Posted in Sermons

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

Blessed & Filled

  • January 16, 2018

Mark 1:4-11, Acts 19:1-7

When does Jesus become Jesus?

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus has always been, from the beginning of time: in the beginning was the Word. Luke and Matthew emphasize all the signs that occur while Mary is pregnant and when Jesus is born. His birth is the time he arrives among us, according to these gospels. But in the gospel of Mark, there’s no mention of any of this. Instead, this gospel begins with Jesus’ baptism.

John is in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Lots of people are going out to hear him: people from all over the Judean countryside and even from the great city of Jerusalem. Many are baptized by John in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

Jesus joins these throngs of people. Apparently, he is just one of the crowd.  No one seems to know who he is. Nothing seems to mark him as special. Nothing, that is, until it is his turn to be baptized. As Jesus comes up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart. The Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove and a voice comes from heaven, saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Amazing.

In this gospel, Jesus’ baptism is the moment when Jesus becomes recognizably Jesus: holy, special, singled out. Strangely, however, the text doesn’t tell us if anyone else notices. It is Jesus who sees the heavens torn apart. Was it only Jesus who saw that? Was it only Jesus who  felt the Holy Spirit, or heard the voice from heaven? It hardly seems to matter. Jesus has this amazing baptismal experience: and that experience starts him off on a journey towards his calling.

This week, our President was in the midst of a discussion about immigration when he said some words denigrating Caribbean and African nations – words I will not repeat here.  I’m sure I don’t need to. You’ve heard them already.  Looking out from his vantage point as a wealthy white American man, he expressed his utter disregard and disgust for people with less wealth, with different skin colors, with different cultural and political backgrounds, with more recent American immigration dates.

The president’s comments were profane, but that is not the worst thing about them. These comments and many of the reactions to them demonstrate the continuing power of white supremacy in our nation. Too many believe that white skin and wealth and power are what make people valuable: worthy of citizenship, worthy of human rights, worthy of compassion.

The lies of white supremacy are not only vile in and of themselves. They are worthy of our deepest condemnation because they purposefully obscure and ultimately legitimize the most shameful parts of our collective history.  The economic inequality we witness today both within and beyond our country is not the result of a difference in capability or effort, or even the result of chance.  It is, instead, the result of a systematic stripping of resources from the hands and lands of people of color. Our white European and American for-bearers took what they wanted to enrich themselves and justified it with racism. We even took people. We took people, people our white fore-bearers kidnapped and enslaved.

To now denigrate and despise those whom we and our ancestors have wronged does not demonstrate American greatness. Instead, it adds grave insult to a devastatingly vast and infinitely painful injustice, a national crime.

Thankfully, the voices of people like our President are not the only ones we hear in this nation. This weekend we give thanks for the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. By extension, we also celebrate the movements that he was a part of: movements for civil rights, and for the alleviation of poverty, and for the end of the Vietnam War. (more…)

Holy to the Lord

  • January 2, 2018

Luke 2:22-40

On this Sunday after Christmas we hear a story that is only found in the gospel of Luke, a story that often gets lost amidst the other stories of this season. Jesus’ parents bring him to Jerusalem, to the great temple, to present him to God, and to designate him as holy to the Lord.

In this story we witness the faithfulness of Joseph and Mary. They are following ancient Jewish customs despite very limited means. To travel to Jerusalem after their trip to Bethlehem must have been difficult. They do it anyway, and their temple offering of two turtledoves marks them among the very poor.

It was a modest ceremony for a faithful family: important, but unremarkable. But this ceremony is transformed by the witness of two very special people. One is Simeon, a righteous and devout man, who is full of the Holy Spirit, and anxiously waiting for God’s action in the world. The other is Anna, an elder who worships perpetually in the temple with fasting and prayer. Both Simeon and Anna recognize Jesus as a source of redemption and praise God for the gift of this special child. Their words amaze Joseph and Mary. Apparently the events of the pregnancy and birth had not yet quite convinced them what was in store for this tiny baby.

When the ceremony is over, the family returns home, to their own town of Nazareth. The text tells us: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

This story is rich with meaning. It could help us reflect on the place of Jesus in Jewish and Christian traditions, and how our Christian tradition both honors and fails to honor Jesus’s Jewish faith. It might lead us to consider the role of elders such as Simeon and Anna: their power to shape how we understand ourselves and our faith. We could explore how Simeon and Anna play a role in moving us from Christmas to Epiphany, spreading the word about Jesus to the temple community and the world.

Today, however, I am struck most by how this very special presentation of a baby in a place of worship echoes what happened to many of us. As babies or children, many of us were brought into churches, or synagogues, or other holy places, to be named, or blessed, or baptized. Our families longed to see us recognized and dedicated as “holy to the Lord.”

Jesus was unique. But all babies are special. Each person is created in the image of God and is recognized by God. We are each holy to the Lord, regardless of what ceremonies are performed. But how many of us carry that sense of holiness, of specialness, of blessedness, far beyond any days of special ceremony?

As we travel over the brink between Christmas and Epiphany, between 2017 and 2018, many people think about starting fresh. Making resolutions. Turning over a new leaf. Setting new goals.

Here in the church we are called to remember that we are already precious in God’s sight. We have always been known and loved. And any change we seek, we will find most fulfilling if it is also a change that God longs for, for our healing and for the healing of the world.

How can we know what God is longing for? One way is to listen. This year we are returning this year to a tradition we have tried before, the tradition of star words. Words have been chosen and placed on these shiny stars, and laid out for you here in the sanctuary. You are invited to come and choose a star today, to see if God might lead you through the word written on the back of it. There are a few rules: please don’t peak, no give-backs, no changies. Let’s seek out a star to guide us, as Jim plays for us. 

