Posted in Sermons

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

David’s Lament

2 Samuel 1

Today’s scriptures give us a fascinating glimpse into the heart of one of the greatest figures in the Hebrew Scriptures, King David.  Perhaps you know some of his story. David begins life in relative obscurity as a shepherd. But the Prophet Samuel is moved by God to anoint this very handsome young man as the new King of Israel.  There’s a problem, however: Israel already has a King, its first King, a man named Saul.

King Saul is at first unaware that he has a rival for the throne. He comes to know and love David as a musician, and even invites David to become part of his royal household. But everything changes when David defeats Goliath, champion of the Philistines. David earns great popularity with the people, who sing: “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” Even Saul’s eldest son and heir Jonathan is smitten with the beautiful young man. Scripture says: “the soul of (Saul’s son) Johnathan loved (David) as his own soul.”

The acclaim and affection that David receives makes King Saul very jealous. The relationships between Saul, David, and Jonathan, get more and more complicated as the story continues. Saul tries to kill David; Jonathan defies Saul and helps David to escape; and David bests Saul and spares Saul’s life, twice.

You wouldn’t have any idea how complicated it all was, though, listening to David’s song of lament after the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. David sings:

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and death they were not divided;
They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury,
Who put ornaments of God on your apparel…
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me;
Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

Memorializing his greatest enemy, David says only good things. He praises Saul’s valor in battle; he claims Saul was close to his son Jonathan; he celebrates the wealth Saul brought to the country.

Something more honest, and more personal, is evident when David speaks of Jonathan: “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful.” Scholars debate whether David and Jonathan’s relationship was what we could consider a romance today. It’s probably an unanswerable question. We know without a doubt that they loved one another profoundly.

Why is this story in our bible? It’s part of Israelite history, certainly. But it could have been told in so many different ways. Why is there so much time spent on this moment in David’s life? What does his grief tell us about our relationship with God?

David makes no mention of God in his song. But I witness God in this story in many ways.  God is in the love between David and Jonathan; all human love is a gift from God.  God is in the gratitude David has for Jonathan’s life; each human life is a gift from God. God is in the grief of David and his companions, too, in the tearing of clothes, and the weeping. I even find God in the pause in the action of the text: the time between the terrible news of battle casualties and the crowning of the new king.  There is something important, something holy, that happens when we take the time to grieve.

Yesterday we held a memorial service here at the church.  Some might have said it wasn’t a very proper funeral. Everyone wore really nice clothes, we gathered in our beautiful sanctuary, but what happened wasn’t very formal, or solemn.  Those who shared memories of the person who died included all kinds of stories, including funny ones, and colorful language.  There was lots of laughter in our church yesterday.

It may not have been formal, but it was holy.  There was holiness in the laughter as well as the tears. Holiness, in the honest outpourings of words, as well as in the silences into which no words were spoken. There was holiness, too, in the way people interrupted their lives, and flew in from around the country to be together.  There was holiness, in all the folks from our congregation who baked treats and set up tables, arranged flowers, opened doors, welcomed strangers, served food, and cleaned it all up: how this congregation showed up to honor someone they had never met, to offer up love for her daughter and her family in a difficult time.

Grief often makes us feel alone. But it is an experience all of us have. All of us are grieving. We have old griefs, and new ones. We grieve people who have died. We also grieve the deaths of dreams, and abilities, and illusions, and relationships. Some of us have more practice in grieving than others. There are those among us who are intimately acquainted with grief.

Whatever our losses have been, we are not alone in grief. We are surrounded by other grievers.  And among these grievers are those who make up our church.  This is an imperfect place to come when we are grieving. Folks sometimes say or do too much, or not enough, or not the right thing.  Still, here we try to allow one another to be broken, and honest, without cleaning it up too much. Here we practice showing up, one griever for another, to make visible, and tangible, the love of God.

Please pray with me. God, thank you for the gift of human companions, and for the gift of love. Bless us in our experiences of grieving, and bless us as we accompany one another in grief. Help us to recognize this work as necessary, important, inevitable, imperfect, and holy. Give us courage to be honest with ourselves, and with you, and with one another. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

The Song of Deborah

Judges 4&5

So far in our series on biblical songs, we have heard the longest song and the most popular one. Both were songs of praise. Today we hear another song of praise, most often known as the song of Deborah.

Who, you may ask, is Deborah? You may never have heard of her, but Deborah was both a judge and a prophet in ancient Israel.  Deborah sits in the shade of a palm tree in the hill country, settling disputes between the people. She serves as a military leader. She receives messages from God for the people. What’s more, Deborah does all of these things so well that she is known as a Mother in Israel, a mother of the people. If Deborah got her due, we would all know her name.

Over and over again in Israelite history, the same story repeats. The people Israel abandon God; God allows foreign leaders to oppress them; the Israelites cry out to God; and God raises up a leader to guide them to freedom and peace. In our story this morning, that leader is Deborah.

This time, when the Israelites do what is evil in the sight of God, they become enslaved by King Jabin of Canaan, whose military commander is named Sisera. Deborah summons an Israelite named Barak and gives him a command from God: “Go to Mt. Tabor with ten thousand troops. I will draw out Sisera, and I will give him into your hand.”

Barak is not so sure that this is a good idea. After all, Sisera has nine hundred chariots of iron. Who would want to go up against that? Barak says to Deborah, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”  In other words, put your money where your mouth is. Deborah promises to go with Barak. However, she warns him that his victory in battle will not lead to his glory; Sisera will be killed by the hand of a woman.

As the story continues, everything happens as Deborah has predicted. The army of Sisera is routed. Sisera flees, only to be killed by a woman named Jael. Soon, the Israelites are free of King Jabin.  Then there is a long song, praising God as well as many people for the victory. The song of Deborah: “ Lord, when you marched, the earth trembled, and the heavens poured… the mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, the God of Israel.” And the land had rest for forty years.

