overlooked the banks of the Brandywine, just above the ford. That battle — and it’s cost — were part of our day to day life.

My first lesson was that war kills.

[for more info on the Battle, go to http://www.ushistory.org/brandywine/thestory.htm and here’s a link to my Friends Meeting: http://www.birminghamfriends.org/%5D

No school child in southeastern Pennsylvania goes without trips to Valley Forge, and even Gettysburg. And it’s not possible to visit Valley Forge — to stand in one of those miserable little huts — and not realize how bitterly cold and unpleasant service there must have been. We heard about he Battle of Trenton, and then drove through Trenton. The history of war in our country was not academic to us; the ground on which war was waged was familiar territory.

Later I served as a recruiter for the US Marines in the commonwealth of Virginia; as I traveled over the state, I kept bumping into the Civil War…. the road sign that said “Welcome to Appomattox” startled me one day; the next I might pass a church in the Shenandoah Valley that still had bullets in its walls.

Now, Virginia is one of our most beautiful states (and I don’t say that just because I was named for the state). Driving its roads was a privilege and pleasure, so you can understand that I was shocked one day to come across a bare and barren section — it looked like the least profitable and most unthrifty land I’d ever seen, just scraggly bushes and thin trees. As I drove down the road I saw a historical marker – “This is the site of the Battle of the Wilderness”. And a wilderness is what it was. Almost 30,000 soldiers, Union and Confederate, died there in three days of fighting in May of 1864. I was told that even today, wanderers on the battlefield come across the skeletal remains of soldiers. The land has never fully recovered. [http://www.civilwar.org/photos/galleries/wilderness/wilderness-battlefield.html]

You can see the same kind of deadness in the land at forts along the trench lines in France, still recovering almost 100 years after the end of World War I.

War kills more than just the people who fight in it.

Now the Civil War was part and parcel of my family’s store of stories, mostly because my grandparents, who were born in the 1880s, knew people who’d fought in the war. Some of those folks lived long lives. When I was no more than 8 or 9, I met my aunt Florence Paine; she must have been over 90 then. But what impressed me was that she was the widow of a Civil War soldier. Later, when I heard the rest of the story, I was even more impressed. Aunt Florence’s husband was just over 20 when he went to war; captured, he was imprisoned in a vile place in Richmond, Virginia. At war’s end he was released and went home to Connecticut, seemingly unaffected. But in 1910 or thereabouts, newly married to Florence, his doctor delivered bad news. His blood pressure and heart were now so bad, he could not ever leave his house again. He was to be in bed confinement for the rest of his life. John left a note; he could not face another confinement and so he walked out one more time into the fields and shot himself.

I learned that war kills, but not every victim dies on the battlefield.

I spent seven and ½ years in the US Marine Corps, working most of the time with men who’d fought in places like Guadalcanal or Iwo Jima, men who’d make the hard march back from the Chosin Reservoir. They never talked about their wars, never boasted about their Navy Crosses or Bronze Stars. The only medals they ever talked about were what the Korean War vets called their “Chinese Marksmanship Medals” — their Purple Hearts. Every once in a while some civilian would ask about what they’d done, or call them “killers” as if they were complimenting them, and my colleagues would treat them with the condescension such insensitivity deserves.

Many came home from those wars relatively unscathed, like Don Gray, whom I buried yesterday. But everyone offered their lives, just as those who died did. They knew no more what that might mean, what the pain and horror of war was, what it did to them to kill someone, but they went and served, and died, all too often.

My friends and fellow Marines would have cringed in embarrassment to be called heroes, for they thought they had done nothing more than their duty. Over the years, I’ve absorbed their attitude. It’s not that there aren’t genuine heroes around. There are. But serving your country isn’t a privilege of the heroic; rather it is the responsibility of the everyday citizen. Heroes exist to inspire us — in an odd way, if we say that simple service makes one a hero, we flatten out the truly heroic — and lose the inspiration they can offer us. The real bravery is that, heroes or not, men and women sign up and go off to serve, to run the risk of death.

Memorial Day is a time set aside to honor those who gave the last full measure of devotion. (Abraham Lincoln) We are here in church to honor them in our faithful living — not with flags or pledges of allegiance as will be done by our Town ceremonies. Those ceremonies are important, but they are not our part of the observance. Rather it is for us to remember that every life is important, that the best Christian response to the horror of war is the building of peace.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” and the author of First Peter points out that if you suffer for doing what is right you will be blessed. I take it from those two lessons that our actions may be right — or not — and that love is essential to faithful living. So we are all witnesses to the importance of peace.