Does everyone have a star? Have you read your word, or had help reading it? Now maybe your word speaks you. Great. If it doesn’t, I ask that you give it a chance. Let it marinate, look up its meanings. Hang it up somewhere and wait to see if it has something to offer you in a week, or a month, or next December. If you hate your word, let me tell you, you’ve hit a jackpot: because that means it has something to teach you. Whatever your word is, I invite you to take it home with you, and try to allow God to guide you through it, in the coming year. And then we’ll gather here again, next Christmas season, and see what new stories God has told among us.

God, you made us, you know us, you love us. We have been holy because of your blessing from the beginning of our lives. Help each person here to feel how deeply we are treasured. Grant us the help we need for the next stage of our journey, this season of challenge and change.May our hearts find ever better ways, with your guidance. Amen.

Stars will be available on January 7th for anyone who missed picking them up!

Finding a Posada

Luke 2:1-20

The beautiful holy story we remember tonight takes place amidst bureaucratic red tape.

The Roman Empire needed money, and so it needed to collect taxes. But how can you collect taxes if you don’t know who you’re taxing? The first step is a registration: a census. And for some strange reason, in this story, everyone is counted not where they live, but in their place of origin, in the city from which their family’s male line comes from. It seems like a strange plan to me for organizing a census; but that’s the way our story goes.

Joseph’s people were, Luke tells us, from Bethlehem. And Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth. So Mary and Joseph join the nameless crowds of people that were on the move that season. So many people, traveling by foot or by animal or by cart. So many people, improvising places to stay, and ways to get fed. So many people, standing in lines, and filling out forms. It must have been terribly disruptive and inconvenient and costly and even dangerous for these folks to travel. Still, it was less risky than disobeying the empire.

That journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was not a good time to give birth. But babies don’t wait for bureaucracy. They don’t care about borders, either. They come when it is their time to come. And, as it happened, Jesus was ready to be born. So Mary and Joseph have to do the best they can, in a truly unfortunate situation. Mary births outdoors, perhaps, or in a stable – the text doesn’t say. And Mary lays the baby in a manger, in a trough made for animals to drink out of – because there is no place for her family in the inn.

It’s only one phrase in the story: “there was no place for them in the inn.” But it’s a phrase that helps shape our whole understanding of Christmas. And out of this phrase came the tradition of Las Posadas, which means the Inns, the shelters, the accommodations. For nine nights, in Mexico and in Spain and beyond, communities fill the streets. They follow behind people dressed as Mary and Joseph, and sometimes a real live donkey. They look for a place to stay. At first the Holy Family and their friends are turned away. No, there is no room, you are strangers, we couldn’t possibly help. But then, eventually, each night, the travelers are welcomed in; to a home full of light and food and music, or into a brightly decorated church. The travelers come in to kneel around a nativity, and to pray or to party or both. The last night of Las Posadas is tonight: Christmas Eve.

This tradition that we reenacted with children at our five o’clock service tells our holy story in a wonderful way. Las Posadas also invites us to consider: who is getting left out today? Who is barring the door? And how can we all work past the very human instinct to distrust a stranger, and welcome holy families, and holy children, into our midst?

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to think of people being left out today. We might remember the immigrants and refugees who seek safety and opportunity in our nation, or in Europe. Too many of these precious children of God are spending their holiday season in detention centers or in refugee camps; away from family; in want and in fear. Others are being left out for other reasons. They are not seeking a new nation, but face distrust and discrimination right where they are, because of differences of skin color, culture, religion, wealth, sexual orientation, gender expression, and more.

Some say that God sent us Jesus, our Emmanuel, our God-with-us, so that we could finally see the divinity that resides in humanity. It has always been there, of course – God created us, all of us, in God’s own image. But two thousand years ago, we seemed to need a reminder that God’s glory could coexist with the common stuff of human life. So God sent us Jesus. Jesus: in whom the presence of God is so blindingly clear, that it cannot be missed. God wanted to let us know: even in these flawed and humble creatures, in their great complexity and diversity: even in people like you and me, lives the breath of God. When you help the least of these, you are showing hospitality to God herself.

In our Christmas story, God is born as a human child in a world of tragedy and injustice and poverty and division. And his birth changes things. Now, Mary and Joseph still have no choice about taking their trip to be counted in Bethlehem. And they can’t change, either, the distrust or dismissal or exhaustion that leads all the innkeepers to turn away a mother in labor. Yet still, through the grace of God, Mary and Joseph find a welcome. Animals keep them company while they cradle their child. Angels are put to work bringing news of his arrival. Shepherds, dirty and rude, come rushing to witness the babe. There’s enough folks for a party, or a prayer service, and good news to celebrate: good news of great joy for all the people.

No matter what you witness when you look out into the world today, at Christmas we remember that humanity has been at least twice blessed: by God’s creation of human life, and by the incarnation of God as Jesus. If God made us, and has accompanied us from the beginning; if God came to be with us in flesh and blood; then perhaps we are, all of us, redeemable: capable of recognizing and following the divine within us. Capable of recognizing and honoring the divine within one another.

In this beautiful place that is marked by unjust laws and selfishness and cruelty and plenty of our own modern bureaucracy, God keeps gently inviting us into lives that are run by a different logic. Look, God says: see the holy child, filled with everlasting light. Listen to the solemn stillness, and the glorious songs. Observe the tender care of the new parents, the awe of the shepherds, the angels’ watch of wondering love.

