Posted in Sermons

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

Predestined?

Matthew 22:1-14

There are few stranger texts in our bible than the parable Jesus offers in the gospel of Matthew this morning. No one would want to teach this story in Sunday School. One commentator even wrote, “I’m not sure this parable is conducive to a Christian sermon at all.” So, I urge you to lower your expectations as we try to make some sense out of it.

Jesus tells us: the kingdom of heaven is like a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. The king sends out invitations to the banquet. However, no one wants to come. So, the king sends word again, letting the guests know that there is a great menu, with lots of meat. Still, everyone has something better to do than show up at the wedding.

This story already sounds strange. Why would anyone ignore a royal invitation, especially when it’s offered twice? But wait – there’s more. Some of the folks who don’t want to come to the party are so angry — about being invited — that they abuse and kill the people sent out to invite them. The king, in turn, is enraged, and sends an army to kill and burn the whole city.

Now many of us know that wedding planning can be stressful. Family dynamics; financial challenges; people don’t always RSVP. But this case seems extreme. Every single guest has refused to attend. People have been murdered. The King has destroyed one of his own cities. One might wonder if the couple might decide to have a private family ceremony, or even elope.

But no. The King is still in search of guests. He decides to invite anyone who can be found on the street, good or bad. Finally, he has what he has wanted all along: a hall full of people. Unfortunately, someone at the wedding mars the perfection of the evening by committing a fashion faux pas. Having received a last minute invitation, he shows up at the wedding without a wedding robe. The king is so insulted by this that he has the man bound, and thrown into the outer darkness, where, apparently, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “for many are called, but few are chosen.”

Yikes. I have so many questions. If we imagine that the king in this parable is God, as most commentators do, why is this wedding so important to her? What kind of anger management issues led to her destroying a town? Why did she send someone to eternal punishment for simply wearing the wrong outfit? What did Jesus think that this parable could tell us about the kingdom of God? And what on earth does his last comment mean: “For many are called, but few are chosen”?

The idea of being chosen by God is a theme that runs throughout our religious tradition. Our Jewish ancestors in faith have sometimes understood themselves to be chosen by God for a special fate. Augustine and Aquinas both believed that God had specific plans for us. Being chosen also became an important theological issue during the reformation, thanks largely to the writings of Calvin.

You remember John Calvin: that French philosopher and lawyer turned preacher and theologian. Fleeing religious persecution, he ended up in Geneva. He preached a lot of very long sermons without notes. He outlawed the use of instruments. And he shared some ideas about being chosen by God that went farther than anyone had ever gone before.

Calvin believed that we are all inherently sinful, as a result of the sins of the first humans. We are, to use his language, totally depraved; every part of our lives is touched by sin. And it gets worse: we have no ability to recover from our state of sinfulness by ourselves. Rather, God plans for the saving of people through Jesus, and the availability of irresistible grace. Unfortunately, not everyone gets to participate in this salvation plan. God, in God’s wisdom, has chosen, or predestined, some of us for a glorious fate, while everyone else is destined for damnation. There’s nothing anyone can do about what camp they have been assigned to.

Before you all pack up and decide to go home, because of the bizarre things we find in our Christian tradition, let me suggest some mitigating factors to help us cope with both the parable and Calvin’s theology: human experience, and human error.

Let’s begin with the parable. You may know that the gospel of Matthew was produced by a community of Jesus followers 50 or 60 years after the death of Jesus – that’s two or three generations. During the time between Jesus’ death and the recording of the gospel, the people in the Matthean community did not had a pleasant run of it.

They believed that God was calling all Jewish believers to a magnificent renewal of faith, through the teachings and resurrection of Jesus. God was like a King, who graciously invites everyone to come to a magnificent banquet. However, lots of people did not show up when they were invited. Friends, and family, and members of the synagogue, did not want to join in the Jesus movement. Some of them were downright rude.  A few were violent towards these Jesus-following Jewish people.

Therefore, when the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70,  the Matthean community wondered whether God was responding to the Jews who had not begun to follow Jesus. And, still wanting their movement to grow, they reached out beyond the Jewish community and welcomed in anyone who would come: anyone off the street, no matter what their background.

This story is designed to comfort the Matthean community: to give them a sense that God is on their side. But the story turns at the end. It ends with a warning: you have been invited to God’s great feast, and you have had the good sense to show up. Still, make sure that you follow the host’s rules if you want to stay. Do not be complacent

Human experience, and human error: the Matthean community puts words in Jesus’ mouth that will explain their struggle. In the process, they make the mistake of condemning those family and friends who are faithful in a different way: something I think Jesus never would have encouraged.