We fight when we must; we honor those who die in our protection and we struggle to remove the causes of conflict, knowing full well that it is not always going to be possible. And yet we try. because war kills people. War kills the land. War destroys civilizations.

No soldiers dies to make more war. Every Marine dies to bring peace. Let us therefore honor their sacrifice by continuing their struggle. Let us re-dedicate our lives to the spread of peace everywhere.

As Abraham Lincoln said:
…with malice toward none,
with charity towards all;
with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right
let us strive on to finish the work we are in
to bind up the nation’s wounds
to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan
to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasing peace among ourselves
and with all nations.
[Second Inaugural Address 3/4/1865]

Amen.

© 2011, Virginia H. Child

Fools Rush In

A Sermon preached at the Congregational Christian Church of Somerset UCC, Somerset, MA, on February 6, 2011

Scripture Readings:  I Corinthians 2: 1-12; Psalm 112: 1-9; Matthew 5: 13-20

. . . .among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish.  But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.. . .

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

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.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is one of those pieces of Scripture which looks to have depths of meaning — all that talk about the wisdom of God and the foolishness of humanity — tells us there’s more to this being a Christian than is easily apparent, or commonly accepted.  And so there is.

God calls us to a life of holy foolishness, to a life of doing things that others consider foolish or odd.  Taking your money and giving it to this church — now that’s something many outside our doors would think foolish.  And then taking that money and giving a goodly part of it to people in need.  Even more people would think us foolish to give away what we could so easily use for ourselves.  But we believe God calls us to such foolishness.

Most of my music friends think I’m foolish to get up on Sunday morning and go to church.  They think it makes much much more sense to sleep late, read the paper, maybe, maybe go to the local coffee shop, eat brunch with their friends, take the day for themselves alone.  If they think of God at all, they figure God will understand how stressful their lives are and how important it is for them to take care of themselves first.

And I think they’re foolish– but they think I am.

The foolishness of God leads us to do things our friends and neighbors think distinctively odd.

Of course, some of us who follow the Christian way do do things that are at least odd.  Young people who could be lawyers and make good money hear a call from God to go into a ministry where they’ll be lucky to be able to send their children to their own alma mater — or older folks, hearing the same call, use their retirement fund to pay for their seminary education and contemplate and old age with very limited options.

That can look foolish to not only our friends, but to us, I guess.  I’d bet that at least some of the first missionaries to go overseas from here had family members who thought they had made some odd decisions.

Those folks who choose to follow God full time, however, are not the run-of-the mill oddities of the Christian way of life.  We do what we do, and it is necessary, but it’s not the core of the faith.  If there were no clergy there would still be a faith, and a church community, and it’s in that community that the most foolish actions of our Christian faith take place.

The most radical practioners of the Christian way are ordinary, every day people doing what seems right and proper in their eyes, putting aside their own needs and wants to help others, or offering a hand when its needed. . . . and of all the radical things we do, individually, and as  church, none is more radical than the one we are about to do this morning.

in communion, we make visible God’s welcome of everyone:  no matter who you are….or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.

It’s not the eating that’s radical.  It’s the part where everyone is welcome.  This is the real hidden mystery of our faith:  everyone one welcome.

Think about it.  We all have friends who like us, and welcome us into their presence.  And I’d bet we all have people know who don’t much like us (and whom we don’t much like) in whose presence we (and they) would be uncomfortable.  Nice enough folks, in their way, but their way isn’t our way.  Maybe it’s just that they’re Yankees fans in a Red Sox world, or the only Democrat in a family of Republicans and  — in either case — seem to think that it’s needed that everyone agree they’re right in their fixed opinion.   No matter, you might invite them to dinner, but you wouldn’t expect to enjoy the experience.

And then there’s the next level — those folks in whose company you’re uncomfortable for a good reason… loud mouths, filthy conversation, convicted thief, mistreats a parent, cheats on a spouse… or those folks around whom we’re uncomfortable, and uncomfortable that we’re uncomfortable — the homeless, those who don’t have clean clothes or opportunities to bathe, maybe someone whose speech is not understandable, or who has what we think of as an communicable disease.  And finally there are those folks who for reasons known only to you are not welcome at your dinner table.

