Posted in Sermons

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

Wisdom in Speech and Silence

Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1
James 3:1-12

I wonder if you all would be willing to take part in an informal poll this morning. How many of you have ever left a conversation thinking, “I can’t believe I said that?” Or, “WHY did I SAY that?”  Or, “I really wish I hadn’t said that?”

Beloved, you are not alone if you regret things that you have said. It is for me a daily occurrence. You will find good company among others in this room.  You would also find plenty of company in the early Christian community. There is wisdom about how we should speak throughout the bible, but perhaps nowhere more than in the letters that were sent from city to city, instructing the followers of Jesus about how to live faithfully. It seems that reckless and harmful speech was a habitual problem.

The letter we hear from this morning is written by a person named James. In case you are curious, this James is not either of the two James who were among the original 12 disciples of Jesus. This James is known instead as the brother of Jesus, or the cousin of Jesus — there is debate on that point. Perhaps it is easier simply to say, he is another leader in the early church.

James’ letter is full of advice for his companions in faith.  Much of it echoes the teachings of Jesus found in the gospels, and a lot of it is helpful.  Occasionally, however, James comes across a little bit strong. Consider the opening to his letter: Kindred, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. (1:2-4)

It may be true that hard experiences produce endurance, and that endurance produces maturity, and that endurance and maturity are worth having. Still, do we really need to consider our  trials as “nothing but joy,” especially when we are right in the middle of them?

James also uses strong language when he addresses the issue of speech. Our tongue, James writes, is small but powerful. It can be used for blessings, and to praise God.  It can also be used for curses, and it can be as destructive as fire. What’s more, it’s incredibly hard to control: “For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed … but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

“A restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Surely, whether we speak with our tongue, or write or type or sign with our hands, our communications are not so very bad, so very dangerous.  But I bet all of us can recall a time when we have caused pain, given offense, spread rumors, or expressed lies. It is a powerful tool, communication, and easily misused.  (more…)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Mark 7:24-30

According to Jesus, the most important thing we can do is to love God with all that we are, and our neighbor as ourselves.  But who is our neighbor?  Which neighbors was he talking about? Our next-door neighbors? People within a one-block radius? Folks who feel like neighbors, because we have a lot in common with them? Who are we supposed to love as well as we love ourselves?

Jesus treats almost everyone he meets as his neighbor.  Strangers from far-away towns are his neighbor. Folks who are sick are his neighbor. He is neighborly to the poor, and to tax collectors, and to prostitutes. That’s why it comes as such a surprise, the story we hear today, when Jesus meets the Syrophoenician woman.

Jesus is tired that day. He’s been teaching and healing to great crowds, and he’s hoping to escape notice when he enters the house in Tyre.  No such luck. A gentile woman, a Syrophonecian woman – a foreigner – finds him. She begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. And Jesus replies, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words: you are not my neighbor. You have no claim on me. You and your child are no better than dogs.

These words are heart-rending to read.  Amazingly, the woman is not daunted. With the desperation of a parent with a sick child to care for, she replies: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Degrade me, she says, but even dogs deserve compassion. Call me anything you want, but help my daughter.

Jesus seems to realize he’s made a mistake.  Immediately, he changes his mind, and cures the woman’s daughter. Apparently, they are neighbors after all.

This summer a documentary came out about another man who turned strangers and enemies into neighbors and friends. I bet many of you saw it. Do you know what I’m talking about? I’m talking about Mr. Rogers. If you haven’t seen the documentary about his show, I highly recommend it. Bring lots of tissues.

Clergy are fond of informing people that Mr. Rogers was one of us: a Presbyterian pastor. He said, “Love is at the root of everything: love or the lack of it.” He was called to the work of offering love and unconditional acceptance to hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom he would never meet: children on the other side of a television screen.

It’s good to remember, as this documentary reminds us, that Mr. Rogers wasn’t simply sweet, and he definitely wasn’t naive. He tackled difficult topics, racism and assassination and disability and war and death.  He allowed his characters to express difficult emotions, to face conflict, and to struggle with their identity and abilities. Like any good pastor, Fred Rogers addressed what was really going on for his congregation, and he brought an honest, compassionate, and hopeful message in the midst of those realities.  Still, now, whenever something horrible happens in the world, I hear people quoting him, reminding us to “look for the helpers.”  Mr. Rogers points us towards whoever is doing works of love and courage amidst tragedy or hate.