If all this is true, then perhaps we may find ways to welcome the Marys and Josepsh that come knocking at our doors, heavy laden by life’s crushing load. If all this is true, then perhaps along our own weary roads, we may find rest in the Posada, the inn, of God’s own love. For God is waiting for every wanderer, for all of us – ready to provide some modest but truly warm accommodation, with shelter, and food, and light, and love, and prayer, and maybe even a party. Thanks be to God.

What Mary Knew

Luke 1:39-56

Imagine if you will, a picture of Mary: Mary of Nazareth, Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Even those of us who did not grow up Catholic have seen plenty of images of her, the most famous woman in our Christian tradition.  Imagine Mary. If you are like me, the Mary that first comes to mind is white, and young, and very beautiful. A soft light shines around her. Her eyes are downcast. Her expression is peaceful. Her hands are folded in prayer, or wrapped around the Christ child. Mary is passive. Mary is quiet.

Western culture has made Mary into our ideal woman. She tells us just what women are supposed to be like. But it turns out that the Mary we see in Christmas cards and church statues and museum portraits is not the Mary of the bible.  The biblical Mary is not white. She is not passive. And she is not quiet. On the contrary, Mary is a loud woman.

When we first meet Mary in the bible, she doesn’t have much to say. But that’s probably because she is having the shock of her life. An angel appears to her, and tells her that incredible things are about to happen: a spiritual pregnancy, a royal son. All Mary can get out of her mouth in that encounter is a question: “How can this be?” ; and then, finally, a response: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Or, to paraphrase, “Ok, I guess if this is what God has in mind we can go ahead.”

Mary takes a moment to get her bearings. But as soon as the angel leaves, she springs into action. Mary hits the road, defying morning sickness, hurrying through the hills to see her cousin. Why are there no pictures of Mary on the move? Mary with a climbing stick, Mary with a rucksack, Mary with dirty sandals, sweating in her rush to share her news?

When she has something shocking and important to tell, Mary seeks out the company of women. As far as we know, she doesn’t share her news with Joseph at all. Instead, she wants to talk with her kinswoman.  Perhaps she imagines that Elizabeth is more likely to believe what she has to say.

Incredibly, Elizabeth does believe Mary, with the help of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Elizabeth figures out the news even before Mary shares it. And so begins the most extended conversation between two women that I can think of in the bible. Elizabeth exclaims with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women!”  And Mary responds, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!”

Elizabeth and Mary literally shout with enthusiasm. Two loud women. And in the midst of their exclamations, there is another woman there, too, in spirit.  Mary is riffing on the words of her foremother Hannah.

Hannah says: The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
Mary says: God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
Hannah says: God raises up the poor from the dust, to make them sit with princes.
Mary says: God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.

The biblical Mary is a woman with a voice — a strong voice.  She has a voice that is stronger because she has listened to the witness of other women.  She has a voice that is stronger because she can speak to other women.  Mary has a strong voice to proclaim God’s good news.  For this conversation between two pregnant women isn’t about nursing, or nappies, though perhaps they talked about that later. Why not. Both of them understand that what they’re a part of is not only personal but also political: part of a plan in which justice and mercy will transform the world.

Mary is nothing like we usually imagine her or see her portrayed.  She is a unmarried poor woman of color with a strong voice who cries out for justice.  Mary is one of a mighty host who prepare the way for the women who are crying out in this season.  There have been many loud women through the years, testifying to both devastating truth and astonishing hope. And a great many of these loud women have been women forced to the margins: enslaved women, Black women, Latina women, Trans women. For instance: Anita Hill. For instance: Tarana Burke.

Strengthened by the history and example of others, women have come forward in this season to say: #metoo.  I was also harassed, I was also assaulted, I was also abused, I have also been ashamed, I have also been punished for trying to tell my story. #Metoo. We have heard witness after witness, and we know that these witnesses represent the tip of the iceburg.

As a result of the witnesses in this season, and the people who have finally listened and believed the witness of women, the bows of a few of the mighty have been broken. A few of the powerful have been brought down from their thrones. But the problem of patriarchy, of male privilege and dominance, of fiercely defended white cisgender heterosexual male power, will take much more work to fully disassemble. We need more testimonies. But there have always been testimonies. We need more people to believe those testimonies. We need more men and more white women willing to change. We need more women and more people of color and more GLBTQ folks in leadership.

We also need change in the church. Discrimination and harassment and abuse have taken place here, too. In the church universal, and in this local church. Some of you are aware that a former pastor here, Dick Bauer, who served in the 60s and early 70s, and was beloved by many, was eventually removed from the ministry due to sexual misconduct. This misconduct occurred in several congregations he served in Massachusetts and Connecticut, including West Concord Union Church.  It’s not a secret.  It’s also not something we talk about much. It’s not pleasant to talk about. But unless we tell the truth about these things, with loud voices, we are a part of the problem: complicit in silencing testimonies that need to be honored. Complicit in upholding structures of oppression that need to be torn down. Failing in our duty to reckon with the past and ensure that the church, and our church, is a safe space for all people today.

Mary, the biblical Mary, has a loud voice that cries out for justice. How can her voice encourage us to proclaim the devastating truths that are part of our personal and collective past and present? How can her voice encourage us to proclaim the astonishing hopes that God has given to us to share with the world? How can Mary help us to listen to other loud women, other marginalized voices, with greater trust and concern, and a stronger response?

The Christmas song asks, “Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters? Mary, did you know that this child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know?”

