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.

It’s the Third Sunday in Advent

Matthew 5: 1-16:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.   “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.   “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

When my grandfather was a young man, he used to bring his family by horse and sleigh up Dudley Hill to their grandmother’s house for Christmas celebrations.  They sold their milk door to door in a neighboring town, and raised almost everything they could think of right there on the farm  — using everything but the squeal on the pig!

But the world changed when Henry Ford made a cheap automobile.  Suddenly it was no big thing to travel by car 10 or 20 or more miles and farming began to change as well.  They got a truck to move stuff around, and then got a tractor.  The horses became entertainment.

They got used to having autos and trucks and all seemed good, but then one day some very smart, invented the first practical milking machine.  And farming changed again.  The economic size of a herd probably doubled overnight, and that meant they could make and sell more milk and make more money.

Today the economics of scale mean that the small family farm my family depended upon is something of a rarity; the family farmer has had to learn to come up with more and more ingenious ways to make a living.

I guess that’s a small way of saying that even in the most traditional of professions change happens.  I could have run through the same sorts of profound changes in others — medicine was enormously different, for instance, before the discovery of penicillin and people laugh off illnesses today which would have killed us 60 years ago.  Today, the world of newspapers and information sharing is undergoing that same sort of sea change, with the growth of the internet.

Even in the church, change has happened, though we don’t always realize it.

I’d bet this church room was once heated by a wood stove with a pipe that ran thru the room, so that we would all “benefit” from the heat, such as it was.

Our churches once refused to have instrumental music because it was “against God’s will”.  Someone here can almost certainly remember the first woman to serve as a full deacon (not a deaconess!), and of course, the first woman pastor

Even twenty years ago, we validated our acceptability when moving into a new community by joining the church.  Today, church is an option.  I heard a professor from Oregon report recently that something like 75% of his freshmen students have never been inside a church and do not recognize quotes from the Bible when he uses them in his religion classes.

What does all this have to do with Advent or even with Jesus Christ?

It is simply this – in the midst of change, constant, unremitting, sometimes annoying, sometimes invigorating, and maybe even disorienting, in the midst of all that, Jesus Christ calls us to a way of life which does not change.  Jesus Christ frees us from the uncertainty of change, frees us to the challenge of thoughtful living.

We don’t wait for Jesus with anticipation and joy because he’s sealed us in amber to be preserved whole as we wish we were — that’s not Christian faith, that’s petrification.

Jesus doesn’t save us from change.  Jesus helps us keep our way through the change, to know what is good, to use his principles to discern good change from bad

The best physician I ever had was a man named Luis Viteri.  He was my doctor when I was a little kid, and seriously ill with an intractable infection.  Over a period of about five years I was in and out of hospitals, and the subject of any number of really annoying tests.  This was before some really smart researcher discovered the generation of antibiotics which could stop my infection in its tracks.

What made Dr. Viteri so good was not that he knew the latest treatment – though he certainly did, or even that he was so persistent in treating me over a frustrating period of time.  It was simply that before or after the discovery of antibiotics, Dr. Viteri cared about his patients.  He gave me his best, and his best gave me as good a life as was possible in that time.  Dr. Viteri didn’t need change to be good; he simply was good.

Following Jesus Christ helps us tell the difference between the gizmos and glitter of change and the values which endure.

Jesus went out for a walk one day and he met a man named Levi (in other versions of this story, he’s called Matthew)…. and spoke to him, called him to a life built on long-lasting values instead of immediate gains.  And Levi stood up, left the tax booth and followed Jesus.  That’s what we’re waiting for. . . a word to follow a new way, a way built on what endures.

And what endures is perfectly plain.  For the core of our faith is clear and simple:

Blessed are those who have not….  blessed are those who are not possessed by their possessions.

Blessed are those who mourn — blessed are those who loved, for only those who love can possibly mourn.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness — blessed are those who invest their energies and passion into making the world a place marked by justice and enough for all.

Blessed are those who are merciful.

Blessed are those who are pure in heart.

Blessed are those who make peace.

Blessed are those who stick to their principles, when all around take the quickie shortcut, and give them a hard time.

We who follow this way become, by following, salt and light and leaven to our world.  We are called to the Christian path to do exactly this — not so much to save our individual souls — but to live in a way which transforms our society, which saves our world.

God in Christ comes to give us meaning and purpose to our lives,  to show us how to live in a way which makes a difference.  And with that way, we become truly free, free of all the meanness and short-sightedness of our world, free of the endless struggle to have more, the endless need to be better than perfect.  God  comes to us in the guise of a baby to bring us the true freedom for which all the world years.

That’s why we’re waiting with such anticipation.  We’re waiting for freedom.

Amen.