I was a member of Mr. Rogers’ congregation as a child in the 80s. Maybe some of you also joined in the congregation as children or parents or grandparents.  Mr. Rogers wanted to help us deal with our feelings, encouraging us to notice them, value them, find words and ways to express them.  He also wanted us to recognize ourselves as beloved children of God, telling us: “I see you, I like you just as you are, and there’s nobody else exactly like you.”  Put that one on your bathroom mirror, for everyday encouragement.

Mr. Rogers gave us the gift of slowness, and the gift of silence. While television programs were speeding up, adding special affects and violence, on Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood you could watch a tortoise take a slow walk across the floor, or see him patiently feeding his fish, and watching them swim.  When Mr. Rogers interviewed famous people, he would ask a simple question and then wait… and keep waiting, until the person had offered not one, but several interesting thoughts. Try it the next time to really want to hear from someone.

In reaching out to the world with radical kindness, Fred Rogers was not so different from Jesus. He invited us to be his neighbors, teaching us that we were loved, and capable of loving others.  Fred Rogers learned a lot from Jesus and, from what I can tell, he lived closer to Jesus than many of us do. But he wasn’t perfect. He doubted himself: whether he was worthy, whether he was loveable, whether he was good at what he did, and whether what he did was making a difference. He also made mistakes.  When he found out one of his cast members had been spending time at a gay bar, he told him: You can’t go back there.  It’s not clear if it was homosexuality that was the problem, or whether he wasn’t willing to risk his corporate sponsorships. It wasn’t until years later that Mr. Rogers was able to accept this cast member fully, to love him just the way he was, and to tell him that clearly – just as he had told so many of us that we are special just the way we are.

As we gather here this fall, together again in greater numbers, it’s good to remember why we’re here. This local church is a place that we can come to remember that the most important thing we can do is to love God, and our neighbors as ourselves.  This church is also a place where we can practice being good neighbors, and form a neighborhood with folks we might otherwise never get to know.

It can be easy to get discouraged while we’re making a neighborhood together.  There are disagreements here among us.  We make mistakes, get hurt, and hurt one another in turn.  It may be possible to love God, but can we really love each other, or ourselves?

We’ll continue to talk about the art of being a neighbor as the month goes on.  But for today, let’s receive the gift both Jesus and Fred Rogers offer us in the example of a beautiful, holy life lived imperfectly.  It’s not possible for anyone, it seems, to get neighbor-love right every time. Still, if we keep showing up, and trying, and listening, and learning: we’ll have an awful lot more love in our lives than if we gave up on neighbors and neighborhoods altogether.

I’m so grateful to be in a neighborhood with all of you beautiful people of West Concord Union Church.  I love the imperfect and precious love we are working on together.  I wonder if we can share in that song that Fred Rogers sang at the beginning of each episode: as he came into his TV home, traded his coat for a sweater, traded his dress shoes for sneakers, and prepared for a good visit with us.

Take a look at the piece of paper; Listen to Mr. Rogers, and sing along to your neighbors in the room, if you like.

Let’s pray:  Holy God, help us learn that we are your beloved children, just the way we are. Help us learn how to be good neighbors, so that we might all share in love together. Amen.

I Will Give You Water

  • September 4, 2018

The scripture reading was excerpted from Exodus & Numbers, including portions of Exodus 15 & 17 and Numbers 20 & 21.

God has done great things for the Israelites. She has led them up out of suffering, out of slavery, out of Egypt.  They are a free people yet again. We might expect that the Israelites would be full of joy or gratitude. But after a song and dance on the shores of the Red Sea, we don’t hear much in our scriptures about their joy and gratitude. Instead, we hear about their complaints. Mostly, they complain about water.

Water. Which is not so surprising. These folks journey for forty years through land that doesn’t have much water. And if any of you have gone hiking or spent time away from modern plumbing, you know: water is hard to carry. It is heavy! You can only bring so much with you. The Israelites need water for life, for strength. And in the absence of plentiful, drinkable water, they complain, and they blame their leader: Moses.

“What shall we drink?” they ask Moses.  Or, “Give us water to drink!”  Or, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”  Or, “This wretched place is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.”  The ancient Israelites, like so many of us, were good complainers.

Moses doesn’t know what to do. No one gave him a wilderness survival course while he was growing up in Pharoah’s household. No one supplied him with water filtration systems, or taught him where and how to dig a well. So when the people turn to Moses, Moses turns to God: “What shall I do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

Moses turns to God, and God makes a way. God gives Moses a piece of wood to sweeten bitter water. God tells Moses to strike a rock, so that water might come out of it. And God leads the people on towards springs and wells in the wilderness.