But all of them, all of them, are welcome here.  You might think that God would only welcome those who show the outward signs of effective faith — those special people we all admire for their love, their generosity, their devotion.  But God does not restrict that welcome only to the “deserving” faithful. God welcomes those who know all the answers and those who are sure there are no answers.  God welcomes those who trust and those who doubt.  God welcomes everyone to this table.

In the old movie “Places in the Heart”, it’s Depression-era cotton country Texas, a land filled with bigotry and the Klan.   The first thing that happens in the movie is murder of the white sheriff by a young black man who is then lynched by the citizens of the community. In the last scene, we’re in church on a communion Sunday.  The tray of bread is passed from hand to hand.  The grieving widow offers the tray to the black hired hand who helped save the farm and he passes it along to the blind guy who rents a room.  The betrayed wife offers the bread of heaven to her cheating husband.  And, in the back of the room, the dead sheriff offers bread to the man who killed him.

God welcomes everyone to this table.

And that’s the radical core of our faith…. that everyone is welcome.

Amen.

© 2011 Virginia H. Child

 

 

 

 

Living Our Faith

Scripture Readings:  Micah 6: 1-8, Psalm 15, Matthew 5: 1-12

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.

Living our faith is about our deeds, not our dreams.

Living our faith is about our actions, not our money.

Living our faith is not about yesterday, and it’s not really about tomorrow; it is about today.

One day a long, long time ago, I flunked out of college.  My last grade report from the University of Florida said I had a perfect 1.0 average… and I was toast.  Expelled permanently for violation of academic probation, the only way I could get back in was if I petitioned the University Senate for re-admission — and the very thought intimidated me.  My academic life was over and I was barely 18.

Well, here I stand before you, a college graduate, with two masters degrees and a doctorate.  Clearly something happened.  Well, nothing happened for a good long time.  By the time I came back to education, I’d been in the Marines for a couple of years.  In those days, you could take correspondence courses, and I signed up for one.  Then I took an extension course offered at my base by a local college.  But in those days, what I was doing was more like idle recreation; it was definitely not the pursuit of any organized education.

In fact, I was out of the Marines before that happened.  First, I signed up for a local business college, because I wanted to get a job.  It went awfully well, and I began to re-think the picture I had of myself as someone who couldn’t do “education”.  I began to think about going back to college.

There still were a lot of roadblocks…. I didn’t really think anyone would want me; I actually  thought the only school I could go to was the University of Florida, and only if I petitioned that University Senate, whatever that meant.  But there was a professor in our church, a man I sang with in the choir, and he helped me understand that just because I’d been expelled from one school, didn’t mean I couldn’t apply to another.

Well, then I thought, how will I ever complete a degree — if I transfer in my courses from Florida, I have to transfer that 1.0 gpa — and it is almost impossible to bring that low a gpa up to a graduation-eligible level.  But my professor friend persisted; the school where he taught — Castleton State, in Vermont — would transfer courses, but would not transfer the grades.  So, if I went there, I’d start off with no gpa at all, and could re-build my record.

And there was one final roadblock.  I kept thinking, gee whiz, it’s going to take forever, if I do this while I’m working.  Why, I’ll be 40 before I finish.  Then, one day, it occurred to me — hey, I’m going to be 40 anyway, some day, and would I rather be 40 with a college degree, or 40 sitting around waiting for something good to happen?

So I went back to college, and graduated when I was 33, on the President’s List, with a BS in business administration, and went on to Andover Newton and all the other degrees.

All because I was able to change my picture of myself from a person who could not learn, into a person who wanted to learn.

Living our faith is about our deeds, not our dreams.

Don’t get me wrong; dreams are very helpful.  But if we live only in our dreams, we’re like the person who bought a whole closet full of new clothes to wear to parties, except she never went to parties.

Micah wrote to a people who’d gotten themselves mixed up in a similar way.  They thought that the only deed they needed to accomplish to realize their dream of good living, was to fulfill the outward requirements of religion.  They wanted to build a Potemkin village of faith — you remember the story about the Russian bureaucrat who’d put up false front villages to fool the Empress?  Well a faith that’s all about outward signs is nothing but a Potemkin village.  Real faith is about deeds of love and mercy.  Real faith is about doing justice, and loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.

