Posted in Sermons

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

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!”

 

 

Power from God

  • February 6, 2018

Isaiah 40:21-31
Mark 1:29-39

The New Yorker ran a cover last week about the month of January: did anyone see it? It is a cartoon called “The Cruelest Month,” and the author is Roz Chast. The days of January are laid out as if they were an old-fashioned Advent calendar. But when you open each day’s door, instead of a surprise or a treat, you see a depressing label. Early in the month, the labels read: Cold; Grey; Wet; and then: Cold, Grey, and Wet. Other labels include: Arctic Blast. Ice Storm. Flu. Flu. Flu. By the end of the month, it has progressed to: Weird frozen pellets. Cabin fever. Dentist. Why me, Lord? And, Still January.

On Friday, we progressed into the month of February, but regrettably, the groundhog predicts six more weeks of winter. To which I say, No Thanks.

Winter starts nicely in this part of the world. In November and December, as it gets darker and colder, we have holidays to distract and cheer us. The first few snowfalls, whenever they come, are beautiful.  Early January can feel refreshing: it’s nice to have a new year, a blank slate.

But at this point, the darkness and the chill, the ice and slush, and the many, many illnesses have worn out my patience. Is anyone with me?  This is to say nothing of all the non-weather-related reasons we each may have to feel tired and discouraged. I know there are many. Why not just concede defeat to winter, and retreat to a couch until further notice?

I feel a little embarrassed by my winter doldrums, however, when I turn to the gospel of Mark.  We are stretching the earliest passages in Mark over many weeks in church, but back to back, they are a bracing read. Jesus is wasting no time at all. The gospel rushes from Jesus’ baptism, to Jesus’ first sermon and the calling of the first disciples, to an impressive sermon in a synagogue, to an exorcism, to a mass healing of every sick person in a whole city. Meanwhile, the writer keeps using words like “immediately” to help us get it: big things are happening, and they are happening fast.

How is Jesus keeping up this pace?  Is this something we should be trying to emulate in our own lives?  But before the passage ends, there is an abrupt interruption in the headlong trajectory of Jesus’ ministry. Following the marathon healing session, the text tells us, Jesus gets up early in the morning, while it is still very dark, and goes out to a deserted place, and prays.  He takes a break. He fuels up with prayer. (more…)

Blessed & Filled

  • January 16, 2018

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

When does Jesus become Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy to the Lord

  • January 2, 2018

Luke 2:22-40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding a Posada

Luke 2:1-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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