Posted in Sermons

Sermons preached by Pastor Hannah and guest speakers at West Concord Union Church.

Jesus’ Baptism, and Ours

Just about three weeks ago many of us were here celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus, as the angels cried, “Glory!”  Two weeks ago, some of us heard the story of how holy Jesus was as a tween, hanging out in the temple in Jerusalem and impressing everyone with his scriptural interpretations. One week ago, a lot of us got together to celebrate Epiphany, and hear about how the Magi made a long journey just to offer precious gifts to the miraculous child in the manger.

Jesus is holy, our scriptures tell us. Jesus is special: right from the beginning. So why did Jesus need to go out into the desert to listen to the terrifying words of a prophet named John? Why did Jesus decide join the throngs seeking a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?

Why did Jesus need to be baptized? And what is baptism supposed to do for us?

Christian baptism finds its roots primarily in practices of Jewish ritual bathing. Immersion in a mikveh, or special bath, is a Jewish practice that predates Christianity and continues in many Jewish communities today. These baths are specially constructed, and filled only with “living water”: water from a stream, an ocean, or from precipitation. People immerse themselves in a mikveh for many reasons, including purification, as part of a conversion of faith or the consecration of a priest, to seek healing, or to prepare for a marriage or other celebration. 

In the book of Jeremiah (17:5-8, 13) God proclaims that those who put their trust in humanity will be like a shrub in the desert, parched and isolated. By contrast, those who trust in God are like trees planted by water, which stay green and bear fruit even in times of drought. God, Jeremiah tells us, is the mikveh – the hope, or the bath, of Israel: a fountain of living water.

Although we refer to what happens to Jesus as a baptism, and connect it to our Christian practices, it is probably more accurate to call it a mikveh, or at least a Jewish ritual bath. Jesus is in a Jewish community and is washed by a Jewish leader in living water. We can’t know for certain why Jesus choses to do this. Is he seeking forgiveness and purification? Is he preparing for his ministry? What we do know is that God meets Jesus there, as he prays, still dripping with the Jordan River.  The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, and a voice from heaven proclaims: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.

The meanings of Christian baptism echo many of the meanings of a mikveh. Baptism can be a time of repentance and purification, especially if it is done by an adult. Baptism is part of the Christian process of conversion, it’s our way of entering into faith and the faith community. In Christian tradition we also embrace words about “living waters” from our sacred texts, both Hebrew and Greek. We understand God to be a source of refreshment and renewal.  We hope to meet God as we encounter the water.

There are plenty of differences, however, between Jewish and Christian traditions. Baptism is not always done by full immersion. If you want to get technical (and I’m sure that you do), people can be baptized by immersion of all or most of the body, by afflusion (or pouring), or by aspersion (or sprinkling). There are some really fun YouTube videos of different kids of baptism if you’re curious.

Christian baptism is accompanied by words specific to our faith. Which ones should be used is sometimes a matter of debate.  Many baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Others use some variation on that trinitarian formula that widens our imagery for God. Others baptize in Jesus’ name only.

Perhaps most notably, Christian baptism only happens once. It’s not something we do over and over at important times in our lives. One time only. Sometimes, though, like Peter and John in our passage from Acts, Church leaders decide that the way an original baptism was performed wasn’t sufficient, and so they do it again for full effect. One colleague refers to this as “double dipping.”

Sometimes it makes me sad that baptism is a one-time thing. It’s so important, one of only two sacraments. For many of us, it’s something that is done when we are very small, and we don’t even remember it.  It doesn’t seem fair, somehow, that our access to baptism is so limited.

Thankfully, Christians around the world have found ways to address this gaping hole in our ritual practice, by finding ways to remember and re-experience our baptisms. We can do that here, together, as a community in worship; and we will in a moment. We can also do it at home. I have a handout today for anyone who wants to try remembering their baptismal anniversary at home. Some folks encourage Christians to remember their baptism every time they take a shower, or wash their faces. And the font is here every Sunday, we try to keep it filled with water, you can use that water to bless yourself or someone you know whenever you come in and out of the sanctuary.

In baptism, and in baptismal remembrance, we remember that we are created by God, that we are God’s beloved children.  We celebrate that we belong to one another, that we are bound together by water and spirit.  And we receive an opportunity to be changed: to be so freed by the love of God and one another, that our lives are refreshed, and renewed. 

Following this, the congregation was invited to remember, renew, or anticipate their baptism, or simply bear witness. We reaffirmed the promises in our baptismal service and offered a blessing with water (by aspersion!).


An Ordinary Miracle

A Christmas Eve meditation on Luke 2:1-20

Image by Steve Erspamer

According to this passage of the gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus begins in a very ordinary way. Everyone is just going about their business.

The Roman Emperor wants to collect taxes more efficiently, so he organizes a census.  The people who live under the control of the Roman Empire don’t want to get in trouble, so they follow the census instructions. Everyone travels to the town of their birth to be counted, and, naturally, rooms for the night grow scarce. Meanwhile, a baby is born in the stable behind an overflowing Bethlehem Inn. Not so strange — Babies come when they’re ready. They arrive every day. So far in this story, there’s taxes, travel, and birth: common human stuff.

It’s only when the angels arrive that we are invited to notice that something amazing is happening. An angel of God comes before shepherds doing their work in the fields. The angel shines with the glory of God, and says: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord!” Then a multitude of the heavenly host arrive, just in case someone has missed the point, shouting “Glory to God, and on earth, peace.”

We come here, tonight, in the midst of our own ordinary lives. Like the folks in the story, we have to contend with leaders who make choices about our nation.  Like the folks in our story, we know what it is to pay taxes, and to travel. Our lives are full, we work and rest and play. We fall in love, receive diagnoses, struggle, fight, grieve, break things, get exhausted, make up, fix what can be mended, and try again. Our lives are full to bursting with ordinary and heartbreaking stuff.  Babies are born here every day.

How often do we notice the wonder of it all?  How often do we take a deep breath, and gaze at life, and notice its beauty? 