In the last portion of the scripture we heard, the people reach the well of which God has said to Moses: “Gather the people together, and I will give them water.” And the Israelites sing: “Spring up, O well! Sing to it! The well that the leaders sank, that the nobles of the people dug, with the scepter, with the staff.”  The people gather, and sing, and then they drink their fill.

On this Labor Day weekend we are emerging from the season of summer. It is a season in which many of us seek out water. We go out to spend time in sprinklers and pools, by lakes and oceans. We come in to fill ourselves with ice tea and lemonade and to take cold showers. And we seek out activities that will water our souls: the companionship of family members and friends, the refreshment of new experiences, the beauty of nature, the peace of a quiet afternoon.

Unfortunately, summer is not always idyllic. There are some among us right now who are feeling well-watered: strong, rested, nourished, bright. But others are not so satisfied. Perhaps the time outdoors brought sunburns and bee stings and sprained ankles. Time with family and friends can be a frustration as well as a blessing. And for at least one couple we love, travel meant emergency health care in a foreign country, and a very difficult journey home.

Summer is not always idyllic. And there are some among us for whom summer does not really bring a change from the most defining burdens of life: illness, caretaking, worry, loss.

Some among us are still very thirsty, and none of us, no matter how well-watered, can get too far before we will need water, again.

So, we are here. God has led us here, to West Concord Union Church, where those who came before us dug a deep well.  The prophet Isaiah says, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (55:1) and again, “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (12:3).  Thankfully, few of us struggle to find drinkable water in this time and place, though our siblings around the world are not so lucky.  All of us face challenges in staying spiritually refreshed: hopeful, grateful, at peace.

God tells Moses, “Gather the people together, and I will give you water.” And as the Israelites gather by the ancient well, they sing, joining their voices together to call up the water.

Life is a long journey, and some great stretches each of ours may be wilderness. As we continue our journeys in this new season, do not forget your need for spiritual food and drink, and do not forget that we cannot always find it by ourselves. Instead, we need our ancestors, and one another, and the guidance and generosity of God, to find the places where it can arise, and to call it up together.

 

 

 

Does This Offend You?

A guest sermon by the Rev Chris Mereschuk,  August 26th, 2018.

John 6:56-59

I spend a lot of mental and emotional energy doing all I can not to offend people. I strive to be very careful with my language, especially when it comes to how I refer to someone’s identity. I am mindful of using “person first” language, not identifying someone by a psychiatric or physical diagnosis, because identifying someone by one characteristic of their being is to dismiss and erase them as a whole person, thereby doing violence to their dignity, which is offensive.

I try to stay informed about the most-up-to-date language that folx use to signify their sexual orientation, their race or ethnicity, and their physical and psychological realities — recognizing that such language is constantly evolving, what was acceptable a few years ago is now considered offensive and vice versa, and that it is the prerogative of the individual to choose whatever identifying terms resonate with them. But I don’t want to offend someone by referring to them using an outdated word that hurts their heart or damages their dignity.

I even like to know the roots or origins of words and phrases I might use — as we are now learning that certain long-used idioms and expressions in U.S. American English have a basis in racism, misogyny, ableism, or xenophobia. Sometimes without knowing it, the words and expressions we use actually perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices, and can be downright dehumanizing. Still, I get it wrong sometimes, and I have to remain open to being educated or corrected.

Striving to use language that honors and uplifts my sisters, brothers, and siblings is a part of my lifelong journey of discipleship. It is an essential building block in creating God’s kin-dom here on earth. Causing an offense in that way break relationships, and it in no way advances the kin-dom of God.

There is a difference, of course, between words and expressions that are considered offensive or even vulgar, and the offensiveness experienced when a person encounters an idea that goes counter to their beliefs and values — or better yet something that challenges those beliefs and values that give a person power and privilege.

In such a case, you can expect those who are offended to strongly react against the one who has offended them. And this is where we find Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson from John.

Jesus was with his 12 Disciples and a number of his followers, teaching in a synagogue. Not long before, according to John, the large crowd — some say 5,000 people —following Jesus was encamped by the Sea of Tiberias. The day was ending, and the crowd was hungry — we’ve heard this story in the other three Gospels as well. Jesus directed the crowd to have seat on the grass, and he took five loaves of bread and two fish, he blessed them and then began giving them out to the crowd.

Of course, five loaves of bread and two fish is an absurdly tiny amount of food for such a large crowd, but we know the rest of the miraculous story: All of the people ate their fill, and there was even enough left over that it filled 12 baskets[1] — not coincidentally the same number of Tribes of Israel.

The crowd was amazed. Awestruck by this miracle, they declared Jesus to be the long-awaited prophet and savior for Israel.