I have to admit that I have profoundly mixed feelings about this story, and this song.  On the one hand, it is deeply refreshing to see a woman in leadership in the bible. Plus, Deborah’s not just any leader.  She does it all: adjudicate, strategize, command, and prophesy.  She does it all, and she does it all well.

On the other hand, I simply don’t believe that God operates in the way that the text describes. I don’t believe God enslaved the Israelites because of their mistakes. I don’t believe God slaughtered the Canaanites to free the Israelites.  The God in whom I place my trust does not cause suffering or violence. So, if we turn to the bible to help us learn who God is, and what God does, what are we supposed to learn from this passage?

It may help, here, to know that the song of Deborah is among the most ancient songs in our bible.  It comes from a time and place where each people, each tribe, had their own god. When the people clashed against each other in the quest for land and power, they saw their gods at work in whatever outcome emerged. As the Israelites, a very small nation in a vast sea of empires, saw their independence overtaken again and again, they explained their fortunes through the lens of divine retribution and compassion.

This theology is problematic in any time period, and certainly when applied to modern Christianity. We see it often here in our own context, as all too many people have come to believe that a Christian God has chosen the white people of the United States of America as his chosen people today. They imagine that those of us who fit that description are being oppressed, just as the Israelites (and early Christians) were. This fantasy of oppression allows folks to ignore the very real privilege and power of white Christians in America, and in the world. All too many folks see God at work in new forms of social, political, and military dominance.

I hope we can take a different lesson from the text this morning.

This story was probably recorded later, while the Israelites were in exile, under the power of the Babylonian empire.  From that moment in their national story, the Israelites turned to their history to ask critical questions: Did God forsake us? Has God forgotten us?

Retelling the story of Deborah and Barak and Jael, and celebrating the people’s release from slavery at the hand of the Canaanites, is a way for Israelites in the Babylonian period to reassure themselves that God does not hold herself apart from their history. Instead, God accompanies them through it.

What do we do when times get tough? What do we do when we see our people suffering? That is not the time to forget God, to give up on God, to despair. Instead, it is a time to remember God’s love, past and present. It is a time to cry out for help. It is a time to recognize the leaders God is raising for a new age. It is a time to support those leaders, and one another

This week has been a devastating one in the news for many of us who consider immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and laborers, to be kin to us.  It is natural to grieve for what has happened, and to fear what may yet come.

However, this is not the time to forget God, to give up on God, to despair. To be honest, I am sometimes ashamed of my own lack of courage, when I witness the determination and hope of those whose lives are much more immediately impacted by our country’s failures of justice and compassion.

What did the Israelites do in exile in Babylonia? They remembered another time of suffering. A time when they cried out to God, and God was still with them. A time when God raised up new leaders; surprising leaders, faithful leaders, skillful leaders; women, among them.  They remembered that story, and sang their old song of victory. “March on, my soul, with might!” as the song goes.

Beloved, have courage; we can go on. God is still with us; we have our stories of liberation, ancient and new; and we have one another. Thanks be to God.

Steadfast Love

1 Chronicles 16
Psalm 136

This summer we are exploring the songs of the bible, of which there are more than 185. Last week we started with Psalm 119, the longest song in the bible. Today we turn our attention to the shortest song in the bible – which also happens to be what we might call the bible’s #1 hit: the song most often sung over the course of the text.

If you read the bible from front to back, this song first makes an appearance in Chronicles (which is one book in the Hebrew, and has been divided into two in Christian translations). The ark of the covenant, the wisdom that Moses received from God, is being brought to Jerusalem, where the new King David is establishing a tent of worship.

King David is known as a great musician, and music is important in both the procession and in the installation of the ark. Along the way to its new home, the ark is accompanied by the sound of horn, trumpets, and cymbals, and by loud music on harps and lyres.

After the ark has been brought into the tent, and offerings have been made, a song of praise is sung. Newly appointed praise leaders sing: “O give thanks to the Lord… Sing to God, sing praises, tell of all God’s wonderful works.” Then, towards the end of the singing, we hear these words: “O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; for God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

This short refrain shows up again in a later part of the book of Chronicles. Solomon, David’s son, has succeeded him in kingship and has built a great temple for worship in Jerusalem. It takes chapters of text to describe this temple: sixty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, one hundred and twenty cubits tall. The inside is filled with elaborately carved cypress wood, overlaid with gold, and set with precious stones. Within the temple is a most holy place, separated from the rest of the temple with a curtain made of blue and purple and crimson fabrics and fine linen.

Once it is all finished, Solomon calls the elders of the people together to bring the ark of the covenant to the temple. They bring the ark into the most holy place of the temple, underneath the wings of great carved cherubim. And the same lineage of singers that David called to the work of musical praise come in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres. They stand to the east of the altar with one hundred and twenty trumpeting priests. They raise up the song: “God is God, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” And the new temple is filled with a great cloud, and with the glory of the Lord.

“God is good, God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  All in all, this song is sung at least 12 times in the bible. In addition to Chronicles, we hear it when the prophet Jeremiah tells a desolate people that this song will be sung again in a rebuilt Jerusalem. We hear it when the temple is rebuilt, in the book of Ezra. This song is sung in preparation for battle, and in celebration of a military victory. It is featured in at least 5 psalms, including psalm 136, which we heard this morning.

Why was this song so meaningful to our ancestors in faith?

At the heart of this song is the Hebrew word, chesed, translated here as “steadfast love.” Chesed is difficult to capture in translation. In addition to “steadfast love” it is sometimes translated as “loving-kindness,” “mercy,” or even “loyalty.” The love of chesed is not the kindness of strangers, but the love of two parties who are profoundly tied together. The love of chesed is not a brief expression, but a dedicated ongoing practice.  Chesed is a description of the sure, intimate, long-lasting, foundational love that God gives to God’s people. The closest word in our Greek scriptures, in the Second Testament, is Charis, or “grace.”