Mary did know. Mary was the first human being to know.  God told Mary, and Mary is the one who told all of the rest of us. Mary may even have been the one to break the news to Jesus. She certainly helped prepare him for the life he would lead.

The gospel of Luke begins and ends with two women named Mary who are entrusted with God’s good news. In both cases, men do not believe them. Mary of Nazareth carries the news of God’s incarnation.  Mary of Magdala carries the news of God’s resurrection. Mary did know, and thank God for that. For she, and all who have come after her, bless us with their loud voices.

Mary of Nazareth said to Elizabeth:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in the God who saves me.
For God has recognized and blessed a humble servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.
God’s mercy is on those who regard her with awe, from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with her arm, scattering the pride of the proud.
God has dethroned the powerful, and lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped her servant people, in remembrance of her mercy,
According to the promise she made to our ancestors:
To Abraham and his descendants forever.

Thanks be to God.

Prophets Ancient and New

Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

How does the story of Jesus begin?

Each of the four gospels begins the good news of Jesus Christ in a different way. The gospel of Luke begins with a long story of Jesus’ birth, full of angels and songs: more of that to come later this month. The gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy connecting Jesus to powerful ancestors, drawing a line from the past to the present. The gospel of John begins with a poem about the eternal nature of Jesus: in the beginning was the Word.

Today we hear the very beginning of the gospel of Mark.  In Mark’s gospel, there is no mention of the manger, or the magi, or the angels, or the ancestors.  And there is no poetry. Instead, we hear this: “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’’”

Mark begins with prophecy: the prophecy of Isaiah, and the prophecy of John the Baptist, who carries on the legacy of Isaiah in a new era. John, as you may know, was a curious figure. He wore camel’s hair.  He ate insects. But despite his odd personal habits, John drew people to him. Lots of people. People from all over the Judean countryside and from Jerusalem itself came out to hear him preach along the River Jordan. They listened to him, and their hearts were moved.  Many chose to confess their sins and be baptized into a new life.

Mark’s gospel begins with the prophet Isaiah, and it continues with the prophet John the Baptist. And then, John says, “the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” The next prophet in the lineup is Jesus himself.

What is a prophet? Sometimes we speak of prophets as predicting the future, like fortune tellers. But in our religious tradition, prophets are not primarily focused on forecasting what is to come. Instead, they reveal the hidden reality of the present. Prophets have an uncommon ability to perceive the wisdom of God, the perspective of God, and to share that with others.  If we listen to what they have to say, we can also begin to perceive the world as God does.

We could use some prophets in this time and place.  Some folks to keep us grounded, and clear-headed about what is going on around us.  We live in troubling and tumultuous times! What are some of the things that are troubling you these days? What are you reading in the news, or experiencing in your daily life? (Members of the congregation named some concerns, including sexual harassment, failure to welcome refugees, wildfires).

We could use some prophets in this time and place. And I am glad to tell you: we have some.  Just this week, there was a national call for moral revival, the launch of a new Poor People’s Campaign.  Fifty years ago, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power.”  King was part of a movement that worked to make visible, and audible, the reality of discrimination, dehumanization, and poverty in a nation with more than enough to go around.  This movement was, King said, a multi-racial “nonviolent army of the poor, a freedom church of the poor.”

Honoring that history, and compelled by our current reality, a new movement is arising today. Led by the Rev. William Barber II, as well as the UCC’s Rev. Traci Blackmon and so many others, this new Poor People’s campaign is uniting people across the country to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation, and the nation’s distorted morality.

Last spring, I had the privilege of hearing the Rev. William Barber speak at the UCC’s General Synod gathering in Baltimore. It was an experience. I stood there having to remind myself to breathe in, and breathe out, as I listened to him speak.  My heart was jumping out of my chest, because everything in me was saying, “yes, this is it!”  He was able to articulate with stunning clarity what is going wrong in the world and what going right would be like.  Rev. Barber refuses to be partisan, or to seek anything less than the full justice of God. He believes that we can be a remnant to transform this nation; that we can bring about a season of moral resistance; that together, we can change the moral narrative of our country.  And as he was speaking, it seemed not only possible to me, but inevitable; because he and those who are working with him are calling out the good in us, the God in us.

Prophecy is one of the great gifts of the church.  We, the church, have the capacity to profess a vision of what human society can and should be.  We have the capacity, because we stand rooted in a history of justice seekers.  We have the capacity, because we rely not on our own power, but on the power of God and the power of community.  We have the capacity, and we have the call.

In the United Church of Christ, as the Rev. Traci Blackmon, one of our national leaders, has said, we have a history of crying out, and of showing up. Being part of this movement is the next step. Our local Associate Conference Minister, the Rev. Wendy Vander Hart, has been attending local meetings for this new movement in Boston. This week, she issued an invitation to all of us to join in.  As the largest Protestant denomination in Massachusetts, we have power to use here, to strengthen a national effort that has been building for over a year now, preparing to mobilize in the months to come.

Now, I know what you’re going to say. Hannah – what are you asking us to do? There’s only two weeks until Christmas. No one’s got time to march on Washington right now.

Don’t worry. Today, all I am asking is this: honor the seasons of Advent and Christmas by listening to the prophets, both ancient and new. Take five minutes, or ten, to read about this movement. Watch a video of some of the leaders speak.  Let the words and ideas seep into your heart. Notice whether these words offer you some clarity, or some hope.  You can find out more at poorpeoplescampaign.org. There’s also a link on our Facebook page, and I will put one in the eWord.

