Posted in Sermons

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

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.

Love First

John 12:20-33

Everyone is talking about Jesus.  They’re talking about Jesus, because of what happened with Lazarus. It is not so long before our gospel passage for today that Jesus learns that his friend has died. He goes to the tomb and asks for the stone to be taken away.  He cries, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes up out of the tomb.

We can imagine that a story like this would get around. A teacher named Jesus raised someone from the dead? Everyone is talking, rumors are spreading, and more and more people are coming to see the one who defied death.

Everyone is talking about Jesus, and some folks don’t like it. Roman leaders are worried that Jesus and his followers will revolt against their rule. Jewish leaders are worried that Jesus and his followers will provoke the Romans into harming other Jewish people. A few folks begin to wonder if it might be a good preventative measure to kill Jesus, or Lazarus, to prevent wider bloodshed.

Everyone is talking about Jesus, excited, worried, and Jesus knows it. For a while, he hides out, avoiding the conflict. But eventually he decides: it’s time. Jesus travels into Jerusalem for the great feast of Passover -we’ll remember this story next week. There are lots of people in Jerusalem, and when they see Jesus, they tear palm branches from the trees and wave them in the air, shouting, “Hosanna!”

Amidst this great crowd, those who saw Lazarus rise continue to testify. This story about Jesus continues to spread. So, as our text for today begins, Greeks, Jews from the greater diaspora, folks who just arrived in the region, come to see for themselves the one who defied death.  They tell Philip, with great politeness: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

The scene is set for Jesus to tell us more. Will he explain how he did it, how he lifted Lazarus from the dead? Will Jesus promise to do away with death forever?  No such luck. Jesus is always happy to challenge people’s expectations. He says: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Instead of telling us how to conquer death, Jesus starts talking about what we might call the benefits of death: his death, our death, the death of our lives as we know them. Jesus talks about death, and service, and glory, and is answered from the heavens, with a voice that sounds like thunder, or angels. And then Jesus concludes, “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

So much for immortality. They way of Jesus, it seems, does not set itself against death. Following Jesus, we are led closer to death. In fact, the path of Jesus moves through death.  It is only on the other side of death that the story takes a positive turn: the grain bears much fruit; we discover eternal life; Jesus is lifted up from the earth; Jesus draws all people to himself.

What does it mean that Jesus speaks in this way about death? Is he recommending martyrdom as a path for all of us? Does he believe that suffering and death are glorious or productive? Should they be something that we seek? (more…)

Love & Truth

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

Maybe you’ve heard our gospel text for today before: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  If that doesn’t sound familiar, maybe you’ve heard the chapter and verse for it: John 3:16. This one of the most famous scripture passages in America. It decorates poster boards lifted up at football games. It’s plastered across billboards.  Many people feel that this one sentence is a perfect encapsulation of their faith, and the faith they want other people to have.

Unfortunately, there is also a great deal in this sentence and in this passage from the Gospel of John to make us uncomfortable. The vocabulary alone is enough to make many progressive Christians squirm. Eternal Life? Salvation? Condemnation? Judgement? What do these words really mean?

We might also object to the dichotomies in this passage. Is the world really so clearly divided between believers and unbelievers, people who love light and people who love darkness, folks who are condemned and folks who are saved?

Even if we love the text itself, the way it is used in our culture is enough to make many of us push back.  How could any one sentence of scripture measure if folks are correctly Christian? Would Jesus really want anyone to be harassed and bullied into belief?

Thankfully, this passage from the gospel of John was not written by or for American Christians in the 21st century. Considering the broader context from which it comes may help us to find something that is useful for our own lives of faith. (more…)

Love Finds Us

The Book of Jonah

Every preacher I’ve ever met can tell the same story. Here is how the story goes: Some weeks, our sermon just won’t come together. We work hard, but still — ugh. Days pass, and when Sunday comes, that sermon has got to be preached, whether we like it or not. So we get up, and give the sermon, full of dread that we are disappointing God and the congregation whom we have been called to serve. And then, it happens: someone comes up to us at the end of the service and says, “Pastor, that was EXACTLY what I needed to hear today.”

Let me be clear: this doesn’t mean it was a good sermon. It probably wasn’t a very good sermon. Half the time, the thing the person says they heard in your sermon, that thing that they really needed to hear – that is something you never even said. But God has taken the ingredients on hand: a struggling pastor, a person hungry for a message, and the Holy Spirit – and made something amazing happen. Even if every single other person in the congregation leaves that day thinking, “well, I didn’t really get much out of that one” –  one person got something they desperately needed.