We’ve been talking about Angels all season here. Angels, who bring messages. Angels, who bring comfort. Angels, who arrive unexpectedly. Angels, who guide us towards freedom. Angels do all these things and more.  And above and beyond these things, the angels in our scriptures invite us to awe. See the good in this, they encourage us. Feel the God in this. Sense the amazing power of this moment, and give thanks. Cry “glory.”

It’s a little daunting, to be asked to notice the good, to notice the God, going on in and around us. The folks in the story tonight aren’t sure what to do.

The shepherds, at first, are terrified. Who is this dazzling being?  From terror, they turn to curiosity.  “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.”  In other words, let’s see if this whole thing is actually true. Only once they have visited Mary, and Joseph, and the child, and seen for themselves, do the Shepherds get around to glorifying and praising God.

Mary shows us yet another possible reaction to the angelic invitation.  Instead of reacting in fear, or seeking proof, or giving thanks, Mary treasures the words of the angels, and ponders them in her heart.

No one said awe or gratitude was easy.  Still, the angels invite us to try them out.

On this holy night, we remember a time when God’s presence on earth was magnified. God shone bright in a star up above.  God beamed forth in the face of a newborn. Still, the miracle could have been missed. God does things in surprising ways. She chose a little one with brown skin, from a poor family, in a small nation, to show the world more about who she is. 

Thank God for the angels. The angels called to those folks back then, busy or bored, lost in pain or pleasure.  The angels called to them, and they call to us now.  Do not be afraid, they tell us. Dare to take a breath. Dare to take notice. Right now, close by, in the humblest place, is a love that can change your life, and a reason to cry, “Glory!.”

God, you are good, from the beginning of the world. Our lives are a gift from you, and our home is your beautiful creation. Still, there is a lot of pain here, and plenty of ordinary everyday. It’s easy to miss out on the most important stuff in the midst of everything else. Help us to notice the holiness shining forth in our lives: if only for a moment. Urge us on, to ponder it more deeply, and to pour forth our praise. Amen.

Entertaining Angels

Offered by Joyce DeGreeff on December 16th, 2018

Genesis 18:1-16, Hebrews 13:1-2

When I was a child, I lived in Ogunquit, Maine, otherwise known as the “beautiful place by the sea”. Many of you might recognize this place as a popular vacation spot with a gorgeous sandy beach. You might have walked the famous Marginal Way path that winds around the rocky part of this coastal town to the harbor of Perkins Cove, or visited the many interesting shops and restaurants in the local village.  Well, my family owned one of those shops – it was called The Oxbow Gift Shop – and we lived in a tiny 900 square foot apartment above it.  When I say “we” I mean our family of 8 … 2 parents, 4 kids, and 2 dogs! 

As you can imagine, I have many memories and funny stories to retell from our life together above that gift shop.  But one in particular comes to mind in relationship to this morning’s readings. 

On a cold winter day, my parents decided to give an open invitation at church to anyone who might like to come over for a sledding party in our backyard.  With very short notice, 37 people thought this was a great idea!  Now most hosts, in this situation, would enjoy the party outside and perhaps make a big pot of hot cocoa that everyone should share before calling it a day.  Well, not my parents.  They decided it would be fun to extend the party and invite everyone inside for a spaghetti dinner.  37 plus our 6 – that’s 43 people in 900square feet…for dinner!  Everyone had a great time and no one went away hungry as far as I know, and to this day, people are still talking about my mom’s famous spaghetti sauce.  My dad’s favorite part of the story is when he finally got his plate of food, he looked around at the overcrowded apartment and couldn’t find a place to sit – on chairs or anywhere on the floor.  Then he had what he thought was a brilliant idea and headed for the bathroom.  But when he got there, to his surprise he found two people already in there eating- one on the bath tub and one on the toilet! So he resigned himself to the fact that he would just need to eat standing up. 

When both of my parents, and some of their longtime friends, talk about this day (trust me,we’ve heard the story many times!) there’s a sense of joy-filled playfulness and pride in pulling off such an unconventional, and even downright ludicrous,dinner party.  There were no cloth napkins or fancy china, no candle light or peaceful music playing the background – just pure chaos, great food, and even better company.  As a child I thought it was really crazy and super fun.  And now as an adult, looking back, what stands out the most to me is the open hearted hospitality, the generosity, and the pure joy of the occasion.

This dinner party is what first came to my mind when I read today’s story from Genesis 18where three men suddenly appear to Abraham outside of his humble house.  Immediately, Abraham offers them water to wash their feet and then goes into his tent to ask Sarah to prepare bread and his servant to prepare a meat offering. These travelers gladly receive the meal and eat it together, with Abraham standing by, under a tree outside of his dwelling place.  And then one of them, claiming to be ‘the Lord’,  mentions to Abraham that he will“return in due season” and that his wife Sarah will “bear a son”.  Sarah overhears this from the tent entrance and begins to laugh.  Given the circumstance of their ages, do you blame her? 

But the messenger questions her laughter and reiterates his promise:

The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarahlaugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season,and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. And he said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” (Genesis 18:13-15)

You gotta love Sarah – brave enough to bicker with the Lord!

It’s all here…hosptality, generosity, humor, and most importantly the very real presence of God. 

In both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture, hospitality was highly regarded and very important for those who wanted to be considered “virtuous”.  And travelers tended to lean on this “culture of hospitality”, relying on the kindness of normal folks when they found themselves in need in unfamiliar territory. So that they showed up isn’t all that unusual, but their identity and their message is a bit more intriguing.  Many have wondered

Who exactly were these three men?  Not all agree on the answer. 

The Jewish Talmud refers to the visitors as three angels, and although the Torah doesn’t mention the names, the Talmud identifies them as Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel.

Some Christians have interpreted the appearance of the three visitors as a vision of the Trinity – in that all three men, together, represent the one true God.

Neither of these explanations seems to fit the text exactly, though.  A more agreed upon Christian understanding is that one indeed was God (given the many references to “the Lord” in the passage) and the other two were angels – partly there for support and partly just passing through on their way to fulfill other missions described later in this chapter of Genesis. 