How does the story of Jesus begin? How a story begins tells you so much about what it is really about.  The gospel of Mark begins with prophets: Isaiah, and John, and Jesus.

In this season, when we are exhausted or disgusted, we can find our way to the feet of the prophets, ancient and new.  We can lay down the burden of our sins, and drink in the words of God’s prophets like living water. Their words continue to prepare a way out of no way for us today. They make a clearing through wildernesses of confusion and despair.

The prophets tell us that every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.  The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.  The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

There are prophets among us, and they lift up their voices with strength, heralding good tidings, saying to the cities, “Here is your God!”

Thanks be to God.

Preparation, Anticipation, and Wonder

On December 3rd, Jessica offered this sermon for all ages:

This year Advent has the fewest days possible: only 21.  In fact, the fourth Sunday of Advent this year lands right on Christmas Eve.  I feel like you blink and take a few deep breaths and Christmas is here.  Seems to happen every year, but this year Advent really is quite rare in its brevity (contrast this with last year which had the longest Advent possible).  So we only have 21 days now to wait for Christmas, right?  Waiting is often the word that is used when referring to the season of Advent, especially in children’s literature and when explaining this season to young ones.  But waiting can be boring.  Waiting can make you feel anxious or nervous or frustrated (think about waiting on hold with your cable company or waiting for an important test result).  Waiting is really not something anyone wants to do.  So this isn’t really the right word to describe the mood and tone of this holy season.  Instead, I would use the word preparation.  And anticipation.  And wonder.

Instead of sitting twiddling our thumbs for three weeks, we prepare.  We bake cookies, we pick out a tree, we put up lights or add a festive touch to our dining rooms, we buy gifts, we go to parties.  Maybe some of us make a concerted effort to slow down this season and embrace the quiet, slumbering world outside while some of us will be organizing and planning and arranging every day until Christmas.  We may do it differently, but we all prepare in some way during Advent because we are anticipating that great gift of wonder and joy and love on Christmas day.

We just witnessed, through masterful dramatic retelling, the moment that Mary learns she is to be the mother of Jesus.  This young teenager is perhaps at home.  By herself – this is important – maybe cleaning or making bread or getting ready to collect water.  And the angel Gabriel suddenly appears to her.  After the angel calms her surprise and fear, he gives Mary this HUGE news that she will become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to God’s own son.  I don’t have to remind you that in the first century in Israel, getting pregnant before marriage was a big no no.  Mary knew this, but instead of questioning or disbelieving or simply refusing Gabriel’s proclamation, she said, “Yes.  I am ready to serve.  Let it be just as you have said.”

Now, in Sunday school every week we are experts at Wonder Questions.  We wonder a lot and we ask lots of questions that often result in pretty dynamic discussions.  So this is automatically how I approach our bible stories.  I wonder.  I find it very significant that Gabriel appeared to Mary herself to deliver this good news.  In just the previous verses before this passage, Luke describes another encounter with the angel Gabriel and Zachariah, the husband of Elizabeth, who is Mary’s cousin and becomes miraculously pregnant in her advanced age.  Gabriel told Zachariah this wonderful news – he didn’t appear to Elizabeth at all.  So why come to Mary?  I wonder why Gabriel didn’t appear to Joseph instead.  Or at least Joseph and Mary together.  That certainly would have cleared up any questions of dishonesty or infidelity.  And although the book of Matthew does describe a dream in which Joseph is visited by an angel of the Lord and reassured of Mary’s immaculate conception, this happens well after Mary herself is told the news.

So Mary is told first.  And Mary is alone when she receives this news.  Why?  I think it comes back to preparation, anticipation, and wonder.  For a little while, Mary is the only person in the world who knows she is to become the mother of God’s son.  Just Mary.  God has given her an exceptional gift to prepare herself and revel in her anticipation and wonder in her own personal way.  God allowed Mary to process this huge news however she needed to in order to embrace it.  The unique and personal ability to prepare was God’s gift to Mary, and it is God’s gift to us as well during Advent.

I’d like to read a very short children’s book now, called Who Is Coming to our House? by Joseph Slate.  It has simple words and very simple pictures of animals in a barn preparing for someone.

Who is coming our house?”

Someone, someone,” says Mouse.

“Make room,” says Pig.  “I will butt aside the rig.”

“We must clean,” says Lamb.  “Dust the beams,” says Ram.

Who is coming our house?”

Someone, someone,” says Mouse.

“Sweep the earth,” says Chick.  “Stack the hay,” says Goose, “and quick!”

“Spin new webs,” says Spider.  “I will line the crib with eider.”

Who is coming our house?”

Someone, someone,” says Mouse.

“Someone’s coming from afar.”  “I will nose the door ajar.”

“But it is dark,” says Cat.  “They will never come,” says Rat.

“Yes, they’ll come,” says Mouse.  “Someone’s coming to this house.”

“I will lay an egg,” says Hen.  “I will spread my tail for them.”

Who is coming to our house?

“Mary and Joseph,” whispers Mouse.

“Welcome, welcome to our house!”

This season of preparation and anticipation is such a gift to us.  Just like these barn animals, we get ready in all different ways to celebrate Christmas.  All are unique and special and personal.  We thank God for this time to prepare and anticipate the wonder of the birth of Christ, just as Mary was able to do.  How will you prepare this Advent season?

God of Life.  We lift up the Advent story of preparation, anticipation, and wonder.  Of a young mother embracing her astonishing news and a king appearing when we’d least expect it. Open our eyes and our hearts that this might be an Advent of hope to the world.  Amen.