If our song for today is popular at 12 mentions in the biblical text, chesed by itself is off the charts: it’s used 248 times in the Hebrew scriptures.

It’s fascinating that this song is sung at the dedication of a new worship space at least three times in the life of the ancient Israelites. It’s as if this song answers a crucial question: why are we doing this? What is worship about?  Why all the people, the instruments, the songs, and the rituals?

This is why, the song reminds us: God is good, and God’s chesed endures forever. Those in our lineage of faith traditions gather around this truth when we worship. Indeed, the purpose of worship is for us to practice centering our lives around this truth.  We practice putting our ultimate trust in the presence of that good God, and in her steadfast, loyal, merciful, eternal, unbreakable loving-kindness.

Psalm 119, the bible’s longest song, focuses on God’s way.  This shortest and most popular song in the bible focuses on God’s self.

So let’s take a moment to to try to let this really sink in, this old news which is still good news: God is good, her chesed endures forever. I invite you to get comfortable in your body, close your eyes if that works for you, take a deep breath or two or three.

  • Perhaps you have a few things swirling around in your mind and heart this morning; anxieties, things to do, personal griefs and gratitudes; greet them with kindness.
  • Become aware, too, of concerns that may lie beyond your immediate circles of care; there are so many: needs for reunification of families; for clean water and air; for freedom from poverty; for healing of body and soul; for release from racism; for a radical realignment and redistribution of power.
  • It is almost too much to bear, if we allow ourselves to consider it. Breathe.
  • Now, in the midst of what has come into your mind and heart, make some space. Allow an awareness of a foundational love to arise. A love so ancient that it began before all time; a love as deep as a sea floor; a love as steady as a mountain. A love that formed you, and knows you, and loves you without limit. A love that fills your emptiness. A love that blesses your tender places with care. A love that wraps its arms around you whenever you feel shame, and when you have made a terrible mistake, and when you feel most alone, saying: y ou are my beloved child.

Let us pray. God, train our hearts to know you, to open up and to be filled by you, to grow and to be fueled by you. For, truly, you are good; and your amazing enormous unbreakable love endures forever. Trusting in that changes everything. Amen.

Your Promise Gives Me Life

This summer we are exploring the songs of the bible, of which there are more than 185. Among them are songs of triumph and songs of lamentation; personal songs and political songs; long songs and short songs. We begin today with the longest song: Psalm 119.

Perhaps you have forgotten that we have a hymn book as part of the library that is our bible.  Unfortunately, the music was not supplied, but we do have the words. The psalms were an important part of the worship life of ancient Jewish communities, and they have continued to be central to Jewish and Christian worship since then.

If you are paging through the book of Psalms, Psalm 119 sticks out.  It is the longest Psalm by far. In fact, it’s the longest chapter in the entire bible. Psalm 119 is also remarkable because of its form. This psalm has one stanza for each consonant in the Hebrew Alphabet.  A whole stanza of lines starting with aleph, then a whole stanza of lines starting with beit, and continuing on through the whole alphabet.  I can only imagine how hard that was for the writer.

No matter where it is in the alphabet, the psalm is focused on one theme: God’s word.  God’s word is mentioned so often that the psalm uses seven synonyms for it, often all in the same stanza: Torah, commandments, ordinances, precepts, decrees, promises, and statues.

If you try to take in the whole psalm all at once, it’s a little dizzying.  The lines are organized, alphabetically, but the sense of the lines circles around and around, using the same words and ideas again and again in new variations.  We only listened to 6 of the 22 stanzas; that was my guess about how many we could handle in one sitting.

So, I wonder: Why? Why write such a long song? Why write it in this way? And why on this topic – not the most thrilling one could have chosen: God’s instruction, commandments, ordinances, precepts, decrees, words, promises, and statues?

One important thing to note is that the psalm doesn’t actually contain the contents of God’s instruction. This psalm doesn’t include the 10 commandments, for instance; it doesn’t mention any commandments or ordinances at all. Instead, the psalm proclaims the importance of a way of life we find through immersing ourselves in the totality of God’s guidance.

Another thing to note: although we might find ordinances a dry topic, this writer definitely doesn’t. There is passion in their tone. “I treasure your word…my hope is in your ordinances… I delight in your way as much as in all riches… I will not forget your word.” And even, “My soul is consumed with longing for your ordinances at all times…I cling to your decrees…your promise gives me life.”

God has a beautiful way, the psalmist tells us. All of God’s instructions guide us towards life at its very best: a life worth living.

I’ve never heard anyone say their favorite psalm is 119.  But I wonder if this passionate longing that the psalmist describes lives, at least a little bit, in each of our hearts.  The psalmist writes of God: “You are good and do good.”  We long to live closer to good, closer to God.  At least some part of us longs to be good and to do good ourselves.

This longing that so many of us have, faces challenges from both within and from without. Inwardly, our longing for God and God’s ways competes with all of our other desires, many of them much less admirable: wealth, power, safety, attention, approval.  “Put false ways far from me,” asks the psalmist. “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.”

External forces of evil are also threaten us. There are so many who desire to lead us far from God’s ways in order to increase their own power and wealth. Environmental devastation; racial persecution; economic oppression; LGBTQ discrimination; inhumane treatment of immigrants — these are all are carried out and justified in the name of profit, privilege, or even in the name of our God – which is, by the way, blasphemy, a breaking of the commandment not to take the name of the Lord in vain.

“Redeem me from human oppression,” writes the psalmist; “My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word”

Maybe we need every letter of the alphabet; every possible synonym for God’s Torah; 22 stanzas and 176 verses to call us back towards God and God’s ways. In the rule of Benedict, the guiding document for Benedictine spiritual practice, psalm 119 is read in portions daily, so practitioners read the whole thing every week.  22 stanzas of course correction.  176 verses of redirection. Each piece a reminder of other, truer, more beautiful ways that God opens up for us.