Now, some days later in a synagogue, Jesus is being questioned by the religious authorities. They wanted some proof that he was what his followers claimed him to be: The Son of Man, sent by God from above, anointed to save God’s people. They demand a sign from Jesus, reminding him that Moses’s prophetic sign was the miraculous appearance of bread-like manna when the Israelites wandered the desert on the way to the Promised Land. Jesus reminds the religious leaders and his gathered followers of the recent feeding miracle — how then, too, bread appeared in miraculous abundance, nourishing all who hungered.

Jesus then critiques the idea that Moses, himself, provided the Israelites with bread in the form of manna. It wasn’t Moses that provided the bread-like manna, it was God. In the same way at the feeding of the 5,000, it was not Jesus that provided the bread, it was God. But like he so often did, Jesus adds a twist: This was not just ordinary bread made from grains: Jesus, himself, is the bread provided and sent by God to nourish and sustain God’s people.

Standing firmly in the face of this criticism, Jesus doubled down: I am the Bread of Life. Whoever believes in me, whoever eats this bread — whoever takes me in as nourishment for their soul — will have eternal life. Yes, Moses gave your ancestors manna — but they died anyway. But this bread sent down by God from heaven — eat this bread, and you will have eternal life.[2]

The religious officials scoffed. They were indignant. Who does this guy think he is? We know his parents — he wasn’t sent from God. How can he say that he is the Bread of Life sent by God from heaven? Such heresy! Such blasphemy! But that was to be the expected reaction from them.

However, this teaching also didn’t sit well with some of Jesus’s followers. They began grumbling amongst themselves saying, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Jesus overhears them and rebukes them: “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before.”[3]

We might rephrase that a bit. Jesus overhears that some of his followers can’t handle what he just said. His response: “Oh, you’re offended by that? Then just wait until you hear what else I have to say! You ain’t seen nothing yet!”[4]

As Jesus continued this difficult teaching, scripture says that, “Because of this many of his disciples [that is, the followers in the crowd] turned back and no longer wanted to follow him.

Jesus’s teachings that day in the synagogue were scandalous — “scandalizo” is the actual Greek word here that gets translated as “offend.”[5] Jesus’s teachings scandalize his listeners both then and now because he proclaims that God is among God’s people — in the flesh. And the scandal of God-made-flesh is shocking both then and now because it challenges our deeply-held societal values and the social order, it upsets our privilege, it questions the legitimacy of our power and authority, and it demands that we radically reorient ourselves toward acknowledging, honoring, and serving those who are marginalized and oppressed in our society, and it further demands that we actively do something to disrupt the injustice so that we might come closer to establishing God’s kin-dom here on earth.

But friends: These same scandalous teachings are not simply confined to ancient scripture. I believe that — as people called to discipleship — we are likewise called to speak difficult truths that risk offending others — sometimes even people we know and love, people within our own communities. We don’t do this to be intentionally vulgar or to alienate people: we do this because we are compelled to share the Good News — and that is the Good News of a radical and liberating love that does justice, loves kindness, and walks boldly yet humbly with God.

Sometimes we are confronted with what seems like a choice between doing justice and not offending people. We might find ourselves risking offending people for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel. To my mind, when it comes to risking offense for the sake of justice: I choose justice. I believe that scripture outlines and Jesus teaches that we must choose justice over deference to civility or the status quo — especially when civility means tacitly condoning oppression, and the status quo means perpetuating systems of injustice.

Let me pitch a couple examples that might be familiar to you:

If my research is correct, West Concord Union Church voted in 1999 to become Open and Affirming, proclaiming to all within and outside of this faith community that you honor the inherent dignity and worth of our sisters, brothers, and siblings who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. And you went further, adding that you committed to “welcome persons of any age, gender, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, ethnicity and physical or mental ability into full membership and participation in the body of Christ.”[6]

And I am willing to bet that if you all are anything like the other 1,400-plus UCC congregations that have voted to become Open and Affirming, there was some tension. There was some disagreement. There might’ve been heated arguments in meetings or in the parking lot. There might’ve been folks who withheld their pledge and others who have not set foot inside this church since. There were folks that were offended and scandalized.

But look what you accomplished by proclaiming this stance for justice: You answered the biblical call to radical hospitality. You offered safety and sanctuary to folks who have been implicitly or explicitly unwelcome in other churches, who have been made to feel alienated from God, maybe even made to feel unloved and unwanted by God. To proclaim that you are Open and Affirming is to also boldly and loudly proclaim that you believe that every person was fearfully and wonderfully made by the God who has known them, has seen them, and has loved them since the time they were knit together in the womb.[7] That is nothing short of a beautiful scandalously holy thing.