Made Well

  • November 21, 2017

Luke 17:11-19

Jesus is on the border between Samaria and Galilee when ten people approach him. We don’t know if they are Galileans like him or foreigners, outsiders, Samarians.  We don’t know anything about these people, except that they are afflicted with the disease of leprosy. They call out to Jesus: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus sees them, and he sees their affliction.  He hears them calling out to him with the name his disciples use for him. He hears them asking for mercy. Jesus says: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  They go, and as they go, these ten people are healed.

So far this story is not very remarkable, at least in the gospels. Jesus is, by nature, a healer. He heals whoever he comes across. He heals people, no matter where he finds them. He heals people, no matter who they are. Jesus’ healings are often simple, like this one. He doesn’t make a big show of what he can do. And the healing often takes place after the fact, as it does here.

The healing in this story is not very remarkable, at least for Jesus. The twist in the story comes after the healing. One of the people afflicted with leprosy – a Samaritan, a foreigner –  notices that he has been healed. And as he notices, he changes direction, turning back towards Jesus. He praises God with a loud voice. He prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet. He thanks Jesus. And Jesus tells him: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well. Your faith has saved you. Your faith has made you whole.”

In this story, ten people are healed from leprosy: a physically debilitating and socially isolating disease. For at least one of the ten, something else happens as well. He responds with praise, with worship, and with gratitude. His physical healing changes his heart. His heart is made well, he is saved, he is made whole. Jesus witnesses his transformation, and sends him out, to find an entirely new way.

The practice of being grateful is a hard one to learn. Day after day, I ask my children, after they have received something: “What do you say?”  Still, with all this drilling, they rarely come up with an unprompted “Thank you.” Learning to notice what we have been given, to delight in it, and to be truly grateful for it: this is a spiritual practice that most of us struggle with throughout our lives.

Christian blogger Glennon Doyle calls the shift from complaint to gratitude “putting on our perspecticles.”  As if gratitude is a pair of spectacles for the heart that can fundamentally change the way we view the world. (more…)

Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning

  • November 14, 2017

Matthew 25:1-13

Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of heaven will be like this: Ten young women take their lamps and go to meet a bridegroom. Five bring back-up flasks of oil. Five do not. Unfortunately, the groom is late — very late — so late that everybody falls asleep and the lamps begin to go out. Finally, at midnight, the groom shows up, ready to start the party. Five young women refill their lamps with their back-up flasks.  Since these women refuse to share their oil, the other five women are forced to leave and seek oil elsewhere. When the women return from their errand, the door has been closed against them. The groom will not let them in.

I confess that this story is not one that I like very much. A whole group of young women, or virgins, or bridesmaids, waiting for the arrival of a tardy groom: It seems like the set-up for a cliché and sexist romantic comedy.

I also have practical questions.  Why would failing to bring an extra oil flask to a wedding get you kicked out?  And who would actually be available at midnight to sell supplemental oil to desperate guests?

My biggest question, however, is: what are we supposed to learn here? It is challenging to draw any sound moral lesson from this tale.  Consider the heroes we have to choose from. The five supposedly wise women refuse to share.  The breathlessly awaited bridegroom is so late his guests fall asleep waiting for him. This is rude enough, but then he bars the door and denies ever knowing the five women who take a few minutes to purchase more oil. Talk about a double standard.

Thankfully, Jesus ends this story by dropping a big hint to let us know what it is really about. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (more…)

Questions

Matthew 22:34-46

Jesus is teaching in Jerusalem.  He is responding to question after question. People keep coming, the text tells us, to test him. They ask Jesus about taxes. They ask him about resurrection. They ask him about the commandments. In each case, Jesus responds wisely, revealing religious truth while sidestepping political land mines. Finally Jesus turns the tables, and begins to ask his own questions. What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he? How could he be the son of David, when David calls him Lord?

Suddenly the conversation dwindles. No one knows what to say. Everyone is afraid of getting it wrong, of looking like a fool. From that day on, the gospel writer tells us, no one dares to ask Jesus any more questions.

What a tragedy.

Reading the gospels, we learn that questions are essential if we want to learn about God. Much of Jesus’ teaching is in response to questions from the crowd.  And when he is asked a question, he rarely gives a straight answer. Sometimes he tells a story. Most often, he asks a question in return.  In our gospels, Jesus asks 307 questions. Questions are his favorite way of teaching.

Today we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But that’s not quite right. The reformation was a complex social movement that lasted for hundreds of years and across many nations.  What we’re marking today is the anniversary of the date when the German monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. In this document, as you may know, Luther outlined his disagreements with the Roman Church’s teachings surrounding indulgences.

Interestingly, among Luther’s 95 theses, 8 are technically not “theses” at all. They are questions. Luther says, “The unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult even for learned men to rescue the reverence which is due the pope from slander or from the shrewd questions of the laity.” and then he proceeds to list 8 shrewd questions, including this one: “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?”

Luther concludes his famous document by asserting that Christians must follow Christ at all costs, even if it means endangering themselves by going against the church.  Nothing is more important, he says,  than being honest about our beliefs and staying true to our conscience.

In the years since Luther’s actions, countless Christians have agreed with the idea that the church is in need of reform.  We have questioned church teaching and practice. We have refused to endorse any teaching we do not believe to be true. We have separated from one another again, and again, and again, forming new movements and denominations to better embody our understanding of what it means to faithfully follow Christ.