This story that every pastor can tell reminds me of Jonah. Jonah is perhaps the worst prophet in all of scripture. God asks Jonah to get up and go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it. Now, many prophets are reluctant to do what God asks them to do. Jeremiah says: “I am only a boy!”  Moses says, “Who am I to go to the great Pharaoh?”  But Jonah doesn’t even bother arguing with God. He just takes off in the other direction. He literally runs away from God.

As it turns out, God doesn’t take “no” for an answer.  God uses all kinds of extraordinary methods to get Jonah back on track: waves, wind, mortal danger, and three days in the belly of a giant fish.  When the fish deposits Jonah back on dry land, God is right there, ready to try again. She tells Jonah to get up and go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it.

This time, Jonah goes. But he’s not happy about it! He composes a sermon that is only one sentence long. He preaches it for only one day. He walks only one-third of the way through the city. But that one sentence, and that one day, and that one-third of the city turns out to be enough. It is enough to set the whole city aflame with a passionate desire for spiritual reconciliation and renewal. Someone carries word to the King himself and the King issues a decree that all humans and even the animals in Ninevah must fast and turn from their evil ways.

Those of you who are familiar with our scriptures, I ask you, do people usually respond in this way to the message of a prophet, immediately obeying their call to repentance? No. Never! Generally, prophets are ignored, or even punished. Jonah is extraordinarily successful in restoring a great city’s faithfulness, with only one sentence, and one day, and one-third of the city.

You might think that Jonah would be proud of what he has accomplished. Not at all! When the people respond to his message with repentance, and God responds to the people with compassion, Jonah is so angry he wants to die.  He throws a tantrum in front of God because of the mercy God has shown. He stalks out of the city and sits down and waits  — just in case God decides to destroy the city after all. He wants to watch it burn.

The story ends with God asking Jonah a question: is it right for you to be angry? Is it right for you to be angry that I care about a city that I created and tended?  And the book ends, awkwardly, right there: with God still waiting for Jonah to come around.

Most of us who gather around the word of God are very imperfect people.  We have more in common with Jonah than some of the more admirable figures in our bible. Maybe you can think of a time when you ran away from an opportunity that God gave you.  Maybe you can think of a time when God’s grace made you angry instead of grateful.  Maybe you can think of a time when you did the right thing only by mistake, or through the amazing intervening power of God.

But our God is a persistent God, who follows us wherever we go. Our God is a creative God, who sends us messages in new ways to try to get our attention.  Our God is a loving God, who cares for us even when we are extremely unpleasant to be around.  Our God is a compassionate God, who offers us chance after chance after chance to get it right. No matter how badly we behave, God keeps trying to help us live a new kind of life, for our own sake, and for the sake of those around us. It is never too late. Thanks be to God.

Love & Discipleship

Mark 8:27-38

No disciple gets more things wrong, through a deep desire to get things right, than Simon Peter.

You remember Simon Peter: he starts out life as a fisherman. He is called with his brother Andrew to follow Jesus.  From the beginning, Peter has a prominent place among the disciples. However, his enthusiasm for the cause often leads him astray.

When Peter sees Jesus walking on water, he wants to be just like him. But Peter isn’t Jesus, and when he steps out on the waves, he sinks.  (Mt 14:30).  When Peter witnesses Jesus up on a mountain, transfigured by the glory of God and talking with Moses and Elijah, he is thrilled. But instead of taking in the miracle of the moment, he imagines that he can make it last forever, and suggests establishing mountaintop living arrangements for these three religious superstars (Mk 9:5).  When Jesus wants to wash Peter’s feet at the Last Supper, Peter tries to show respect by refusing to accept such a menial service from his savior.  But when Jesus presses the issue, Peter loses his head entirely, proclaiming that if washing is the right thing, Jesus must wash his head and his hands, too, give him a full bath before the meal begins (John 13:2-11).

Peter is all in: he gives his whole heart and his whole life to Jesus. Yet somehow, Peter’s dedication doesn’t always get him where he wants to go. In so many stories, you can almost see the rest of the disciples rolling their eyes at the teacher’s pet. You can almost hear Jesus coughing back a laugh over his most dedicated, and most ridiculous disciple.