More recently, you all made a bold decision to prayerfully evaluate how the physical space this faith community occupies might better align with your call to faithful discipleship and service to the wider community. You have taken steps to improve your environmental stewardship, and — just as importantly — renovated your sanctuary to increase accessibility and flexibility of use.[8]

I would once again bet that some amount of tension arose over the decision to remove the pews. For those who have been a part of this community for some time — maybe even stretching back generations — those pews hold memories. You might look around at them and see the great Cloud of Witnesses who came before, noting where certain beloved people sat Sunday after Sunday. Those memories are dear, and honoring them is important.

And it is equally important to turn and face the day that dawns before us — to answer the call to not only be caretakers of a sacred museum for what was, but to be midwives who can prophetically envision and embrace what is and what will be — to behold the new thing that God is doing among, and with, and through you.

There may have been and still may be those among you who were offended by this renovation: be it the financial cost, the emotional or sentimental attachment, or the sense that such a renovation would somehow make the sanctuary less sacred or holy. Yet the call to discipleship often counsels us to move through our objections and our offense in order that we might more widely proclaim the Good News.

And hear again the Good News that you have proclaimed; look what you have accomplished and will accomplish:

You have opened up the sanctuary to be more welcoming and accommodating to people with a variety of mobility needs, expanding the options for folks who use wheelchairs to sit in whatever place they’d like instead in just a couple of designated spots, nurturing dignity and justice.

The greater flexibility of the space itself is an invitation to the wider community, an opportunity to rediscover your roots as a town meetinghouse where folx can gather for fellowship, education, recreation, and service. The list of possible workshops, gatherings, celebrations, concerts, special worships, meals is nearly endless. You might provide hospitality to people who would’ve otherwise never considered entering this church. And through this, you might encourage someone to engage or reengage with faith, to draw closer to God, closer to others, and closer to themselves — or at least to look at the world, others, and themselves in a new way.

My friends: The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not tame, and it will not be tamed. It is not always acceptable in mixed company, nor is it for the faint of heart. And to those who benefit from the systems and structures of injustice, oppression, and privilege in this world: it can be downright scandalous and offensive. And to each of us — even and maybe especially those of us who consider ourselves disciples — it is a challenging call. And it is a call that we must constantly choose to answer.

“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

My sisters, my brothers, my siblings: I believe that you can.

You have accepted it before; you are accepting it now; and you will accept it again.

Amen.

[1] John 6:1-14

[2] John 6:41-51, wicked paraphrased

[3] John 6:60-61

[4] Echoed in: Jarvis, Cynthia A.. Feasting on the Gospels–John, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentary (Kindle Location 7047). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] See http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/08/scandalizing-words-are-life-giving-words.html

[6] West Concord Union Open and Affirming Covenant (1999), found at https://www.westconcordunionchurch.org/about

[7] Pslam 139

[8] https://www.macucc.org/newsdetail/spotlight-pulling-out-the-pews-11649103

Song of Solomon

This summer, as you know, we have been exploring songs of the Bible. And there is one extended song, taking up a whole book of the bible, that is quite different than anything else in our holy text. It is the song of Solomon, also known as the Song of Songs.

You are unlikely to hear the Song of Solomon read very often in a church service. Depending on which schedule of bible readings a church follows, if it follows one at all, this book shows up either once in every three years, or never.  One could argue that this is because the Song of Solomon does not once mention God, or God’s law, or God’s covenant. But I think it’s more likely that church leaders are uncomfortable with the contents of this book. There is a reason that I chose to preach on this text after our shared services with Tricon were over.  There are passages in the Song of Solomon that I personally could not read in church without blushing. In fact, when I was at a Catholic retreat center earlier this summer, I learned that when a sister there received her first bible in the 1970s, she was strictly instructed never to read the Song of Solomon. Naturally, it was the very first thing that she looked up.

Traditionally, this text is attributed to the great King Solomon.  However, most likely it was written later than he lived, around the 3rd century bce. No one knows quite why it was written, or where, or for whom. Biblical scholars have not been able to agree on a comprehensive structure or storyline for the entire book, either. It seems instead to be simply a collection, a set of passages, perhaps even a theatrical song cycle with the themes of love and longing.

Some of the less risqué passages from Song of Solomon have become well-known despite their absence in our Sunday scriptures. Descriptions of the bride in the song are often applied to Mary of Nazareth or Jesus: “a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.”   Some passages that we heard Barbara read are frequently used at weddings, including the recent royal wedding: “Arise my fair one and come away,” and “Set me as a seal upon your heart.”  You may also have heard another beautiful line from this text at a wedding: “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved’s is mine.”