The psalmist tells us that the outcome of continually surrendering to God’s way is happiness. As the first stanza says, “Happy are those who keep God’s decrees, who seek God with their whole hearts.” Happy may not be the best translation here. Better, perhaps, to say blessed; or content.

God’s way is a gift. We as humans so often get it very, very wrong about what we need, what kind of living will make us happy, and how we should be treating one another.  And that leads to unbelievable suffering: in our own hearts, and in the hearts and bodies and lives of others. There is another way, God tells us. There are so many better paths. Travel with me; open your heart to me and to each other. This is how you were meant to live; this is who I created you to be: to be good, and to do good. On the ways that I open for you, you will find contentment, integrity, peace, rest for your soul. Thanks be to God.

 

Holy

  • May 29, 2018

Purification of Isaiah’s lips, fresco from St. Martin Church in Nohant-Vic, France

Psalm 29
Isaiah 6:1-8

Isaiah has a vision. God is sitting on a throne, like a king. But not quite like a human king. In fact, the God who occupies this throne is so large, that just the hem of his robe fills the entire temple. Far, far up above, mysterious celestial beings called Seraphs fly around. Each Seraph has six wings, and they say: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The voices of the Seraphs shake the building. The whole space fills with smoke. And Isaiah becomes afraid.

Our bible is filled with stories like this. Incredible stories, awe-inspiring stories about God. Take, for instance, Psalm 29, also read today. God, the psalmist writes, has strength and splendor. God’s voice thunders, it flashes forth like fire. God’s voice shakes the wilderness, causing everyone to say, “Glory!” “The Lord sits enthroned as a king forever,” the psalm concludes; “May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!”

The God of our scriptures, the God of our traditions, has many names and faces.  God is a still, small voice; a companion on the way, a well of living water, the movement of breath in our lungs. But God is also very often described as vast and powerful beyond measure; glorious; thunderous; even terrifying.

What does it mean to worship a God like this? A big God; a scary God; a God with power and authority; a God who is enthroned as a king forever? (more…)

Native Language

  • May 22, 2018

Acts 2:1-47

What is the native language of your faith?

When the Holy Spirit comes to bless those followers of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago on the Jewish day of Pentecost, a miracle occurs. Tongues of fire appear among the people, and a tongue rests on each of them. They are filled with the Holy Spirit, and begin to speak in other languages, through the help of the Spirit. As this cacophony of speech rises up, the international crowd who is gathered in Jerusalem hears the believers speaking about God’s deeds of power in their own native language. It’s as if the new church is speaking directly to each of them, in a way that they can understand.

Many of us here at West Concord Union Church have the same first spoken language: English. There’s not the same clear majority when it comes to our native liturgical language. We have among us in this congregation folks hailing from a wide range of protestant denominations: Congregationalists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Unitarian Universalists.  Also here are folks from Catholic tradition, and those with a Jewish upbringing.  Also among us are more and more folks who were raised without a faith tradition.

We gather together: with different sacred hymns, different practices of baptism and communion and prayer, different expectations of sermon length and content.  And we have other differences, too: a preference for silence, or for boisterous joy. A devotion to classical music, or to folk or rock or jazz or hip-hop. A need to move our bodies, or a desire to be still. A longing to connect with other people, or a preference for our own personal prayer space. An affinity for some names and images of God, and a discomfort with others.

We are so liturgically different. And yet, we find ourselves together. We are all here together, and having come together, we realize how blessed we are by one another.  So the question arises: how shall we worship?

A few years ago, I read a piece from a pastor whose name I can’t find, who followed what they called “The 70% rule.”  Many of you have heard this story. According to the 70% rule, if more than 70% of any worship service is something any of us would have picked ourselves – there is a problem.  That means that the service is probably not doing a great job of serving anyone else: people with different liturgical languages than ours.

So maybe the goal shouldn’t be 100% satisfaction with our worship services. We want to leave some room for others. On the other hand, we want to make sure that each of us gets a chance to hear a liturgical language that speaks to us some of the time. We arrive at church tired from our own personal struggles.  We arrive at church tired from living in this broken world. We arrive at church tired, and so thirsty for living water, for hope, for love, to come to us in a way that we can receive it.

So, to that end… I invite you to take a few minutes now to consider the questions on the handout in your bulletin. What makes you feel at home in worship? What has been new to you here that you’ve learned to appreciate? What favorite hymns/pieces of music/prayers/practices of worship do you cherish? Please record anything you feel moved to share…

Thank you. I hope you’ll put this in the offering plate when it comes around, so we can learn more about one another’s liturgical languages. I invite you now to take a look at the bulletin cover. There you’ll see an image of the believers on the day of Pentecost, each with a tongue of flame over their head.  It’s an amazing story, an amazing image. Now, take a look at the beautiful children of God who have joined together with you this morning for worship.  Imagine, if you can, that each of us has a small, brilliant tongue of flame hovering above our heads – just high enough and small enough that you’re not worried that anything is going to catch fire. If you see a flame above each head, that’s 70, 80, 90 flames filling the room.

That’s a lot of flames – a lot of human spirits – a lot of heart languages.  Each one, different. Each one, true. Each one, beautiful.  Each one, a response to the movement of the Great Spirit who moves in us all.

Holy Spirit, speak to my heart in a way that I can understand: help me to feel your presence and your power. Holy Spirit, speak to the hearts of all those who surround me. May they, too, be filled with your presence and your power. This world is in such great need of the fire of your love. May the brightness of your flame in each person here, and across the earth, give warmth and encouragement to my own, guiding and fueling the mission you give to us all. Amen.

Who Should We Follow?

  • May 15, 2018

Psalm 1, Acts 1:15-17, 26

Who should we follow?  This is the question facing the people of the Jesus movement in the passage of Acts that we hear today. Who should we follow?