 In this case,  the visitation represents a “Theophany” or a manifestation of God in human form.  Some Christians would take it even a step further and call it a “Christophany” – suggesting a notion of a pre-incarnation of Jesus,  a foreshadowing of when God is made flesh through the eventual birth of the Christ child.

Regardless of how one chooses to understand the exact identity of these visitors, it’s clear to me that Abraham and Sarah experienced a “holy moment” – a life-changing and life-giving encounter with the Spirit of God.  It doesn’t seem to me that the author of this story is so concerned with proving the existence of heavenly messengers or supernatural beings;  rather, what I think is significant is to witness what happens when we offer hospitality and open ourselves up to entertain unexpected guests. Through human connection, generosity, and vulnerability … God shows up!  When we show up for each other, the Spirit of Love and Grace that is God, is there too – helping us to find the right words,to show compassion. and even to have a little fun!

As our brief reading from Hebrews this morning reminds us:  “Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for doing so, some have entertained angles unawares.” 

These words, commonly assigned to Paul, are likely a direct reference to the Abraham story which, for first-century Jewish writers, would have been considered the premier model of hospitality.  I can’t help but to notice the implications of this ancient text for our world today. What if we were to receive and welcome those in need with the same sort of hospitality that Abraham and Sarah, and countless other Biblical characters,offered to fellow travelers?   Refugees, immigrants, prisoners and other displaced people come to mind  … veterans, people mourning the loss of loved ones, struggling kids and their parents, people who need food, shelter, or maybe just a listening ear and some company?  My guess is that we’d often been tertaining angels – and in doing so, experiencing the very real gift of God’spower and love.

I can think of many examples here at WCUC, of the ways in which this kind of hospitality already happens.  I remember when Sarah Hindle opened up her home for a day long women’s retreat, and when others in this congregation have hosted Dine with Nine dinner parties and end-of-year celebrations for the staff or the choirs. This year there was even a  house party to brainstorm ideas for Congregational Giving! 

“Hospitality”, though, isn’t just about opening up our homes…more to the point, it’s really about opening up our hearts and inviting the Spirit to be with us.  God shows up in places like this sanctuar yand the downstairs classrooms when we welcome all people with no exceptions.   Jesus’ way of healing and inspiration shows up to journey with us when we gather at Walden Pond for weekly walking prayer.  And the Spirit often shows up in one on one conversations too, like the ones we had last year as part of our “In Reach” program.  Many of us experienced the true joy that can come from simply meeting up with someone we don’t know very well and sharing our stories.  In these moments of vulnerable storytelling,God empowers both the teller and the listener to gratefully receive the gift of Love found through genuine human connection.

 When youth group parents gather at my humble dorm apartment (Ok, “humble” is a relative term here…we do have more room than the 900 square feet of my childhood, but we also share our building with 31 teenage boys!)… In any case,when we fill our living room for important conversations about the joys and challenges of raising adolescents, God’s Spirit is there.

And when those adolescents arrive for game night with a distinct mix of awkward silence, playful laughter, nervous energy, and authentic presence… there, too, is God. 

 When we show up for each other, God shows up for us, time and time again. This grace-filled Spirit helps us to step out of our comfort zones, to take risks, and to open our hearts to unexpected possibilities and sometimes even life-changing transformation.

“The angels proclaim You will arrive among us, a joy to meet our longing:  Come, O Come, Emmanuel -God with Us”

Amen.


Angels in the Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6
I Kings 19:3-9

The scriptures of this second Sunday of Advent bring us each year to visit John the Baptist: a prophet who taught and baptized out in the wilderness by the Jordan River. Going out to be with John is a strange trip to make, both then and now.

A visit to John in the wilderness is a strange trip to make: because he was nobody important, and he was in the middle of nowhere. The gospel of Luke takes the trouble of telling us who was important at the time: the emperor, and the governor, and the local rulers,and the high priests. Surely, it would make more sense to pay attention to them. But, scripture tells us, the word of God came not to any of these people,in their well-appointed homes, in their busy cities, but to John, out in the wilderness.

The wilderness is also a strange place for us to go, today.  During December we’re surrounded by carols and lights, shiny decorations, and sugary treats.  It’s been Christmas in our culture since after Halloween. Why abandon the jingle bell cheer or even the sweet baby Jesus to make a trek out into the wilderness to meet this strange man?

John the Baptist is not a gentle person, or a cheerful one. He is the child of devout parents, but he practices his faith in a way I’m guessing his parents never expected.  He leaves his home and chooses to dwell far away from civilization. He puts on camel’s hair clothing; neither fashionable nor comfortable. He survives by scavenging insects, and wild honey. Surely there is a more moderate way of expressing devotion to God. I don’t imagine this kind of life is what any of you hoped for, those of you who have brought your children to church.

But John is an ascetic, a purist. He has a special calling, and a message about God’s nearness that he delivers with stirring and terrifying rhetoric.  And here’s the amazing thing: people love him.People who are hurting, people who are desperate, people who are spiritually hungry are drawn out into the wilderness to meet this man. John’s preaching about the realm of God changes lives. One after another, people come, and listen, experiencing a renewal in their hearts, and chosing to be baptized. They return to their regular lives transformed. Something amazing happens out there, in the wilderness, with John.

Preparing for this season’s focus on Angels, I went through the whole bible looking for their appearances.There are a lot. You may not be interested in angels yourself, but they are not easy to avoid in scripture. One of the things I learned in my exploration was that many of the angelic appearances recorded in our holy text happen out where John did his ministry: out in the wilderness. Hagar is out in the wilderness, near death from hunger and thirst, when she encounters an angel. The people Israel are out in the wilderness, on their 40-year journey between slavery and new land, when an Angel goes before them to lead the way. Jesus is out in the wilderness, facing temptationand preparing for ministry, when Angels come to wait on him.