Jesus might well have been reading off Micah’s page when he offered the disciples the Beatitudes.  You’ll note he doesn’t say, “blessed are those who believe this, or pray that way” but “Blessed are those who…. are poor, who mourn, who are meek, who are merciful, who are pure, who make for peace, who are persecuted…”   All… all are ways we live, all are about the qualities of our lives, all are firmly anchored in the hear and now, not the dreamt of tomorrow, or even the beloved yesterday.

Living our faith is about today, not yesterday, and not to be put off until tomorrow.

This is a Christian church.  You knew that, right?  <smile>  But I mean by that is, we are Christian in background, not Congregational…. we were formed by people who had had it with lengthy tests of faith, who weren’t comfortable with creeds, or catechisms, who really disliked the idea that some one could claim to be a believer on Sunday, and then not allow that faith to govern their daily living.  That’s why our Christian ancestors, when they organized, said that one of the sure principles of the denomination was that “Christian character is a sufficient test of fellowship and church membership.”  How you live is more important than the theological details.  Or to put it another way, theology follows faith; it doesn’t drive it.

I don’t mean by this that theology has no importance; I only mean that the particulars of our beliefs are secondary to the living of our lives.

That’s a long introduction to the heart of this sermons:  so, if living out our faith is about our deeds, not our dreams, how are we doing?

Are we actually doing?

Are we extending mercy to those who don’t know it?  Are we building peace — here in our fellowship, in our community, in our world?  Are we kind and gracious to our neighbors?  Or are we offering lip service, letting the members of the SAM Committee and our pastor do the real work of ministry?

Is it possible that when we think of “doing something” for others, that our imaginations are restricted by our grasp of our limitations?  That like me, when I thought of going back to school, all we see are the obstacles and not the pathways?

Of course, I’m posing a question I can’t answer.  I can’t answer it because it’s your question to answer.  And, I’d bet you aren’t ready yet to answer it, if only because we’ve been going along, doing what we’ve always done, and trying to do that as well as we did it before.

The challenge before us is simple.  The world for which our current picture of what ministry is, what service might be, that world doesn’t really exist any more.  Think about it:  When we put those models together, Fall River was prosperous, the mills were still running, and every high school grad who wanted one, could get a job there.  When we put those models together, veterans of World War II were raising their 10 year old children. When we put those models together, everyone belonged to a church; you really had to go to church to be seen as a respectable person.

And none of that’s true any more.

In the Boston Globe this week, Fall River was the 7th poorest city in the state, only because New Bedford beat it out for sixth place.   Our World War II vets and their spouses are increasingly leaving us. Being a part of a church is an option these days, not a requirement, and in some groups, a distinctly odd thing to do.

But in that new world, there are still needs, still opportunities for us to serve God and serve our community.

There are still opportunities to make the truths of the Beatitudes real in someone’s life.

What are the needs you see in our community?  Where are our ministry edges?  How can we best serve God and our world?  Let’s talk about what you see and hear and know, and let’s pray, that out of all that, we will see our way into the future.

Amen.

© 2011, Virginia H. Child

The Light Shines in the Darkness

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children  (Matt 2: 13-23)

Talk about a bad ending to a Christmas celebration…..

First of all, there are some incidents in the Christmas story as the Bible tells it that are not matters of historical fact; in truth, they seem to have either never happened, or to have completely missed the attention of any one recording the events of a year.  And this is such an event.  There are no historical records confirming this slaughter of innocents.  As a historical event, it never happened.

So, why is it here, and what can we take away from it on this day after Christmas?  Well, the scholars tell us that the story is really a reflection of the importance given to Jesus by his contemporaries.  It’s the Bible equivalent of remembering how special the day you met the President of the United States was.  And it’s also a reflection of how much Herod was hated, that they saw he was evil enough to have done anything to have kept Jesus from growing up.

As to what we can take away — here’s what it’s always meant to me (not that I like the story; I can’t imagine anyone who actually likes this one. . . )  but when I read it, I remember that while the Light came to the world, the world knew him not.  And yet, as St. John puts it, The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

No one can live to be an adult without knowing there’s a lot of darkness in the world, a lot of time when evil seems to prevail.  Just lately, I’ve been reading a biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who with her husband, George VI, ruled over Great Britain during World War II.  If the book does nothing else (and it’s a good book), it makes clear the horror with which she viewed Hitler and her sense that Hitlerian Germany represented ultimate darkness.  I know there are people in this church who remember that war, who lost friends and loved ones, whose lives were on hold for years and years — and who yet knew the fight had to take place.  The darkness did not prevail there, anymore than it prevailed in our Gospel story.