In the text today, Jesus is walking with his disciples from one town to the next. He asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” and then, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter is the only one who is brave enough or sure enough to say out loud, “You are the Messiah.”  Score one for Peter.

But just after this, Jesus begins to explain what his life as the Messiah will be like. Jesus says that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the religious establishment, and be killed, and then rise again. Peter is outraged. How could such a holy man be destined for such a bitter end? Peter loses all control and actually begins rebuking Jesus for his teaching. Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Once again, Peter has missed the point. He loves Jesus so much that he can’t bring himself to accept what Jesus is saying about his suffering and death. Jesus gathers a whole crowd to tell them: If you want to follow me, deny yourself. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

The rebuke in today’s text are the harshest words that Jesus ever says to Peter in the gospels. This story is not, however, the end of Peter’s mistakes. In fact, Peter’s behavior goes downhill from here. Jesus tells his disciples two more times in the Gospel of Mark how his story will end (Mark 9:31 and 10:33-34), but Peter still can’t believe it.  Perhaps Peter imagines that Jesus must surely become an earthly ruler, or an honored religious leader. Maybe Peter even dreams that as Jesus’ right hand man, he also has a wonderful destiny in front of him.  Whatever the reason, Peter is unprepared when Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion finally come to pass. He is filled with grief. He is filled with fear. And in the midst of his grief and fear, Peter publicly denies following Jesus, three times, to protect himself (Lk 22:56-61). He betrays the one he loves so much. (more…)

A Covenant of Love

Genesis 9:8-17
Mark 1:9-15

This season of Lent begins with a series of stories about Covenants: holy promises between God and God’s people.  Today we hear about the covenant that God makes with Noah, with Noah’s descendants, and with every living creature, following the great flood.

Many folks have warm and fuzzy feelings about the flood story in the book of Genesis. We remember hearing about it in Sunday School, seeing pictures in a children’s bible, playing with an ark. The story is memorable; Who can forget Noah, building a boat that no one can imagine a use for? Who can forget that amazing parade of animals of every kind, traveling up the gangplank?  Who can forget the dove, arriving as a sign of hope to those trapped on the waves?

Unfortunately, the story of the flood also includes a message that is not easy for either children or adults to come to terms with. It is a story of divine genocide: a story of God destroying nearly all of creation.  Is this really a story we want to teach our children? Is this a story we accept, as teaching us something true about God?

Thankfully, by the end of the story, there are some signs of hope; there is some evidence of good news. The waters recede. The arc returns to solid ground. And most importantly, the flood experience seems to have taught God something.  Through the course of the story, God is moved from anger at the behavior of humanity to grief, regret, and compassion. Finally, God says, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants, and with every living creature… never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth…I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of a covenant between me and the earth.” (Genesis 9:8-13)

In the book of Genesis, there are several stories like this: stories in which God seems uncertain.  Stories in which God seems to make mistakes. Stories in which God seems to be learning how to be God, through painful experience: just as each of us learns how to be who we are.

This is a compelling way to view scripture, the God-growth narrative. Another possibility also springs to mind. Perhaps in these texts, the people Israel are working out what they can believe about God.  The idea that God is responsible for natural disasters, a force behind all major events, was common in the ancient world, as it is common today. It’s comforting to believe that someone is in charge, and that everything happens for a reason.

Perhaps the Israelites initially believed that God was the director of all events, including flood, famine, disaster, and tragedy. But over time, this belief was challenged. After all, this same people gave us two beautiful stories of how carefully God created all things. Could they reconcile a God who forms us in Her own image with one who would wantonly destroy us or cause us suffering?

No, the Israelites realized: the God we have come to know and worship is not like that. She not only made us in love, but continues to love us. She chooses to bind herself together with us in holy covenant, working with us to preserve creation.

Perhaps this seems like an abstract question. Why should we care about the theology of the flood story, or the beliefs of the people who recorded it? But consider: this is one of the foundational stories of our holy text. It points the way to how we can understand God’s presence and activity in tragedies that happen today.

On Wednesday, a young man named Nicholas Cruz entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida with a semi-automatic weapon and killed at least 17 people.  These seventeen people are, unbelievably, part of a much greater number of victims from more than 200 school shootings that have happened in the U.S. since 2012, when the Sandy Hook Massacre took place.