When we meet Elijah this morning, he is also in the wilderness, fleeing for his life.  Elijah has just received a death threat from King Ahab’s wife Jezebel. If you read his back story, you may not be surprised– Elijah has done some outrageous and troubling things.  Now, distraught, Elijah travels across the border into Judah, where he might be safe from execution.  Then he leaves his servant and continues on for another day’s travel, before settling down under a solitary broom tree. Elijah is utterly alone, exhausted, and full of despair. And he asks God for death: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

But God does not send death to Elijah. Instead, an angel comes, and touches him, and says: “Get upand eat.” Elijah discovers bread, and water. He eats and drinks and lays down; and again, the angel comes to touch him, and offer him food. Somehow, this little assistance is enough: enough to persuade both Elijah’s spirit and his body to go on. Elijah travels on the strength of the food the angel provides for forty days and forty nights, until he reaches Horeb, the mount of God,where the word of God comes to him.

In our scriptures, the wilderness is a place, but also a spiritual state of being. Wilderness can be a time of great trial and also sometimes great possibility. Perhaps you have known some kind of wilderness in your own life: a wilderness of grief; a wilderness of loneliness; a wilderness of addiction, or mental illness; a wilderness of great personal change; a wilderness of physical or spiritual want; a wilderness of betrayal; a wilderness of distance from God. 

Most of the time, we don’t choose the wilderness, unlike the spiritual seekers who went out to find John. Instead, the wilderness finds us, or we are driven out into it, by forces out of our control.  Suddenly, there we are: untethered, unsupported, uncertain, and often, in great pain. 

No one’s required to be grateful for wilderness, and most of us aren’t. Still, the wilderness has this to say for it: it is a place frequented by God’s messengers.

Perhaps it is that God just cannot bear to see us lost, or in pain, and so She keeps trying to reach us. Perhaps it is that we are so desperate that we are more open to noticing and receiving the help that God is always offering us.  But again and again in our scriptures, those in the wilderness do find something that they need – perhaps just enough for their body or their spirit to continue. A cake baked on hot stones. A jar of water. The presence of a loving one who says, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  So little, that changes so much, sending us off in a new direction.

This season can be so bright and loud, full of forced cheerfulness and terribly high expectations.  The scriptures offer us an opportunity, today, to pay attention to something else: the honest state of ouown hearts.  Do you long for the kind of renewal that John invites us to?  Are you in need of the kind of comfort, and sustenance, that angels can provide?  Perhaps you can accept a gift from them, today: an offering that may sustain or redirect your life. Spend some time with these scriptures, and let them bless you.

We may also find opportunities in this season to witness the state of  the hearts of those around us, and to be messengers of God ourselves.  Keep watch for a way that you could provide something for folks who are deep in the wilderness, desperate for hope, love, connection, or even bread. What could we offer them, so that the journey might not be too much for them?

Please pray with me. God, you know what we long for, the needs of our souls, the wildernesses we have known, the fears and struggles we face today. Open our hearts to your messengers, who will help make a way for us, even if it seems that there is no way possible. God, you know what the world longs for, the wildernesses in which so many souls and bodies dwell. Open our hearts to these fellow travelers in life, that we may make a way together, trusting you to go before us, and to dwell with us,  and to help us find what we need to go on. Amen.


An Introduction to Angels

  • December 2, 2018

Numbers 22

This Advent we are exploring Angels. What do you think of, when you think of angels? Angels are very popular in our culture; many people believe in them. But few of the images and ideas we have about them have much to do with the angels we find in the bible.

There is no mention of baby angels in the bible. There is also no mention of Guardian angels. That doesn’t mean they can’t exist, but – not in the bible. Angels in the bible aren’t very gentle.

You may not believe me on this one, but: angels in the bible never sing. I love this detail from the Ghent altarpiece by Jan van Eyck. So many of the angelic singers are really struggling to get their parts right. Still, although they play instruments, biblical angels don’t sing.

Angels in the bible don’t have wings! At least, most of them don’t. The only creatures that are mentioned with wings are Cherubim and Seraphim, which some folks argue aren’t angels at all. Even if we think they ARE angels, Cherubim and Seraphim do not look quite like how we imagine angels. Cherubim, according to the book of Ezekiel, Have two pairs of wings, and four faces – like the picture on the left. Seraphim, only found in the book of Isaiah, have six wings: with two wings they cover their faces, with two they cover their feet, and with two they fly – that’s them on the right. A bit wilder than we usually imagine.

Nowhere in our scriptures does it specify that angels have European ancestry or pale skin. Neither are angels specifically female. So what CAN we say about biblical angels? Angels in our bible are strange, and surprising. Biblical angels visit unexpectedly: these angels are showing up on Abraham’s door step. Angels don’t make appointments.

Angels don’t always arrive in the flesh, either; sometimes they show up in dreams. In one of Jacob’s dreams they climb a ladder. Joseph and the Magi also hear from angels in dreams.

When angels show up, they bring a message from God. Sometimes, the message is good news. Sometimes, the message is a warning. Sometimes the message isn’t words at all, but a delivery of water, food, or comfort. Angels bring aid to people in the wilderness; to Hagar, and Elijah, and Jesus.

Angels show the way towards freedom. When the people Israel come up out of Egypt, an Angel of God goes before them.

Angels warn us away from foolish behavior. In the story today, King Moab, a powerful leader, is so scared when the people Israel come near his land that he tries to convince Balaam to curse them so that he can defeat them in battle. But God, and God’s Angel, protect the people Israel, warning Balaam to speak only holy words, to send blessings instead.

God sends angels to help other desperate travelers, too, like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, who flee from King Herod. I imagine that angels are working with God now to comfort the refugees on our borders, and to guide us all towards greater compassion towards them.

Biblical angels are strong; they wrestle the evil within us and battle the evil in the world. Angels can be guards, defenders, even armies.

Angels love to worship. They draw us towards awe. They cry, ”Glory!,” again and again.

Let us give thanks for God’s angels: mysterious, unpredictable, fantastic agents of God’s will among us, forces of love.

Sowing Seeds

Isaiah 45:8
Matthew 13:1-9, 31-32

When I was growing up, my family planted morning glory seeds every year along the side of our house: long, green, curly vines, with brilliant blue flowers that open up in the morning. Our morning glories at Newhall Drive in Whitefish Bay Wisconsin grew up happily, twisting around a trellis. Every morning I would go out to check on them, to see how much higher they had grown and to count how many flowers they had.