Not all darkness is so public or even so political; often it is intensely personal.  A beloved spouse falls ill; a child contracts a dread disease; a job disappears.  A marriage fails, a child goes down a dark path.  Or even, at this season, we gather for a festive celebration of the birth of our Savior, and end up in an endless squabble about who got grandma’s earrings after she died, or whether or not the gravy should have giblets in it — made all the worse by the painful truth that Charlie’s been in the gin again.

It’s the dark time of the year, and we’re all about to be snowed in — at least that’s what the forecasters say — and this story is here to remind us that even in the midst of the worst life has to offer us, there is always that light, that glimpse of something better.  There is always that sense that, within the Christian community we are trying to be that loving community which shows forth the Light.  Sure, we fail from time to time, and sometimes we lose our way.  But the Light is there, shining in the darkness.  And the darkness will NOT overcome it.

Amen.

 

The Gift of Peace

Isaiah 9: 2-7

Luke 2: 1-20

Well, there it is! The Christmas story, all wrapped up and with a bow to top it off…. just perfect…. a manger, tired parents, lots of angels, even shepherds…. lots of hay, a baby.  What more could we ask?

But have you ever really thought about how poor you have to be to put your newborn baby in a manger stuffed with hay?  How hard a life has to be that giving birth in a barn sounds like a good option?

I once read a short story by a New Bedford author about the first Christmas.  In her story, the Holy Family was two teenagers, run out of their homes, no jobs, no place to stay, camped out in one of the abandoned Hathaway mills — and it was a wicked cold, snowy, waterfront Christmas.  They scrabbled in a dumpster for food and liberated some blankets to keep from freezing to death.

That’s our story… beautiful, yes, but gritty as all get out, too.  This is not a story about the hoped for child of an established couple.  There’s no home to come home to, no money for a hospital.   There are no plans for college, no expectation of a pile of baby presents, of books and toys and nursery school — only pain and struggle and hard work — and a family built on love and hope and faith, a family that aimed for peace.

What kind of hope does it take to look for peace, look for the ultimate good, at a time of such deeply personal need.  Mary and Joseph needed diapers; what good was world peace going to do them?

They needed a home, work, food, clothing.  They weren’t soldiers, Joseph didn’t work for the Romans…. what good would peace do them.

Wasn’t this the time, of all times, for the two of them to put their own needs first, to take care of their family?  But they hoped for, prayed for, lived for peace.

Not that mindless state of being  –I think it often comes just before sleep — where nothing matters any more and “whatever” is our watchword.  No, this was a much more active kind of peace.  It was, in fact, Isaiah’s peace, God’s peace.

It was peace Isaiah foretold in our first lesson today:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;

those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;

they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders,

the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

What does peace look like at the most local level possible?  It’s not all abound ending wars in faraway places –tho that’s surely part of it — peace is also about how we live with one another right here, right now.

Now, peace is not about not having arguments, or letting the loudest voice, or the angriest person, have their way.  Peace is not about papering over differences.  And peace is not about giving up and going away.  Peace is active, and vital, persistent, kind, and principled.  It doesn’t come without effort, or intention, but calls out our best.

Peace is about building a world where all have the opportunity to work, to get an education, to create a home…. where being an immigrant is a sign of commitment to our community rather than something to be hidden.

Peace is about creating, working towards, a place where all can be true to their own identity, where no one hides their family behind a closet door.

Peace is about treating, interacting with every person in a way which assumes they are good, kind, true and contain within themselves the same spark of divine love that we ourselves contain.

I’m convinced that we can see the essential health of a community, or the essential level of Christian commitment we’re practicing, by watching traffic habits or paying attention to how we treat sales people

On my way over here from East Providence this week, I pulled out onto 195.  A car came up ahead of me at a goodly rate of speed, swerved out in front of me to pass, then pulled right back in….. and slowed down to a crawl, to take the next exit.  It’s a maneuver we’ve all seen and many of us have executed from time to time.  In fact, the very next day, the person in front of me was going so slowly that I’d have done the same thing — if only I’d wanted to go to Barrington, instead of coming here!  And I would have been as wrong, as self-centered, as the driver the day before.  Living in a way that makes for peace calls on us to exercise self-control, to practice respect for the other wherever we find the other.

I’m not saying this is easy — and doing it while driving can be particularly difficult because driving so often occurs in stressful situations.  But practicing courtesy  builds community and models the peace the baby Jesus came to bring us.