The Protestant branches of the global Christian church which emerged from the Reformation have become known for our robust skepticism.  The theologian Paul Tillich calls it the Protestant Principal.  According to Tillich: “The heart of Protestantism asserts itself and says, “NO!” whenever a person, institution, or movement claims that its values are God’s values, its truth God’s truth, its action, God’s action.” In other words: no one ever gets it exactly right. Protestants are always looking for a way to improve.

The tradition we stand in as part of this congregation, the United Church of Christ, fully embraces this Protestant Principle. We claim among our ancestors of faith those pilgrims on the Mayflower who were willing to travel across an ocean to practice as they felt led. As they travelled, they carried with them these words: “I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.”

In other words, our forebearers were clear that the Reformation will never be over. Why stop now? Our hearts, our churches, our communities, our nations are still marked by imperfection.  In the UCC, we like to call ourselves “reformed and reforming.” It’s a process that never ends.

There is, of course, a danger in all of this. We could get too fascinated by our own clever questions and ideas and fail to honor the wisdom of others. We could get self-centered, and fail to work with others towards the Glory of God. I have concerns for our branch of the church in both of these areas. But when I have concerns, those concerns lead back to the same place. We are reformed, and we still need reforming.

Occasionally, when I meet with someone here at church, they hesitatingly reveal to me that they’re not so sure about this whole faith thing. I don’t know about Jesus, you tell me. I’m not certain about God. Other times, I hear questions you have about the church, because the church here or elsewhere has failed you, or because it mystifies you.

We may feel uncertain about sharing these kinds of questions with one another, or with God, but questions are never the problem. God is strong enough to withstand all of our questions.  The church becomes better because our questions. Questions do not signal disrespect, or blasphemy. To ask a question is to show how much we long to really understand, and to more deeply trust in both God and our Christian community. Questions are a gift, in our individual journeys of faith, and in the journey of the church. Jesus loved questions.

So, I wonder: what questions do you have today?  What questions do you have for God, or the church? How do you believe that we need to be reformed today: as individuals, or communities?

We read aloud the youth suggestions and came up with a few more:

  • Why are we afraid to ask questions when that is how we learn?
  • Let’s rejoice throughout the realm that You, Holy One, are still speaking. May all eyes be open to this.
  • Why do some church leaders support flawed politicians for political agendas?
  • How can we work toward being united with other Christian sects rather than being more separated?
  • How can we speak and act with both power and humility?
  • How can the church effectively spread dialogue and asking of questions to heal the rifts in our society?
  • How long, O God, must we wait for good to overcome evil in our country, in all places rent by violence?
  • O God, continue to show us your way through this wilderness time for our nation. Will we ever reach the “promised land” or will it always be just over the horizon?
  • How can we help faith communities be instruments of connectedness rather than divisiveness (as they have too often been)?
  • How do we confront racism effectively?
  • May all remain open to the changes occurring in our own church
  • We need more love and tolerance int he world. I ask why I was so fortunate to be born in this wonderful country with food, love, and safety at home while others were born in war torn areas without basic necessities.
  • How can we be more effective in bridging the divisions that exist in our community and our world while simultaneously staying true to our own values and consciences?
  • How do we really deal with poverty around the world?
  • There is a need for a new reformation of the world, remembering that God loves us and that all people should believe in love and forgiveness! How can we in prayer ask God to reform the world?
  • Loud protests — not just against, but in word and action, demonstrate what we are FOR.

 

Scripture in Song

This sermon was offered by Polly Jenkins Man on October 22nd, 2017.

Matthew 22:15-22

A man was being challenged by members of the establishment who were ardent defenders of the faith. Attempting to trap him with well-rehearsed questions, they were eager to discount his teachings and perhaps even find a way to arrest him. He was becoming too popular: they noticed that more and more people were following him, being led astray by what these men regarded as heretical ideas.  Their power and influence, even their livelihood was threatened.

A familiar gospel story; the Pharisees confront Jesus. Actually no, it isn’t.  The event I just described occurred in Leipzig, Germany, almost 500 years ago. Germany’s master debater, Johann Eck, a Dominican friar with some other theologians, invited Martin Luther to discuss the doctrine of free will and grace.

But it does have the familiar ring of the gospel passage. It’s a timeless story of a radical, an innovator coming up against an establishment that is terrified of losing its power and influence.  Jesus, a master debater himself, was able to wiggle out of the Pharisees’ grip with a brilliant object lesson.   “See this coin”, he said, “whose image is on it?” “ The emperor’s,” they replied,  “All right then, give it to the emperor since it his.”  “But give to God those things that are God’s.”

How long do you think it took before the Pharisees, scratching their heads as they walked away, figured out that giving to God what was God’s, meant giving that which bears God’s image, that is, themselves, him, us and all children of God.   Scholars of the Torah, they knew very well what Jesus meant: “God made humankind in God’s image, male and female God created them”.

However, the debate between Luther and Eck took a slightly different turn. Like Jesus, Luther was challenged to defend his belief. Yet, unlike Jesus, he could not find a way to satisfy his listeners and stand by his conviction at the same time.  In the end, he stood by his conviction: scripture, he declared, is the only true authority for Christians; not popes, councils or theologians. The head of the church is Christ, No one occupies his primary position.

Sola scriptura, scripture alone, became the watchword of the new movement.  All anyone needs; all wisdom, instruction, words of promise, solace and hope; God’s love and God’s anger, all are in the words of the Bible.

It was a lovely idea…and a huge problem, because very few people could read. And even fewer, Greek and Latin the languages of the New Testament and the church.