Passages and images from this text are popular with artists as well, from Marc Chagall to Toni Morrison to Madeline L’Engle.   Even though the church doesn’t always make full use of it, our culture has.

If you read the text from beginning to end – as I imagine some of you will now, if you never have before – you may notice that the lovers spend a great deal of time complimenting one another.  If anyone is looking for creative expressions for your modern day love declarations, you could seek out some resources here. When is the last time you told someone they were like a cluster of henna blossoms? Or you could wow them by comparing their teeth to a flock of shown ewes that have come up from the washing. Maybe even better, simply tell them that their love is better than wine.

In another famous section, the speaker says, “I am black and beautiful.”  Due to centuries of racism, this text has often been translated, “I am black but beautiful.”  Thankfully translators have corrected this in most modern versions, so that the text is again what it was originally meant to be: a celebration of dark-skinned beauty.

You may be wondering: why did this text end up in the Hebrew Scriptures? It helped that it was attributed to Solomon. But my guess is that mostly, the Song of Solomon made it into the canon because it was so popular. Song of Songs means: the best song. How could you make a book of the most important pieces of your cultural and religious inheritance without including the best love song ever written by your people?

There are many who would disagree with my interpretation, however. Both Jewish and Christian scholars have argued that there is nothing about human physical love in the text at all.  No, they say, this text is only about the relationship between God and the people Israel; or Jesus, and the Church.

Mostly I find this interpretation laughable – really, read it through and see if you can agree with them. However, we can gain a few things if we open the door to a more theological interpretation of the text. If we apply this language to a relationship with God, it is striking in its intensity and intimacy. “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved’s is mine.”  Or, “Love is stronger than death, passion fierce as the grave.”  These are lovely ways to describe human spiritual fervor, and the depth and seriousness of God’s love for us.

Another argument in favor of the more theological interpretation comes from modern feminist and womanist theologians. If this is how God relates to the people Israel, or how Jesus relates to the church, or how the holy by whatever name relates to us individually; perhaps we are in a less lopsided power arrangement than we have traditionally imagined.  The lovers in the text are mutually passionate and committed. Perhaps we also could be partners with God, sharing love with one another, and working together for the good of creation. (see Phyllis Trible, “Depatriarchalizing in the Biblical Interpretation,” among others).

Mostly, however, I find this text a gift because it does focus on human love. This is part of the human experience, and holiness can be found in it. Christian tradition holds so much that represses, denies, and shames the human body and human sexuality.  One could even argue that our willful turning away from human physical experience has prevented us from providing moral leadership about good, mutual, safe, and loving physical touch.

Furthermore, in scriptures it is rare to find any description of love or marriage that is worth celebrating. Which biblical marriage or love affair would you care to duplicate in your own life? There aren’t many. Here, however, there is reciprocal delight and satisfaction: gifts from God, and worthy of celebration.

Please pray with me.

God, thank you for love of all kinds: 0ur love for you, your love for us, and our love for one another, in its many forms, in its great variety. May we seek out and celebrate love that honors us and honors all others, in all of our dignity, individuality, worth, and beauty. Amen.

Songs of Lament

Psalm 137:1-6
Nehemiah 1-12

This summer at West Concord Union Church we have been exploring the songs of the bible, as you may have heard a few weeks ago. There are more than 185 songs in the bible, sung by very different people, and for very different reasons. We’ve heard songs of praise, and songs of victory, and one song of eulogy. But so far we have not yet touched on another large category of biblical songs: songs of lamentation.

There is, in fact, a whole book of Lamentations.  The book of Lamentations is a set of five songs, traditionally thought to be written by the prophet Jeremiah. These songs mourn the destruction of Jerusalem, its community. and its great temple: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations… Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, she finds no resting place; her pursuers have overtaken her in the midst of her distress.” (Lam 1:1, 1:3)

Songs of communal lamentation in the bible are not limited to the book of Lamentations. There are several psalms that fit this pattern as well. They express grief for what has happened to the people, for what has happened to the nation. They remember God’s past acts of salvation. They ask for God’s help, and for holy restoration.

In the psalm Andrew read today, those who are in exile in Babylon following the destruction of Jerusalem tell us: “by the rivers of Babylon we sat down,  and we wept when we remembered Zion. Our captors and tormentors asked us to sing the songs of Zion. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign Land?” It was hard to sing at all, in a strange place, when times were bad; and yet these very words are part of a psalm, part of a song. Singing has been an important part of the process of mourning for our ancestors in faith.