It’s a sweet memory. So, I decided that I should plant some morning glory seeds for my kids. I can’t say I have a very green thumb, but watching my mother garden for so many years, I know the basics. So I went out to Verrill farm and found some morning glory seeds. Right next to the morning glory seeds at the store were some evening glory seeds, moonflower seeds that bloom at the end of the day. So, I bought some of those too.

I felt really good about my parenting that day. I was not only maintaining a family tradition, I was expanding it! Flowers to count in the morning, and also at night. Vines growing all around the house. Then the seeds just sat there, in their pretty paper packets, on my counter, for a year. A whole year passed without my managing to get any of those seeds into the ground.

Last spring I was determined to do better. My kids were out of diapers! I was ready to conquer the world, or at least, a little gardening. I even looked up the right date to plant the seeds, and put a notification on my electronic calendar. When the date came, and the notification popped up, I went outside with my trowel and spade and seeds and my kids, and we planted those seeds in the best spots I could find. We watered. And we waited.  And we waited. And we watered. Nothing seemed to be happening.

You never know what’s going to happen with seeds. Surely the crowds who surrounded Jesus knew that, even better than we do, as they lived closer to the earth. Jesus says to these folks: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground … and they sprang up quickly… But when the sun rose … they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone who can hear, listen!

I wonder about the skill of this particular sower. Why sow seeds on a path? Why sow seeds among rocks, or thorns? Why wouldn’t a sower be more careful with her precious seeds, directing them towards only the best soil?

But of course, this is a parable. Jesus even goes on to explain it later on in this chapter. In this parable, Jesus tells us, the seed is the word of the kingdom, the good news of God.  This good news is scattered widely among all people, but it does not always grow. Sometimes the seed is stolen from a heart by evil.  Sometimes it wilts in the heart, as the result of trouble.  Sometimes it its growth is choked in the heart by the cares of the world or the lure of wealth. There are many ways for seeds of the word of the kingdom to die. Still, sometimes, the word reaches a heart that is open and ready, good soil, with good conditions for growth.  Someone hears the word and trusts it until it roots down deep within them, bearing fruit and yielding thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold.

I’ve been thinking this week about the seeds that this community scatters. Seeds of the good news, seeds of God’s kingdom. We scatter words of encouragement and wisdom, acts of kindness and service, gifts of presence and prayer, witnesses of justice and love. Our sowing does not always go perfectly. We may occasionally set ourselves too ambitious a planting schedule. We may not always have enough sowers at the right time, in the right place. And many of the seeds we sow, we never know if they grow.

This is simply the way of sowing, Jesus tells us. It’s an act of generosity, with an uncertain outcome. And yet, with all the seeds that die or get drawn away by the wind, some seeds take: and what a magnificent harvest they make.

A magnificent harvest. When someone is comforted by the visits and cards they receive at a difficult time. When young people are empowered to serve, and given a chance to lead. When weary hearts are encouraged with music and prayer, beauty and hope. When our capacity to welcome one another, and to accept ourselves, keeps growing. When our relationships with other faith communities are strengthened. When those who are lonely find companionship. When new people arrive and discover a place that will support and enrich them.

The sowing that we do together is sometimes difficult, but the harvest is enough to take the breath away. God multiplies our efforts, sometimes by thirty, or sixty, or a hundredfold.  Like a mustard plant, seeds of God’s good news sometimes find such good soil that they grow and spread like weeds: enormous, persistent, sprouting up everywhere.

As it turns out, the seeds my family planted did not grow very well. The moonflower seeds never even sprouted. The morning glory seeds did sprout, but they never creeped upwards or made flowers.

I’ll plant some seeds again this spring. There’s one thing we can be sure of: without seeds, nothing will grow. I am grateful to be sowing seeds of the kingdom with all of you. And I am grateful for all of the sprouting, and growing, and climbing, and bursting into flower that we get to witness together.

God our Gardener, we give thanks for all that you do. You prepare the soil of our hearts, breaking down rocks, tearing out weeds, sending water and grace. You scatter seeds of good news relentlessly among us, even when we are not ready for them, just in case a root, a sprout, a leaf might grow. You empower us to stretch and bloom,  until we can be sowers and seeds ourselves, partners in the work of cultivating your kingdom on earth. Bless us to be a blessing, now and always. Amen.

Unlimited

I Kings 17:8-16

In the book of Kings we learn about the leaders of the Kingdom of Israel. The book begins with stories about the great Kings, David and his son Solomon. It continues with many lesser rulers of a divided kingdom, each seemingly worse than the last. Jeroboam and Reheboam, Abijam and Asa, Nadab and Baasha; Elah and Zimri and Omri; almost all of them regularly do what is evil in the sight of God. But perhaps the worst of all is King Ahab. It is during the reign of this awful Ahab that we meet Elijah: one of the greatest prophets of all time.

Just before our text today begins, the word of God comes to Elijah, predicting a drought. God tells Elijah to go east, and hide himself by the Wadi Cherith. Elijah survives by drinking from the wadi and eating bread and meat delivered by ravens, according to the command of God.

Unfortunately, in time, the wadi dries up. Elijah is no longer provided for. God gives Elijah new instructions: “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”  Elijah goes to Zarephath and asks a widow for water and food. The woman replies, “I have only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

Elijah is not daunted by the woman’s reply. He says, “Do not be afraid; but prepare some of your food for me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For God says: The jar of meal will not be emptied, and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” The woman agrees to do what Elijah asks. And amazingly, she discovers that Elijah is right: her jar and her jug do not fail: her household is well fed.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend several days with a bunch of church people at a continuing education course on fundraising. We wrestled with big questions about money and faith. We considered new ways to invite people to use their financial resources to support the missions of our organizations. I left totally excited about the role of generosity in our faith lives, and the opportunities we have here at this church to deepen our shared commitments.