They began, of course, by following Jesus. Then, Jesus was killed; but only three days later he was back: walking to Emmaus, serving a breakfast of fish, appearing among the disciples, saying: “Peace be with you.”  It is not until Jesus ascends into heaven – traditionally 40 days after his resurrection, or this past Thursday in our current liturgical year – that his followers really need to answer the question. Who should we follow?

One straightforward answer to this question could be: the apostles. These men have travelled with Jesus, listened to him preach, watched him heal, and received special instructions from him. They have even been given authority over demons and the power to cure diseases (Luke 9:1). The apostles are the most obvious succession plan. However, one of the 12 apostles betrayed the movement. Judas, who carried out ministry alongside the others, assisted with Jesus’ arrest. There are still eleven apostles left: but to have eleven apostles lead the movement leaves open the wound of Judas’ betrayal. A leadership of eleven apostles also fails to symbolically restore the twelve tribes of Israel. Therefore, another apostle must be found.

Peter says to the crowd of believers, “…one of the men who have accompanied us during all this time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So two men are proposed; the believers pray; and they cast lots, choosing Mattias.

Why does the decision happen this way? Peter is making it up on the fly. He doesn’t have any precedent to rely on, and no one has drawn up any bylaws. Peter comes up with his own process: a mixture of tradition, community discernment, prayer, and chance. I wonder how many women and children were there that day, in addition to the 120 men, and whether they got any say.  I wonder why the new apostle had to be a man, and why he had to be someone who was with Jesus from the beginning.  And I wonder why the believers gathered to discern and pray when the decision was finally made by casting lots – by luck.

Altarpiece of Saints Thomas and Matthias, C.1510-1520 by Bernard van Orley, Vienna, Austria

I invite you to take a look at how a 16th century Viennese artist imagined this meeting. What do you notice in this picture? Important to note: there were no Christian churches at that time, the early believers were not what we would today consider white, and there were almost certainly women and children present.  That’s the artist imagining that the men in the scripture story looked just like himself, and the church existed as it did in his time and place.

Peter’s method of choosing a leader for the believers to follow is profoundly imperfect: both in who gets to participate, and in how the decision is made. However, we could say the same about many leadership decisions.

How do Christians choose who to follow today? Recently the Theological Seminary at Baylor put out a list of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. Again, notice: 12. These are the folks Baylor thought everyone should be listening to. Has anyone seen the list? There are some great preachers on that list. But there is only one woman in the bunch; she’s white, and no longer serving in a church. There are only three men of color. The rest of the list is composed of  — can you guess? White men. Eight out of twelve. There is not one single woman of color. There is no one who publicly identifies as anything other than straight and cisgender.  This list is problematic in all kinds of ways. Which begs the question: who designed the method of decision making, and who participated in it?

We no longer have one small group of believers making up the church.  Christian groups exist all over the world in incredible diversity.  As these Christians decide who to follow, each community has their own process, and their own wisdom.  But how well can the Spirit move in those places – so many places – where there are only men, or only white men, or only wealthy, white, straight, cisgender men participating in the decision-making process?

How can those of us who gather in the name of Jesus make sure that in our formal leadership and our informal allegiance we are following those who represent the vast diversity of God’s people?

Who should we follow? I’d like to suggest two resources on this front.

The first is a document called “Reclaiming Jesus: A confession of faith in a time of crisis.”  A diverse group of church leaders came together this past Ash Wednesday and crafted a statement to try to articulate what loyalty to Jesus might look like for the church in this time. They proclaim their belief that each human being is made in God’s image, that we are one body, across boundaries of nation and color and gender and class. They proclaim their belief in the value of honesty. They proclaim their belief that leadership in the name of Jesus is servanthood, not domination. And they articulate what these beliefs lead them to reject: white supremacy, bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia; the sin of putting the rich over the poor; the practice of persistent and deliberate lying; and any autocratic and authoritarian forms of leadership. In forming their beliefs, these Christians find their guide in love of God and love of neighbor. There are copies of their statement in the hallway, and I will put a link in the eWord, if you would like to consider whether this document might help clarify and embolden your own witness.

I also commend to you, as I have done before, The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. This movement has its first major national action this Monday; you can join in locally tomorrow in Boston if you are able, or magnify their message through social media or word of mouth. This movement takes its leadership from the church but also beyond; focusing, as is so rarely the case, on the witness of the poor. Through the testimonies of the poor, this movement has been able to show, quote: “how the evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and the war economy and militarism are persistent, pervasive, and perpetuated by a distorted moral narrative that must be challenged…When confronted with the undeniable truth of unconscionable cruelty to our fellow human beings,” they say, “we must join the ranks of those who are determined not to rest until justice and equality are a reality for all.”

A poster from this campaign is on the cover of our bulletin. Just think of how different this picture of leadership is, than the other one we looked at. People together – across all kinds of diversities – out in the street.

Peter made a first attempt of guiding the Jesus movement to find human leadership.  Thankfully, the Holy Spirit got involved as well. We don’t know much about Matthias, or anything he accomplished after being elevated to the rank of apostle. However, two other folks in that generation, who were not nominated became profound witnesses to the good news of Jesus. There’s Paul, who wasn’t there in the beginning, and in fact persecuted early Christians before he became one.  He may have been the greatest evangelist of all time. There’s also Mary Magdalene, who wasn’t a man.  She evangelized an emperor and traveled widely to share her own first-person testimony of the resurrected Christ. Both Paul and Mary Magdalene were  effective preachers and church leaders, even though they didn’t make the list.

Who do you follow?  Who do you listen to, who influences you, whose example do you try to emulate?  Who’s on your personal list? Try writing it down later, and looking it over.