I feel a profound sense of grief about our public life, our communal life, our national life, today. We’re not in the same position as the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Our holy city has not been destroyed. We are not, most of us at least, exiles from our homeland. And yet, it is a troubled and a troubling time.

I wonder, what might we grieve, in our common life in America today?  What do you grieve about our city, our state, our nation, our world?  I encourage you to read the book of Lamentations, and our psalms of communal lamentation, whether it is for the first time or a return to very familiar texts.  And consider, if you wrote a song of lamentation today, what would it say? What do you grieve most deeply about what we have lost, who we are now, and what we have never yet become together?

The longer reading this morning is a selection from the book of Nehemiah. If the book of Lamentations describes the pain of the destruction of Jerusalem, this is a story of what happens afterwards. An Israelite serving abroad in a royal court named Nehemiah hears of destruction and exile, and he feels called to return and rebuild Jerusalem.

At first the work of rebuilding does not go well. Some folks laugh at those who are trying to build the city wall again. Others try to destroy it.  Still, one way or another, the wall continues to rise. Other things begin to change for the better, too. Nehemiah brings legal action against the officials who are starving the people through heavy taxation; and he is successful. Slowly, the people begin to recover from starvation, from occupation, from oppression. Nehemiah becomes the governor of Judah, and people return to their homeland.

To me the most fascinating part of the story is what happens when there is finally a crowd again in the square, in the rebuilt city of Jerusalem.  The people ask Ezra, a scribe, to bring the book of the law of Moses, and to read the law aloud to them. They begin to practice their faith again together and renew their covenant with God. And we learn that among those who come to live in Jerusalem are those who are in charge of the songs of thanksgiving.  Songs of thanksgiving, after so much suffering.

If we want to rebuild our common life; to restore good things from the past, and begin good things that have never yet been realized among us; I wonder if it starts with music. Music, that brings our voices together in grief. Music, that brings our voices together in longing. Music, that brings our voices together in hope. Music, that brings our voices together, eventually, despite everything, in thanksgiving.

We need music in doubt and in faith, in grief and in joy. Music is a gift from God that helps us express what is deepest in our hearts. It connects us with one another, and it connects us with all that is holy.

The book of Lamentations contains songs of exile from the people Israel. There are songs of exile in our own American songbook, too. Songs of those who were stolen from their homelands in Africa and the Caribbean and beyond and enslaved on our shores. W.E.B. Du Bois (Boys) calls these spirituals “sorrow songs.”  He says they are “the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas.”

Today we sing one of those American sorrow-songs, Balm in Gilead.  And as we sing, let us pray that our singing together, in grief, in longing, in hope, and in thanksgiving, will help remake each of us and be part of the remaking of our nation. Amen.

Songs of Moses

Exodus 15:1-2, 11-18
Revelation 15

This summer here at West Concord Union Church we have been exploring songs of the bible, of which there are more than 185. We started with the longest song, and then the most popular one. We’ve heard a song from Deborah, a judge and prophet; and two from David, that great king and musician. Today we hear two songs of Moses, which are the first and last songs in the bible.

The first song in the bible is found in the Book of Exodus. God has called Moses to lead his people up out of slavery in Egypt. Reluctantly, Moses agrees. With the help of God, his siblings, and many others, Moses convinces Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. But just as the people are nearing freedom, Pharaoh changes his mind, and the people are trapped between the shores of the Red Sea and an Egyptian army.

You know this story. God tells Moses: stretch out your arm. And Moses stretches out his arm, and the Red Sea parts.  The people walk forward on dry ground, with water on either side. When they have safely crossed, the water closes in again. And Moses and the people sing a song sometimes called the Song of the Sea: “I will sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider have been thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and has become my salvation; this is my God, who I will praise, the God of my ancestors, who I will exalt.”

They go on singing, praising God as majestic in holiness, and awesome in splendor.  And they describe the fear of other peoples in the face of their God. Then the prophet Miriam, Moses’ sister, takes a tambourine, and leads the women in playing, dancing, and singing: “Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider have been thrown into the sea.”

This is the first song in the bible, a song of Moses. The last song in the bible comes in the midst of a less familiar story, in the book of Revelation. This book is traditionally attributed to the disciple John, who is also traditionally credited with the gospel of John and several letters.

John, imprisoned on the island of Patmos for sharing the good news of Jesus, receives a message from the resurrected Christ. This message is for seven churches in Asia: a call to repentance and a promise for those who are faithful. The message comes in the form of fantastic visions including angels, beasts, catastrophes and plagues.  Amidst all this there is a choir standing beside a sea of glass with harps of God, singing what is described as the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb.