It is clear from this passage in the book of Kings that Elijah did not have the opportunity to attend this particular fundraising course.  He’s asking for food, instead of money, but it comes down to the same thing. Elijah does just about everything wrong, from a fundraising perspective. He doesn’t get to know the woman at all before inviting her to give. He doesn’t explain what his mission is, why he might be a worthy investment.  He doesn’t even truly ask for anything: he just demands what he wants. Worst of all, Elijah doesn’t take no for an answer. When this woman explains that she and her family are literally starving, he still pursues his object aggressively, demanding that she feed him before her own child, and promising that God will not allow her food to run out.

I love the look on the child’s face in the picture of this story. His face says it all. You’re asking us for what? You’re promising us what? I’ve seen that look before. I’ve felt it, on my own face.

Strangely, this story ends well. The widow decides to feed Elijah. Meal and oil magically multiply in their containers to satisfy her whole household until the drought is over. What on earth are we supposed to learn from this?

Most of us have a complicated relationship with money, with resources. This relationship is shaped by our history of having too little, or just enough, or more than enough. It’s shaped by the attitudes of our family members and friends, and any faith communities and cultures we have been a part of.  Sometimes folks talk about having “common sense” when it comes to money, but in my experience, people have very different ideas about what that common sense should be. There are several radically different philosophies about money floating around in our culture. For example: our American commercial culture tells us to take as much as we can get, and buy the most expensive things we can possibly afford. Commercial culture promises that money can give us pleasure, even happiness, while demonstrating to others how valuable we are.  Alternatively, many of us here in New England have been taught to be very cautious with our money. Don’t show what you have; don’t talk about what you have; don’t spend more than you have; make sure you can be responsible for yourself. This Puritan-inspired attitude promises that our money management will prove our morality, preserve our pride, and keep us secure.

Most of us are already confused about money when Jesus comes to crash this party with an entirely different point of view. Jesus tells us that we cannot serve two masters – God and money. Jesus tells a rich young man: “Sell everything you have a give the money to the poor.” Jesus tells us to consider the lilies; not to worry about our basic needs. Nothing that Jesus says could be considered common sense. If we follow Jesus, he won’t make us rich OR responsible. Instead, he tells us something that belies most of our experience. Jesus, and our wider scriptural tradition, tell us: It’s not about the money.

It’s not about the money. How can that be true? Money is great, and helpful, and often necessary. It’s one thing to hear that it’s not about the money in Concord, Massachusetts, where most of us are not planning to lay down and die after our next meal. It’s quite another thing for the widow in our story today. Surely it is about money, about resources, for her.

I struggle with why so many scripture stories lift up the generosity of those in true poverty. I don’t want to romanticize poverty, or spiritualize it. Want is real, and it can be brutal. I do wonder, though, if our ancestors realized what modern research teaches us: it is those with the most limited funds who are statistically the most likely to share them. Those who have the most limited resources are the most likely to be our leaders in generosity.

Why is this? Why are those with the most limited resources the most generous? I wonder if struggling with a lack of money reveals money’s limitations more starkly. Money can do a lot; but in the end, it fails to bring lasting pleasure, true happiness, moral superiority, individual independence, or security.  When money is not available, when there is not enough, the truly valuable things are perhaps more obvious: relationship, compassion, community, faith. Money is a means, but not an end. If we make it our end, we are doomed to profound disappointment.

Each year, during our congregational giving appeal, I let you know what I plan to give, and why. I am glad that I am able to continue to give ten percent of my income to this church, dedicating it to God and to the ministry that we are doing here together. I am also working on a better plan for my giving outside of the church: an area for growth.

I should admit that my commitment to the church is not always easy for me. Sometimes I get a little twinge when a pleasure is out of reach of my family. Sometimes I get a little twinge when I think that we should be doing more to ensure our future security. Mostly, I am glad to say, my giving commitment gives me a profound sense of peace and gratitude. I want to keep letting go of false ideas of what money could get me, if I kept it to myself. I want to keep experiencing the power of throwing in my lot with others, of letting the wealth that has come into my hands work for the good of many. I believe in what God is doing here among us, and it moves me to be able to support it. Those quotes, those dreams we heard at the beginning of the service – they are worth the world to me.

Ultimately, scriptures teach us, nothing actually belongs to us individually. Ownership is an illusion. We can only be stewards for the wealth that comes from God and belongs to all God’s people, all of God’s creation. The amazing thing is, that the more we learn to share what we have with one another, the more it grows. Instead of fear and scarcity, as we give and connect we discover abundance: abundant resources, abundant love, abundant possibility. As our hands open towards one another, loaves and fishes multiply, and meal and oil appear out of thin air, through the mysterious and marvelous grace of God.

Dear God, money makes us anxious and afraid and enthralled and protective. It pushes our buttons, and we get all wrapped up in it, instead of being focused on you. Whatever numbers are in our bank accounts, help us to breathe deeply, day by day, shedding fear and shame and pride. Teach us that our true value and security come from you. Teach us how to share what we are able and called to share with glad and generous hearts, that we might relieve the wants of others, free ourselves of every burden, and participate in your miraculous multiplication. Amen.

Bringing Forth Our Love

I wonder if you all could help me this morning think of ways that our church welcomes people. When people arrive at our church doors on a Sunday morning, what are some of the things we do to help them feel welcome? (Ideas included: provide greeters, say “good morning!,” shake hands, provide an elevator.)

As folks come into the sanctuary and participate in worship, are there things we do to make people comfortable, or to make sure they can participate? (Ideas included: chairs to sit on, space for wheelchairs, large-print bulletins, hearing assist devices, visual worship guides, headphones to block out noise, toys to keep our hands busy if that helps us, activity stations.)

Do we do anything outside our building to help people feel welcome? (Ideas included: Welcome Garden, special parking spaces, rainbow flags, Black Lives Matter & Yes on 3 signs)

This church does a lot to welcome people, and we keep trying to make our welcoming muscles stronger. We want everyone to feel that they have a spiritual home; that they’re not alone.