None of us has all the answers all by ourselves. None of us can get too far relying only on our own personal strength, our own personal wisdom. And if we are trying, ultimately, to follow Jesus, to follow God, no single person and no single kind of person can lead us there.  Instead, we need to follow people who will keep breaking open the boxes we try to put around God, and holiness, and justice. The Spirit calls us to widen the circle of those who influence us: draw the circle wide, draw it wider still.  Come, she invites us: find those who are honest and brave and faithful and really different from you. I have blessed them, so that they might bless you.

God, help us to follow those who through your blessing lead us closer to you. May we be like trees planted by streams of water, with roots that dig deep and wide, and trunks that grow strong, and leaves that do not wither. Amen.

What is to Prevent Me?

  • May 1, 2018

Acts 8:26-40

Today in our scriptures two people meet on a wilderness road, and the church is changed forever.

It all starts when an angel of the Lord comes to Philip. For those of you keeping track, this Philip is not the Philip who was one of the original 12 disciples. This Philip is known as Philip the deacon, because he was chosen to serve the poor in Jerusalem due to being full of the spirit, and full of wisdom. This Philip is also known as Philip the evangelist, because has been preaching in Samaria. His skill in sharing the good news of Jesus has been bringing many people into the church.

Now an angel of the Lord says to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”  On this wilderness road Philip discovers another person traveling south: a eunuch who is a court official of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia.  Like so many people in the bible – many of them women – this court official is unnamed. At the suggestion of one of my mentors in ministry, I will call this person Dawit, an Ethiopian name that means “Beloved.” Not knowing Dawit’s preferred gender expression, I will use the pronouns they, them, and theirs.

It is hard to overstate how different Philip and Dawit are. These two are from different countries, on different continents. They grew up with different local languages and cultures. They were raised in different faith traditions. Dawit has a position of great power watching over the treasury of a Queen. By contrast, Philip has been spending most of his time making sure widows in Jerusalem get enough bread.  Dawit has also been castrated, set apart from an early age. Philip, as far as we know, is unusual in his own society only because of his decision to follow Jesus.

It’s hard for people who are so different to meet one another, let alone have an in-depth conversation. Here, the Spirit intervenes, urging Philip on: “Go up to this chariot and join it.” Philip runs up and hears Dawit reading the Prophet Isaiah. We as readers know that Dawit has been to Jerusalem in order to worship, so we can guess that they are interested in the Jewish faith.  Philip, on the other hand, was probably surprised to find this powerful foreigner with the text of Isaiah.

Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” This is, perhaps, an insulting question. It is certainly a bold one.  Dawit says graciously, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Dawit invites Philip to get up beside them in their chariot. These two proceed along their way together, discussing the scriptures.  Philip shares what he understands about the good news of Jesus.

Dawit must be greatly moved by what they hear. When the two people come to some water, Dawit cries out, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip does not hesitate to do so. They both descend from the chariot, and Philip baptizes Dawit. Then, just like that, the encounter is over. Philip is whisked away by the Spirit, and Dawit goes away, rejoicing.

It all could have gone so differently. Philip could have been too cautious to engage such a lofty stranger. Dawit could have rebuffed the intrusion of a commoner from another land. Conversation could have broken down in a heated debate about the exact meaning of the text.  It all could have gone so differently — especially that moment, when Dawit asks: What is to prevent me from being baptized? (more…)

Can I Get a Witness?

This sermon was shared by Joyce DeGreeff on April 15th.

Luke 24:36-50

This morning’s Gospel story is jam packed with exciting drama, deep emotions, and rich theological insights. In reading and reflecting on it, there seem to be four or five different sermons I could preach today. As with other post-resurrection appearance stories, this one invites us to hear about Jesus’ encounter with his grieving disciples as we consider notions of “peace”, “forgiveness”, the “holy spirit” and “blessing” and wonder what our own place in this narrative might be.

For me the most compelling questions inspired by this text revolve around the intimate connection with the Holy, the experience of God’s presence, God’s love, and God’s grace. How do we encounter the Risen Christ?…What’s being offered? How do we recognize it and receive it? And how are we called to respond?

In Luke, just before the story that we heard this morning, Jesus appears to two men on the Road to Emmaus. The sequence of events that follow are very similar to the ones that happen when Jesus moves on to his disciples. The men, confused and frightened, fail to recognize him at first, but then Jesus offers words of explanation, his body as evidence, and a suggestion that they eat together, all of which help them to realize that they are with the Risen Christ. In the Emmaus story this moment of enlightenment is referenced by “opening eyes” and “burning hearts” and in today’s account, Luke states that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” and they at once realized who was in their midst.

Can you imagine how Jesus’ grieving followers must have felt in this moment? Confused and afraid, at first, yes. But also relieved and overjoyed that this personwhom they had come to love and trust was with them once again. Last week in Bible Study, we were looking at one of the post-resurrection appearance stories in John and Ruth Sedlock, one the facilitators of the discussion, began by saying with passion and sheer joy: “All of these post-resurrection stories are just filled with so much excitement!” She’s right! So what is all the excitement about?

On the surface, just the mere fact that Jesus has come back to life to offer more time with his friends is reason alone to celebrate. And yet, what he offers them is so much more. He begins by saying: “Peace be with you.” – he says this once in today’s account and three times in the passage from John that we studied last week. “Peace” I give to you…not as the world gives but something more special. A peace that surpasses all human understanding. Have you ever felt that kind of “Peace”?

Jesus goes on to explain how his death and resurrection are related to God’s promise of forgiveness and liberation from sin – that which separates us from the Love and Life that God desires for us. Have you ever felt the power of such forgiveness?

“You are Witnesses to these things.” Jesus tells his disciples. But lest they think that they will be left alone to figure out what this all means, Jesus invites them to wait until they are “clothed with power from on high” – a reference to the Holy Spirit which Jesus has promised will be with them when he leaves. Can you remember a time when you felt the company of the Holy Spirit – the abiding presence of God comforting you and empowering you to do hard things?