The choir sings: “Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations!  Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgements have been revealed.”

The first and the last songs in the bible. Both, songs of Moses. But are they the same song, or different songs?

These two texts agree on a lot. God is amazing, powerful, and unique. God inspires fear and awe. But these songs were recorded more than 500 years apart, in dramatically different contexts, and this shows up in the text as well.

Exodus was recorded in the 5th century bce, based on much earlier oral and written traditions. It was written by and for a Jewish audience. Exodus focuses on how God liberates oppressed Israelites in the midst of many powerful, competing nations. Therefore it is with relief that the text imagines the members of other nations quaking before the God of Israel: “pangs seized the inhabitants of Philistia…trembling seized the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan melted away.”

The book of Revelation was recorded close to the end of the first century of the common era. It was written by and for an early Christian audience. Its vision was formed in part by the large, diverse Roman Empire from which it emerged, a political entity larger than most people had experienced before.  Revelation focuses on the redemption and unification of all people in the newly forming church. And so this song imagines God’s power as a uniting rather than a conquering force: “All nations will come and worship before you.”

It is dangerous to read two scriptures together in dialogue, Hebrew and Greek alongside one another.  It’s easy to compare and contrast without remembering context. Christians in particular are famous for our inclination to interpret our more recent Greek scriptures as an improvement on the Hebrew texts.

I wonder if instead of claiming one song of Moses and deriding the other, we might receive some wisdom from both of these songs today.  Their visions are different, but still complementary. We can remember, with the Israelites by the Red Sea, that the work of our powerful God is to free the enslaved, lift up the lowly, undo human injustice, and bring down those who misuse power. And we can also embrace the Christian impulse, sometimes to aggressive, to invite and include all people into the good news of God.

You all may be aware that about a month ago, the United Church of Christ conferences of MA, RI, and CT all voted to form a new conference together.  I don’t know how much you’ve talked about this at TriCon. The decision made the Boston Globe, but I’m sure some of you have not yet heard about it, and others may not care.  Perhaps you imagine that this is simply downsizing, or deck chair reorganization. Let me suggest otherwise.

These southern New England conferences saw an opportunity, as conferences with greater resources, to be leaders in a new way of being church: a more connected way, and a more powerful way. As local churches, and church organizations, rapidly change and die around us; as our nation faces new challenges; this is a Moses moment. God is calling us to do a new thing; to be freed from old bondages and old sins, for a new future.

Recognizing together that God is our strength, our might, and our salvation, United Church of Christ congregations across southern New England can put our common mission above any individual, regional, or even denominational pride. The hope of this new conference is that in working together with one another, and strengthening our partnerships with those of other churches, those of other faiths, and those of no faith, we can amplify our efforts for justice and compassion, and glorify God.

I speak of this today as we at West Concord Union Church and Trinitarian Congregational Church begin our shared summer worship time as a way of saying:what if we begin here – in Concord?  I see incredible strength for good in the various congregations and organizations in Concord, and I think that strength could be multiplied if we were more connected around the values that we share.

Friends, God is holy. She redeems us, and guides us, through challenges both personal and political. Our ancestors in faith have testified to this for more than 2,500 years. So let us give thanks, for the wonders she has achieved; and open our hearts to the new possibilities she lays before us. Amen.

David’s Song of Praise

Last week in our exploration of songs of the bible, we heard a lament from David, that famous musician, and great king of Israel. Today we hear one of King David’s many songs of praise. This song is found twice in the bible: once in the book of Samuel after David and his army have won a military victory; and then again as Psalm 18.

The song starts with a beautiful passage honoring God with many names. David calls God his rock, fortress, deliverer, refuge, shield, stronghold, savior, and horn of salvation. He goes on to describe how in a time of grave trouble, he called upon God, and God hears him. God responds with a magnificent uprising of creation: moving the earth, sending forth flame, coming down from the heavens, flying on the wind, sending forth lightening, laying bare the foundations of the world.

David says, “God delivered me from my strong enemy…the Lord was my stay… God delivered me, because God delighted in me.”

So far in the song, I am with David. To be sure, we don’t always experience God helping us in such a powerful way. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure that God is with us at all. But I do believe that God hears us, and helps us, in ways small and great. God can be for us a rock, fortress, deliverer, refuge, shield, stronghold, savior, and horn of salvation. God works to deliver us, because God delights in us.

As the song continues, however, I begin to have less sympathy for David’s point of view. (more…)

David’s Lament

2 Samuel 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Song of Deborah

Judges 4&5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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