So, today, I’m going to suggest to us four questions to ask ourselves, not just for today, but through out the next twelve months — as a way of keeping the spirit of Christmas alive in our hearts and in our church.

Do we, each of us, seek to nurture love and harmony within our Church community? Are we sensitive to others, caring in our speech, respectful in our ways?

Do we live in accordance with our spiritual convictions?  Do we deal honestly with all?

Do we make our homes havens of blessing and places of peace?  Do our children know they are loved?  Do we make time for our parents or do we wait for them to express their needs?

Do we respect every person as a child of God? Do we search ourselves for and strive to eliminate prejudices such as those related to race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation and economic condition? In what ways do we accept and appreciate differences among our friends and associates? Do we avoid exploiting and manipulating others to accomplish ends, however worthy?

None of the questions are easy or simple.  If they seem so to you, try just reading them daily and asking yourself about your own actions — because none of us is able to answer yes to every question all the time.  Every one of us, from time to time, struggles to live out these principles.  We get antsy when we have to wait at the light for someone to turn left, or we’re tired or scared and let our feelings work their way out in a snarky remark in church.

That’s not to say that some of us aren’t better at this than others — it’s only to say that all of us are capable of getting better when we recognize the extent to which we fall short of God’s expectations for us.  Only then can we begin to respond to the questions for ourselves.  Don’t worry – I don’t expect that you’ll have just written them down!  I’ll be including them in our next newsletter and we’ll hear about them again in the new year.

Do we seek to nurture love and harmony among and within our Church community?  Do we live in accordance with our spiritual convictions?  Do we make our homes havens of blessing and places of peace?  Do we respect every person as a child of God.

If you think about it, and thanks to Enid Slade, I have this week — it is not necessary for us to wait until we are important in the worldly sense before we begin to live according to our principles.  Enid was never important in the world’s eyes and yet there were things in her life that she did with sufficient love that it spilled over onto her family, in ways that have made a difference in how they relate to others.

All of us, however prominent or insignificant, have that power.  Each one of us interacts with other people, and so each one of us has the opportunity to change lives.

Do we believe in the love and harmony taught by Jesus?  Then live our lives with that love.  Do we believe that each person was made to be a child of God.  Then respect each person you meet.  Do we believe that our homes are the foundation of a harmonious society?  Then seek to create the sort of place where others feel welcome and respected.

That is the true gift of Christmas — building a community of peace, love and justice — seeking to understand and accept one another — and in that way, creating the peace that the Prince of Peace has brought us.

Amen.

© 2010 Virginia H. Child

 

The Advent Lectionary

For some years now, I’ve been convinced that our Advent-observing practices get in the way of our intention to help our congregations focus on the inner meaning of Christmas.  We all recognize that there are two observances happening at the same time — there’s the commercial and wholly secular mid-winter orgy of food, celebration and expenditure — and there’s  a peace-filled and essentially quiet observance of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Contemporary Advent guidelines suggest (insist?) that we avoid Christmas music until the Christmas season — that is from December 24 thru January 6.  Because much of the music associated with the birth of Christ has been co-opted by the commercial celebration folks, our congregants can be pretty much sick and tired of Christmas music by the time we get to Christmas.  Just as we pull out “What Child is This?” our folks are about to scream from hearing it everytime they turned on a radio for the last 8 weeks.  And they absolutely do not want to hear Christmas music much past the first Sunday after Christmas.

Much the same thing happens with the lectionary texts for the season.  The lectionary gives scant attention to the actual story of the coming of Jesus, focusing instead on the second coming.  I think the second coming is an esoteric, second-level piece of doctrine that does not speak to the spiritual needs of most main line Protestants.  In the churches I’ve served, people do not yet know the story of the first coming well enough to get much meaning out of the second coming.

That’s why I depart from the lectionary during Advent and instead choose readings which tell of the first coming, as well as readings which make our need for someone like Jesus plain and clear.  Then I use a combination of regular hymns, Advent songs and Christmas carols to bring home the point of the message.

I love Advent; I just think that we’ve missed the boat with the readings and music we use.  If the goal of Advent is to prepare for Christmas, I think there are better ways to achieve it.  Now, I know there are churches where standard Advent “works”… tho I bet the ban on Christmas music works more effectively than the lectionary does…. but here and now, this is what I’ve been thinking.