And finally, Jesus offers his disciples a “blessing” – a reassurance that wherever they go, he will be with them, in Spirit if not in body, offering courage and guidance. In what ways have you received and offered blessings in your life?

Encountering the Risen Christ – experiencing a glimpse of Divine Grace – is sometimes very personal and can mean different things to different people. Last week, at Northeastern University where I work as a college chaplain, there was a celebration honoring my 20 years of campus ministry there. As part of the program, a video was shown in which various alums going back as far as 1997, shared how the ministry impacted their lives and how they experienced God’s love through the people and leaders of the group. Time and time again, the students spoke of a welcoming and inclusive community where worship was meaningful, questions were encouraged, joys and challenges were held with deep appreciation and concern, and a commitment to community outreach and social justice was a priority. I’ll admit that it was nice to hear that the ministry had made such a difference in people’s lives, but what was more poignant for me was the willingness of these alums to be “witnesses to these things” – to share how they encountered God while at college.

In our busy lives, we may not always recognize holiness in the world, in one another, or in ourselves. And unless we’re asked to talk about it, we we don’t often have the opportunity to share our experiences of encounter with God’s presence.

With this in mind, I decided to reach out to a few of the communities that I am most involved with here at the church – the Adult Bible Study, the Walden Pond Prayer Walkers, and the Youth Group. To each of these groups I asked some version of the questions: “How do you encounter the Risen Christ? When do you see or experience God’s Love? In what ways do you sense the company of the Spirit?”

Many of you responded with mentions of worship, expressing how you see Jesus in the Scripture readings, sermons, and communion, and find God’s companionship in the songs, the prayers and in the community of fellow seekers. One person wrote: “Every person in that room is there, in love, forgiveness and encouragement, for every other person in the room.” Someone else expressed it this way: “It is a sense of unity with others who are also worshipping in that place at that time.  My encounter is often singing hymns with the others or in the silence of praying with others.  I would call it a feeling of joy.”

Some of you noted that you experience God in the Adult Enrichment programs offered by the church. Whether in Bible Study, or Sunday Morning Forums, on Retreats, in Book Group, or in prayer at Walden Pond, taking time out of your day to be in fellowship and reflection with other members of this congregation provides much solace and an assurance that Christ is truly in our midst.

Many people find God in Nature and this too came through in the responses that I received. Sometimes God appears in the woods where we spot birds and deer, or on the beach as we watch gulls, crabs, and rolling waves, or in the majestic views on a mountain top. To quote one of you: “God shares the beauty of every unique creation: trees, flowers, and rocks. God surprises and delights us with every fresh sight. A fresh crispness in the air, the smell of spring, the sparkle and splash of water flowing in streams, waterfalls, crashing waves – all God’s caresses.”

The way we care for one another in our congregation also came up. We listen to one another’s joys and concerns with attentive hearts. We work to make worship and programs accessible and relevant for all ages and abilities. And we engage with the world through service and advocacy work.

“Jesus is alive with every kindness and caring act that we do”, someone wrote, “In Sunday Fellowship I see Jesus in the caring and thoughtful way that the participants care for one another. When we sing together, pray, and share, I see faith growing. Jesus brings us a sense of quiet awe as he is in all of us to recognize at any age or time.”

The youth responses echoed many of those shared by the adults, especially those relating to caring for one another. Witnessing God’s love through how we reach out to those in need, was by far the most popular response from the teenagers. Whether in direct service, donating money to organizations that help the poor, or working for more justice and advocacy for refugees, immigrants, and other displaced people, it was clear to me that for these young people, the power and presence of the Risen Christ shines most brightly when we put our faith into action.

Finally, one person shared a very powerful and personal story about an encounter that she had with Jesus right here in this church. Years ago, when the church was discerning whether or not to officially become an “Open and Affirming Congregation”, she faithfully went to all of the study sessions and discussions in order to learn more and remain open to the Spirit. Having been raised in a more conservative Christian tradition, many of the thoughts and theologies in these conversations were new and perhaps challenging. But she told me that when it came time for the vote, she felt as if Jesus was literally sitting by her side whispering to her not only how he would vote, but also urging her to stand up and witness to the transformation in her own heart and understanding. It felt as if the Spirit was speaking in and through her to proclaim Jesus’ message of radical Love and hospitality.

We are blessed, here at WCUC, to encounter the living Christ in so many different ways. The love and comfort that the Spirit brings to us in all sorts of situations can be profound. For me, most recently I have experienced the closeness of God’s grace and peace in the midst of losing people I have loved. Over the past year and a half, three of my extended family members have passed away as well as a very close high school friend. And I’ve been all too aware of the extraordinary amount of recent deaths in my work, in our church, and in the Concord community this year. Two of the students who are in our campus ministry at Northeastern lost their fathers in very sudden and tragic situations. Many here in our congregation have lost spouses, parents, siblings, extended family members, and longtime friends. And in our community we have felt the pain of losing three teenagers and two mothers of young children, much too soon. The weight of this grief is heavy.

Oh, what we would give, to have our loved ones appear just one more time – even if only briefly. What a gift it would be to see them again and to hear them say “Peace Be With You”, just as the disciples heard from their beloved Jesus all those years ago. Sadly, we don’t get to have this moment. But we do get to hang on to the blessings that our relationships have offered us and we do get to carry these blessings with us as we live out the rest of our time here on Earth.