Our scripture story today is about someone who felt alone, and afraid, and who didn’t have a home. Naomi and her family are refugees, people who are forced to leave their homeland to survive, like so many people in our world today. They are able to travel to a new place, and they find the food they need. But then, Naomi’s husband and sons die. The only people who are left in Naomi’s family are her, and her two daughters-in-law. Naomi knows that she does not have what she needs to keep her daughters-in-law safe and healthy. So, she tells them to go back to the homes they had grown up in. She tells them to let her go, alone, back to the place where she grew up: Bethlehem of Judah.

Naomi is trying to be practical, and she is trying to be generous. She’s worried that she doesn’t have much to offer anyone else. But here is the really amazing part of this story. Ruth decides that being together with this person that she loves is more important than anything else.  She decides that whatever is going to happen next, it will be better if she and Naomi face it together. So Ruth tells Naomi: “Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay.  Your people shall be my people, and your God my God… Not even death will part me from you.”

Ruth goes with Naomi, and together they help one another make a new life, and a new home.

This season at church we are thinking about how we can be more like Ruth.  Ruth gives the gift of help and companionship along the way. She goes with Naomi, even though it means traveling to a place she has never been before.  Ruth brings the gifts that God gives her out into an unfamiliar world.

How can we be like Ruth? If we’ve already built strong welcoming muscles, how can we strengthen our muscles to bring forth the love of God beyond our walls and into the world? A few ideas:

  • On Friday night, folks from this congregation and other congregations and the greater community gathered at our local Jewish synagogue, Kerem Shalom. Because of things that are happening in our country, we wanted to be sure that folks there knew that we care about them. We lit candles, and sang songs, and then joined them in worship, to help make sure these neighbors felt at home.
  • This morning, we are gathering gifts for Open Table. We want to offer food to folks nearby who, like Naomi’s family, are going hungry.
  • In the hallway, you can see a poster of our Mission partners, folks who we dedicate our shared resources to help, bringing our wealth and service into our community for the common good.

How else can we be like Ruth? What are some other ways we can bring forth God’s love and justice into the world? (Folks reflected on this and recorded their ideas on hearts to share).

Dear God, open our hearts to follow in the ways of our ancestor Ruth, Going, and staying, and living, and dying, together with all your children. Amen.

All Our Saints

Revelation 21:1-6a

In the book of Revelation, John of Patmos recounts what God has unveiled before him in visions and in voices. One of the most famous passages from John’s writings is the one we hear today: a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. In this new reality, John writes, God is at home among the people. There is no mourning or crying or pain anymore.  Even death has ceased to exist.  All things are made new, and God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

Is this what is in store for us? I have to say, I hope so. It is one of the more beautiful passages in scripture about what might come next.

People often turn to the church, and to scripture, when they are wondering about the great mysteries of death and dying, heaven and eternity. And it’s not only adults. In confirmation class, this is always one of the most popular topics. Children like to ask questions about it, too. We all want to know what will happen to us in the great beyond. We are curious, also, about what will happen, and what has happened, to those we love.

These questions are particularly prominent in this time of year. I often think of this as the dying time. Leaves are falling and plants are sinking back towards the earth.  People often find their way back to the earth, too, following the tidal movement of the season. This is a time when the barrier between the living and the dead feels thin, as we celebrate All Hallows Eve and The Day of the Dead and All Saints and All Souls. Today we’ll continue our series of visual sermons, focusing on what lies beyond.

When we think of the church’s view of what lies beyond, I am afraid that too many of us think first of the Last Judgement, an idea based around passages from the Gospel of Matthew and Luke. Here is Michelangelo’s depiction of God judging the people, sending some to heaven and others to hell. The idea is attractive because it is so concrete. Do good and end up somewhere good. Do bad and end up somewhere bad. Trust that God will mete out justice in the end to anyone who treats you badly. But what does this theology say about God?

Looking at the upper left hand part of this picture, you can see the people who are being elevated into heaven. This is the good news part of the picture. Everyone should look happy. But even though they are safe in the clouds, surrounded by light, they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves. Instead, they’re staring to the side in apprehension.

Maybe that’s because, right next to them, they see this: an absurdly muscular God making a threatening gesture, sending lots of other people down below…to flaming torment. I find nothing here that could be the will of a loving God.

Our scriptures and our church traditions were inspired by God, but formed and recorded by humans. Therefore, when an idea like the Last Judgement fails the test of demonstrating God’s love, it is best we look elsewhere for guidance. Thankfully, we have many other scripture passages that suggest an entirely different reality after death.

In the Gospel of John (Ch 14), Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples. He tells them: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. I will go and prepare a place for you; I will come again and will take you to myself,so that where I am, there you may be also.”

In the book of Romans (8:38-39) Paul writes: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Throughout the scriptures, we learn that God loves us; that we belong to God; that we are made and remade in God’s image; that we are a precious part of God’s holy creation. It is fitting, then, that after our human lives are over, we would all return more deeply, more fully, to make our home in God, who is our beginning and our end.

This leaves, still, the question of saints, and souls. Where are those we have loved and honored? How can we visualize the great cloud of witnesses who are hovering around us?

Probably you have seen pictures like this: saints in gold, carefully posed. Most of our images of saints in the west are like this: white people, in fancy clothes, often with halos, lined up in orderly ways, as if for a photo opp. The saints knew how to stand in a line, apparently. These images are beautiful, but limited. Thankfully, some artists have tried to help us expand the way we imagine the saints.

Some of my favorite saint images are from the Catholic Cathedral in LA, where tapestries depict saints of all ages and cultures and skin tones, both famous and unknown, including children. These images help remind us that there have been holy people all around the world, and in every social location.

Another favorite is the work of Robert Lentz. He who writes icons and creates images that depict those who have not normally been recognized as saints: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Caesar Chavez,and Eve, mother of us all. Brother Lentz also depicts those who have been formally recognized as saints by the Catholic Church, but whom we may not be as familiar with, or choose to feature, including ancient Armenian saints Polyeuct and Nearchus,  and the recently sainted Josephine Bahkita., from the Sudan.