Education in reading and writing was available only to priests, monks and scholars, which had been true since earliest times, yet, even then, church leaders sensed that it was important for the laity to have direct access to the Biblical story.  Which is why, as early as the 2nd century, there began to appear frescoes on the walls of the catacombs, later Byzantine mosaics, then reliefs and statues, culminating with the flowering of the great art of the Gothic cathedrals.

These amazing buildings, are like Scripture in Stone.  Figures carved into the façade tell the stories of both testaments, saints and prophets marching up and over the arch, covering every inch. Inside the cathedral, stained glass windows glow with  figures of the patriarchs and matriarchs, and  stories from the gospel. People learned all this as they entered for Mass and stood through the service.  Visual instruction.

But then, along comes reformation theology with its desire to distance itself from all popery, of anything that smacked of connection to the Roman church.  Reformers began to remove   art, which, they viewed as distractions from the power of the Word.

Yet here was another problem for Luther.  His translation of the New Testament into German would suffice to fill the teaching gap for those who could read, what about all the others?

And so he went the next step.   In addition to everything else that he was: monk, theologian, preacher, translator and reformer; he was a fine musician, who sensed that music could reach a place in people’s hearts and minds that words alone could not.  He began a mission to bring more music into the church; with congregational singing and by giving the pipe organ a central role in worship.  Those two changes opened up the field for the great composers who would follow. Someone once said, “If there had been no Luther, we would not have Bach!”

The Roman church did have music, although not for the crowd. Priests, monks and a choir sang the Mass. Giovanni Palestrina was a Renaissance musician and composer who wrote for them. His setting of Psalm 42, the motet “ Sicut cervus ” expresses the longing of the soul for God as a deer longs for flowing streams. To get a sense of this music, I ask you now to visualize our choir as 16th century monks while we sing a brief excerpt from his motet.

(Choir sings the excerpt of “Sicut Cervus”)

Luther had always been fond of church music.  Now he wanted to expand its role. A pioneer once again, he believed that if everyone could sing the words, then the Word would become integrated into people’s hearts, would become part of them.

He began to write hymns, often setting them to familiar folk tunes, even drinking songs. Jim is playing two variations this morning on one of Luther’s hymns: the prelude and the offertory; and every hymn in today’s service is a Luther hymn. Still though, was the old problem:  many who couldn’t read words, let alone music.  So what does he do? He calls the congregation together during the week to learn the hymns. He’d sing a line, the congregation would sing it back.  That’s exactly what we would have done this morning, if we were in a 16th century reformed church. Lauren would have sung one line, we’d repeat it back, and so on through the whole hymn.  Luther was the father of congregational singing. Thank you, Martin Luther! It’s where the Protestant byword “the priesthood of all believers” received its fullest expression.   Scripture in Song.

He was a man before his time because it is now well known how music affects us. Science has proven what music lovers already know: listening to music can improve your mood by lowering the stress hormone cortisol.

Music also stimulates the brain hormone oxytocin   I call it the love or the bonding hormone because it’s the chemical released when mothers give birth… it’s better than any happiness drug. (fun fact: females usually have more than males)

A swab of a chorister’s mouth immediately after a 2 hour rehearsal showed a significantly higher amount of endorphins than a sample taken just before they sang. This neurotransmitter is part of the pleasure-reward system.  It’s the brain chemical responsible for the feel-good states obtained from runner’s high, sex, and eating chocolate.  I mean, seriously, isn’t that a great reason to join the choir?

Serotonin also weighs in here.  Our senior choir rehearses every Wednesday at 7:45 pm and we get home about 9:30. Many of us are tired at the end of a long day. Can we really get up and go again? But we do because we know that after an hour and a half of singing we could almost fly home. That’s serotonin, better than therapy, cheaper and whole lot more fun. Convinced yet?

Music reaches into our hearts and souls, lifting our mood when we sing and even when we just listen.

More than all of that, though, is the power of music to heal. It’s apparent in the psalms,which were originally always sung and in many reform traditions, still are.   Psalm 96, “O Sing to the Lord a new song” is a song of joy, praising God’s glory.   There are so many like that.  And just as many about despair and sorrow, when the psalmist pleads to God to rescue him.  Think of Psalm 22.    David cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me ..trouble is near and there is no one to help”… then, ultimately, at the end, he is reassured, remembering that God has rescued him in the past.  God heard him when he cried out to him.

I like to think that it was in the sound of his voice and the music of his harp that seeped into his despair and gave him hope.

As it did for Michael Gruenbaum in 1943, a prisoner in Terezin, a German Nazi camp in occupied Czechoslovakia.  “There wasn’t much good in Terezin, he said, “it was a pretty miserable existence. 33,000 died there and another 800,000 were shipped to death camps elsewhere.” When Gruenbaum was 12 years old in the camp, those prisoners performed a childrens opera which ends with the chorus, “We’ve won a victory over the tyrant mean, sound trumpets, beat your drum and show us your esteem” Sounds a lot like a psalm.  75 years later Gruenbaum reflects, ‘We were free singing.’

The power to heal…after Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head by an assassin, she began the brave and long journey to heal her body.  But speech wouldn’t come. One day a guitarist came to sing to her.  Before long, Giffords began to sing along, the tune and the words. A woman who had not yet uttered any recognizable word.  Music had reached in to a place where nothing else had, and healing began in earnest.

What is that place? Where is it? In our heart, our brain, our tendons or nerves which vibrate like a strings of a harp?  Or is it in our soul, a spirit which resonates with the Spirit planted deep within us by none other than God, attuned to the joy and the hope that is part and parcel of being made in the divine image.

Thanks be to God.