Theologian, author, and artist Jan Richardson, who also happens to be one of my favorite spiritual teachers, writes beautifully about love and loss in the context of Easter and the Resurrection. Nearly five years ago, Jan lost her husband Gary, when he died from a sudden brain aneurism. Heartbroken by this, Jan found solace in the company of close friends and family, her faith in God’s abiding presence, and in her writing, both on-line and in published books. In her blog, The Painted Prayerbook (www.paintedprayerbook.com), Jan recently wrote a reflection piece on the appearance of Jesus to his disciples in which she connects the ideas of “loss” and “blessing” this way:

“When we experience horrendous, life-altering loss, it can seem that the blessing we had known has indeed disappeared. When a person who had embodied that blessing and borne that blessing in our lives is no longer physically present, it can become difficult to believe that the blessing is still present, is still active, is still in force. Part of the invitation of grief is to keep our eyes and our hearts open to how the blessing persists, how it still wants to be known in our lives, and how it wants to help us live even when our lives have fallen apart.

A blessing does not end. This is part of the fundamental nature of a blessing: the energy and the grace of it cannot dissipate or disappear. The essence of a blessing endures. It lives in the community that mediated the blessing and continues to hold it in memory and celebration; it lives in the hope that persists; it lives most of all in the love that called forth the blessing in the first place, the Love that is stronger than death.”*

In all of this, I hear the echo of Jesus’s voice: “You are Witnesses to these things.” We are witnesses to the blessings in our lives, called to recognize them, to give thanks for them, and to share them as often as we can. And we are witnesses to the never ending peace that comes from knowing a God of grace, hope, forgiveness, and companionship. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” as it is written in the 12th chapter of Hebrews, “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

May our eyes be opened to see more fully the gifts being offered and may our “burning hearts” ignite in us the conviction and courage to be Christ’s hands in the world.

*From Jan Richardson’s Website: Using Jan’s words For worship services and related settings, you are welcome to use Jan’s blessings or other words from this blog without requesting permission. All that’s needed is to acknowledge the source. Please include this info in a credit line: “© Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.”

Books by Jan Richardson: The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons In the Sanctuary of Women: A Companion for Reflection and Prayer

A Story of Surprises

Mark 16:1-8

Our Easter story from the Gospel of Mark is a story of surprises. When the Jewish day of Sabbath is over, and the Sunday morning sun is rising, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bring spices to anoint the body of Jesus. Who knows if they have slept, or if they are thinking clearly. These women are grieving; only two days ago they witnessed Jesus’ death first hand. But, tired, grieving, they still know what needs to be done. So they get up early, and gather what they need, and go to the tomb.

The first surprise is that the stone is already rolled away from the entrance of the tomb. Why would the tomb be open?  Then, going into the tomb, the women see – not the body of Jesus, but a very alive young man.  The story only gets stranger from here. It seems that this young man is serving as a kind of administrative assistant for Jesus. Apparently Jesus has things to do, people to see, and so this man has taken on the job of delivering Jesus’ away message to whoever shows up at the grave. He says to the women: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here … But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

This is a story of surprises. And Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome do not respond to these surprises calmly. On the contrary, the gospel tells us they are overtaken by alarm and terror; they are startled and awestruck; they tremble with fear and with ecstasy. In fact, they are so overcome that they run away from this man and his news, and say nothing to anyone about what they have seen.

It’s a strange end to the story of Jesus. Later Christians objected to this earliest gospel ending so much that they could not leave it alone. In most bibles, you can read one or two other possible endings for the gospel of Mark. The editors tell us: Don’t worry! This story has a happy ending. This is the kind of story that you can feel good about on Easter, or any other day of the year.

I love the first ending of the gospel of Mark.  It feels so honest.  Honest, about what hearing this news of resurrection must have been like for those three women. Honest, about what it is like for us, all these years later.

Of course, the news of Jesus’ resurrection is not really a surprise to us. I can’t imagine you’re shocked to hear that Jesus Christ is Risen Today. We all knew there would be flowers, and festive music this morning at church.

But really putting our trust in the news of the resurrection is another thing entirely. I don’t mean the science of it, the logistics of a broken body rising, that is the least difficult part as far as I am concerned. Trusting that Jesus rose from the dead means trusting that love triumphs over hate; that forgiveness is greater than sin; that the story that we’re living in right now in our world today is a story that ultimately has a joyful ending.  Trusting in all of that can be struggle for any of us. In fact, in moments of grief, hearing that we are destined for love, forgiveness, and joy through the perplexing power of God may be enough to make us tremble with fear and run away with our hearts broken open.

Luckily, like the women at the tomb, we have more than one opportunity to decide what to do about this resurrection news.  More than one chance.

The women, of course, eventually told someone. We know because we have heard the news about Jesus, more than two thousand years later.  At some point, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome trusted enough in the news that Jesus is risen to share it with others.  We, too, have a new opportunity each day to consider whether we can put our trust in this story, and whether we are brave enough to share it with others.

Today, as you know, is April Fool’s Day. There are creative pastors out there today telling fantastic jokes, and pulling amazing pranks. Bless them. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’m sorry, and you’re welcome, depending on how you would have felt about that.

The closest I am getting to April Fool’s Day today is to be foolish enough to invite a room mostly composed of white New Englanders to dance.  Some of you may know the hymn Lord of the Dance. I grew up singing it, in the Episcopal church. This hymn is based on a much older hymn, perhaps medieval, which our choir sang recently: Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. Both songs propose that Jesus is a dancer; that he defies every power that tries to keep him down; that he invites us into the dance as well.

Perhaps it is best not to worry too much about whether we are prepared to believe in the surprising news of the resurrection today. How ready we are to trust in the ultimate power of love, forgiveness, and joy. Instead, we could simply consider whether we want to join in the dance; whether we want to allow ourselves to be swayed by God’s irrepressible Spirit.  Who knows what could happen, after that.

So in a moment we’re going to sing together. Any children and anyone else who is particularly inspired is invited to come up and dance with Melissa. As for the rest of us, I invite you to move where you are, as the Spirit guides you. Whether you are really ready to let loose or a whether a gentle sway is going too far for you in church, everyone is welcome, just as we are. Let us welcome the eternally surprising news of the resurrection, and join in the dance with Jesus.