The response to this spreading disease of violence, this genocide of our schoolchildren, has been mind-boggling. Elected officials continue to prioritize financial contributions from the NRA over the very lives of their constituents. Gun advocates fight for the deadliest guns to be accessible to the public with virtually no regulation. The majority of us who desire some sort of change sink into a despairing complacency. In our country, we are willing to accept the ruthlessly efficient murder of one another’s children when common sense, and the example of other countries, can show us quite simply how to put a stop to it.

Where is God in this story? I refuse to believe that any one of these deaths is the desire or action of God. I refuse to believe that the terrible grief of so many communities is the desire or action of God. I refuse to believe that the disfigurement of human souls in becoming mass murderers is the desire or action of God.

Where is God in this story? The text from the Gospel of Mark offers us a different way to consider how God operates in our world.  Jesus is baptized, and blessed, and then driven out into the wilderness. Here he meets Satan: the embodiment of evil. God did not create Satan. God also cannot shield Jesus from Satan; his power is real. So, Jesus spends some time keeping close company with evil as a way of preparing for his ministry.  And while Jesus struggles with the forces of temptation for forty days, he is not alone. He is with the wild beasts; and the angels wait on him.

This sounds like our world. Evil exists.  God is not its source, nor can God entirely protect us from it. Instead, God provides helpers to allow us to withstand evil without being subsumed by it.  In this text, Wild beasts, God’s creation, reminders of the rainbow covenant. In this text, angels, God’s messengers, with presence and wisdom and hospitality.

Lent began this past week with Ash Wednesday, when we remember that we are dust, and to dust we will return.  This is a somber statement, a reminder of our mortality; and also a reminder of our blessing. We were made out of dust by God our creator; and we are inheritors of that great rainbow covenant, in which God promises to treasure her creation. In life and in death, we belong to God: our spirit a part of God’s great Spirit; our flesh a part of God’s glorious creation.

All along the journeys of our lives, we are likely to meet sin and evil often. Personal temptation; personal error; harm from other individuals; harm from human systems that do violence to human spirits and human bodies and to this great creation.

Sin and evil are real. And so is God, and so are God’s messengers. Wild beasts, who remind us that we are part of a great body of blessed living creatures. Angels, who give us messages we need to hear, bread we are hungry for, company we long for.  Have you been on the lookout for them?  Have you caught a glimpse, or heard a voice?

I hope you will find a way in this special season of drawing close to God, who is our surest protection against the evils of despair and apathy that press close in on us. We have two resources to share from this church: An adult UCC devotional that we are running out of; more are on the way; they will be used by the Lenten bible study starting next week. Let me know if you want to get one when they come in. Also, sets of tags to record the love we witness in the world throughout the season. And downstairs, after church, you can help share some love with others, making messages for our congregation, or postcards for justice for our neighbors.

For now, please join me in prayer.

Holy God, sculptor of the mountains, womb of all creation; help us to love ourselves, and one another, and all the earth, with a love like yours: a love strong and brave enough to walk right alongside evil and persist; a love strong and brave enough to motivate compassion and a struggle for justice. With you, all things are possible. Praise be to your name. Amen.

Have Faith and Put Our Your Nets!

  • February 13, 2018

On Sunday, February 11th, former WCUC pastor the Rev John Hudson joined us and offered this sermon celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Sunday Fellowship.

Mark 1:14-20

From the text: And Jesus came upon some everyday people doing everyday things and said to them, “I need your help to spread God’s love in the world. I need you to put out your nets and have faith!”

Good morning!  I can’t describe how wonderful, what a blessing it is to be in West Concord Church again, to among and with you, my friends, some old and so dear, some brand new and gift too!  The seven years I spent here as pastor and teacher from 2000 to 2007 were among the most exciting of the almost thirty years I’ve been in ministry, sometimes not so easy, but always so important and life changing and yes, world changing too: together, with God, we did good work. Thank you for that!  And a special thank you to Pastor Hannah and to Melissa, for inviting me back to on this happy day when we celebrate the amazing ministry that is Sunday Fellowship.