While I love to be inspired to by the images and stories of courageous people who have changed the world, I have to admit that the most powerful saints and souls in my life are the ones that I have known, and cared for. Each of us have our own group of those we remember tenderly; here are a few images of those who many of us remember from our shared life here.

Beautiful, aren’t they?

Many of us experience fear or anxiety in thinking about death. All of us experience grief at the death of those we love. As we stand on this side of the mystery, God offers us at least two gifts. First, the promise that she is not only our beginning, but also our end, that she will provide a loving home for us. And also,  that we will have with us in that home each person who has made our time on earth better: legions of saints and souls, a cloud of witnesses, also safely in God’s care, and accompanying us into eternity. Thanks be to God.

Who is Job?

  • October 24, 2018

 Job 38:1-11      

A message from the Rev. Polly Jenkins Man, October 21, 2018

God answers Job, yet I doubt if it’s what he wanted to hear.   Not after all he had suffered, all he had lost…children, servants, livestock, his home and his health. He simply wanted God to tell him why.  Why am I in this situation? What have I done, or not done?  He must have been terribly disappointed confused, even terrified.  Nonetheless, if we put aside poor old Job for just a moment, and look simply at the language: the imagery and the metaphors in God’s answer to Job;  it is a magnificent poem, one of the most imaginative and beautiful literary pieces in all of scripture. In just those 11 verses which Keith read, we discover God as an architect and a builder; as a mother and a midwife; a nurse, even a hydrologist.

And after these, there are four chapters full of the same:  God is a falconer, an astrophysicist, farmer and shepherd;  hunter, a potter , and much more. When Hannah asked if I wanted to preach this fall and gave me a few choices for dates I looked at the lectionary and discovered that the passage from Job was indicated for this morning.  So there was no question that today would be the day.  Job, Chapters 38-41 is close to number one on my playlist of Bible passages. I urge you to read it, the language is stunning. I was actually really  tempted to let the whole poem be my sermon.

But Job led me in another direction.

Who is Job?

Job is a homeless refugee in a crowded, filthy detention facility, whose village has been reduced to rubble in Syria..  Job is a Rohingyan mother running from the soldiers of her own country, forced to leave all her belongings behind.  Job is the two year old. Mexican child separated from her parents and held in behind a chain link fence, terrified and alone.  Job is a person with AIDS, covered with sores. Job is the Puerto Rican grandfather who saw the neighborhood where he has lived all his life completely destroyed in just a few minutes by   Hurricane Maria. Job is the woman who was sexually assaulted as a teenager by an entitled prep school boy, who had the courage to speak out and was then summarily dismissed by the agents of patriarchy, power and politics.

Job is all of these and everyone who has ever suffered loss, abuse, discrimination, homelessness, crippling illness or war.

“There once was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”

So the story of Job begins, as a folk tale. One day when all the heavenly beings present themselves before God, Satan shows up after walking to and fro upon the earth. God asks him “Have you observed my servant Job, blameless and righteous?”; and in the course of their following conversation, God and Satan make a bet using Job as their pawn. Satan wagers that Job will turn away from God if the good life, his family, wealth and health all are taken away.

Which is precisely what happens: all is lost and Job, naked, his body covered with sores, goes out and sits on a pile of ashes.

He then begins to question: “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?  Why is light given to one who is in misery and life to the bitter in soul?”   His friends arrive, one by one, each ready to figure out why he’s in such a sorry state.    “You must have sinned, they tell him, and that’s why God punished you.”   They’ve simply come to help him figure out what he did or didn’t do.  “Think now,” one says, “Who that was innocent ever perished?”

They really don’t get it, and it’s really because they’re asking the wrong questions. That’s not Job’s question.  He knows he is innocent; he hasn’t abandoned his faith or cursed God.  After all, according to the folk story, that’s precisely why God chose him for the wager with Satan.  Rather, Job’s question is  as ancient as humankind and as timely as today: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” That’s what Job wants to know.

Why are thousands sick and dying in crowded refugee camps and detention centers? Why are villages burned, women raped and men murdered because of their ethnicity? Why are babies and children separated from their mothers and fathers?   Why  are so many innocent young men in prison?

I don’t believe God has anything to do with it. Fear, racism, religion, wealth and power…and much more… these are all human, not God caused.

And Job believes that God can and will explain it.  He doesn’t let up, but keeps knocking, as it were, on God’s door. Then, finally God speaks:

“The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: Who is this that darkens counsel without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man.”      A voice like a thunder clap:

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Surely you know…Or who shut in the sea with doors?”

That’s not an answer.  It’s just a series of rhetorical questions.     To which both God and Job already know all the answers.  And God definitely doesn’t tell Job “Oh, it’s all because I made a bet with Satan.   And I won!”

In the long run, though, if anyone won, it was Job.  Because he persisted, never gave up, never lost faith. Job never cursed God. He never gave up believing that God would hear him. And God did, although not as he had expected

He never did get an answer to his question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  And that’s because it seems to me that the story of Job in its entirety is an answer to yet another   question. “What is it in the human spirit that never gives up despite the very worst that happens?

What is it, for example, that persuaded the Lost Boys of Sudan to walk across a continent after they were displaced or orphaned; seeking a new life.

How is it that so many women survive horrific sexual abuse to become strong national advocates for change?

What   was there in John McCain, a prisoner of war for five years, that helped him survive brutal torture to become one of the greatest statesmen of our time.

What is it that makes a Mexican family try over and over again to get across the border until finally they do find asylum?

These are all Job’s people.  That persist against all the odds. That tap into an indomitable faith and keep saying “yes’ to life. That survive and thrive after the worst the world has to offer.

They keep on keeping on.

You know at least one person like that, right? Who is resilient and refuses to let life beat her down.  At the same time, I suspect we all know folks who have been crushed by life through no fault of their own.  What about them? How do they keep going?

That’s where we come in, since through our faith we are called by the Spirit:  to visit the sick and comfort those in prison, provide food and shelter and welcome to the stranger.

To help heal a wounded heart, and speak out against injustice and inequality.

In the end, God’s answer to Job turns out to be a question for us who live in this hurting world; will we do our part to make it a little bit better?