So imagine this.  The year is 1891, 127 years ago.  Seventeen courageous women and men founded this church.  They were not from the landed or wealthy gentry of Concord.  They did not ride to church in fancy buggies drawn by sleek thoughroubreds. They were workers for God in the toughest of places: in a prison.  Their neighbors toiled on the railroad and in the mills and on the farms and they founded West Concord Union Church as a working community, as an extension of their Christian ministry in the Reformatory.  They dared to believe that with Jesus they could transform the lives of the young criminals they worked with and therefore the whole world! This church’s forebears gifted you with a spiritual DNA of dirty hands and sweaty brows and one earnest hope: to make God’s world, more merciful, more just, and more loving.

Imagine that!  Put out your nets and have faith! And because they did, we are here! Can I get an AMEN!

Imagine this.  It is the early 1980’s, and a new home for developmentally disabled adults has opened on West Street, right here in West Concord.  But–not without some struggle.  For when it was time to get permission from the neighborhood to move in, well, most of the neighbors weren’t too happy and were not very welcoming, not at all.  But at one of the first public meetings about this proposed home, a group of folks from the West Concord Union Church: they came and they spoke up and they spoke out and they said, we would love to have these new neighbors! Not content to just let those West Street folks to merely move in, the church invited them to worship and eventually started a ministry to and with them: one that invited all God’s children, every last one, to fully participate and be fully welcomed into the full life of the church!  Sunday Fellowship was born!

Imagine that!  Put out your nets and have faith! And because they did, we are here! Can I get an AMEN!

Imagine this: it was the first Sunday I preached here at this church, August 6th, 2000.  I was very excited but I was also feeling lost, in a new place with a new home, in a new town. Would I be accepted, liked?  I really needed to feel and see Christ’s light that morning, to let me know it would be ok. We finished communion and I asked the congregation to name out loud in prayer one thing that they were thankful for. There were several Sunday Fellowshippers in worship and I confess I was nervous about that too. I had no experience ministering with developmentally disabled adults.  As people were offering their thanks, one Sunday Fellowshipper, Carl Alden, stood up from his front row pew walked towards me as I stood behind the communion table.  I kind of panicked–did I do or say something wrong?  Carl strolled right up next to me, gently put his arm around my shoulder, so I asked him, “What are you thankful for?” He replied, “You!” and then he kissed me, kissed me, right on the cheek, and then returned to his seat! And from that moment I was never the same again, was radically transformed as a pastor, as person, in having Sunday Fellowship become a part of my life, my world.  Thank God!

Imagine that!  Put out your nets and have faith! And because I did, I am here! Can I get an AMEN!

Imagine this! The year is 2006 and our church owns the house right next door and uses it as a regular rental property but then some folk in the church have an idea.  What if we made that house, our house, into a new house, a new group home for more folks in need, like West Street?  What if we spiffed it up and made it accessible and then rented it through Minuteman ARC so even more of our friends and our neighbors would have a nice place to live and call home and this time the neighborhood was fine with it!

Imagine that!  Put out your nets and have faith! And because they did, we are here! Can I get an AMEN!

Imagine this–that for almost four decades, through Sunday Fellowship, this church has been changed, and oh my goodness, for so much good.  Has learned what it means to be truly and fully inviting of all people, with all abilities: has realized this is not just a ministry to but a ministry with: that Sunday Fellowship has taught West Concord Union Church about welcome; about standing with and for and by folks the world can easily forget or neglect or just pass by.  That this ministry of love has made the heart of this community bigger, wider, more service focused, less about me, more about thee.  That now, church would not be church, not really without Sunday Fellowship, right?

Imagine that!  Put out your nets and have faith! And because they did, because you still do, we are here! Can I get an AMEN!

Imagine this: that Sunday Fellowship is unique, one of kind among churches and houses of worship, not just in Massachusetts, but around the country.  That Sunday Fellowship will only grow and thrive in the next 35 years by all of you recommitting to its hopes and its dreams, to all the ways it embodies God’s love for this beautiful and broken world, as witnessed in the life of Jesus, who called and still calls out: friends will you fish with me?  Will you realize this day just how God blessed you are, and we are, by Sunday Fellowship? 

Imagine this call!  Put out your nets and have faith! And because we have, we are here! God bless us, God move to say “Yes” to the days ahead too! Can I get an AMEN!  THank you God for Sunday Fellowship, for this church, for leaders and volunteers, for Sunday Fellowshippers here and gone, for parents and caregivers, for this ministry and this community.  Make us grateful.  Make us fish, with you and each other.  Let all God’s people say, “Amen!”