What about Calvin? I am far from an expert on Calvin or his time. But let me offer a theory. Calvin lived in a world in which heaven and hell were an assumed part of the worldview. Everyone knew that they existed and that people were divided after death into to one or the other, saved or damned.

What Calvin does is try to explain how God is present in this preconceived understanding of the universe. He says, God is so powerful, that it’s impossible that this does not happen exactly the way that God intends it to. Choosing gets done, and so God must be doing the choosing.

Human experience, and human error. Calvin’s experience in the church taught him what he believed about heaven, and hell, and salvation, and damnation. And therefore, he made an error: he created a theological explanation for the mechanism by which people arrived in these places which makes no sense if we believe in a loving God.

None of us are free from the biases that our experiences produce. None of us are free from error. But let’s see if we can imagine differently how God calls and chooses people. Let’s start, by putting what we know about God in the center of the story, which means, what we know about love.

I like the idea of God as a host. God is our host at every communion meal. What kind of host would God be? I’m not sure I see God as someone who creates a VIP guest list and sends out engraved invitations and hires a celebrity chef. I’m guessing God is more of a potluck kind of person. You know, someone who sees a friend or a stranger while running errands and says, “come on over.” Someone who is so generous with their invitations that the crowd gets big, and it’s always an unexpected mix of people.

I’m not sure God’s house is always clean. Someone who’s focused on loving doesn’t always get around to dusting. No one minds, though. There’s always something delicious to eat in the potluck. There’s always a good story to hear. And most importantly, there’s a down home feeling that gets inside you and makes you want to smile. After dinner, the music starts. It’s a pick-up band, most nights. Sometimes a truly magnificent artist knocks everyone’s socks off.

God doesn’t ask much of people who show up. Come as you are, bring what you have. The only thing God asks is that everyone who comes tries to let down our hair, and tell the real truth, and have a good time, and love one another. We can stay all night. We can stay forever.

God, you are such a big mystery, and life is so complicated, that we get really confused about what you’re up to in this world. Whenever we are unsure, help us get back to essentials. Help us get back to love. Amen.

Is That in the Bible?

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg five hundred years ago this month, detailing the mistakes of his church. Word spread far and wide, and one of the first people to learn about it was the Pope. At first, the Pope responded gently.  He sent theologians to argue with Luther and to test his ideas.  After three years, however, it became clear that this approach was not working. So the Pope sent Luther a papal bull, a public decree, threatening him with excommunication if he did not denounce portions of his writings. Does anyone know how Luther responded?  Never subtle, Luther burned the document. He burned a papal decree in public. Not surprisingly, Luther was excommunicated. He was named a heretic and an outlaw. His literature was banned.  It even became a crime to provide him with food or shelter.

Following this public fallout with the church, Luther’s life was in danger. He was forced into hiding, and found shelter in Wartburg Castle. As it turns out, however, this mandatory retreat from public life was the reason for one of the greatest achievements of Luther’s life. With plenty of time on his hands, Luther began a new revolutionary adventure: he translated the New Testament, the Greek scriptures, into everyday German.

Until this time, only priests and scholars could read the holy scriptures. They were the only ones trained to read the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, or the more common Latin translation. Ordinary people could not read these languages.  They had no way to know what was in the bible by themselves. Through his translation, Luther made it possible for any literate German to read the gospels. Soon, his project expanded.  Several other writers took on the work of translation as well, until together they produced a complete German bible, with 117 woodcut illustrations included.

The accessibility of the bible in German was a game changer in so many ways. It challenged the system of clerical privilege.  It undermined the power of church tradition. It helped standardize the German language. It spurred efforts throughout the world to translate the bible, and to increase literacy. Luther had an even more lofty goal for his work. Luther hoped that access to the bible would develop the ethical strength of the people.  If we would each be guided by the scriptures, Luther thought, both the church and the world could be properly reformed.

Because of Luther and his contemporaries, the idea of not being able to read the bible seems very strange. The bible is the best selling book of the year, every year. Bibles are now available in just about every human language.  88% of Americans report they have a bible in their homes. If you’re traveling, you can probably find one in the bedside table of your hotel. We have stacks of bibles available here in our church. If you ever want to use one during worship, there are some by the entry now, on the bookshelf.

Bibles are available everywhere. And we continue to value the bible as a source of authority: both for the church, and for our lives. Scripture is read in every church service.  It is the foundation of every sermon. The bible is quoted during congressional arguments and at football games.

Still, I’m not sure that the availability of the bible or its cultural authority has led to a particularly deep understanding of it. We honor the bible, without really knowing what is in it. A survey in 2015 (from the Barna group) revealed that: (more…)

Familiar and New

Psalm 25:1-8

This day is a long time coming.  It has been more than three years, almost four, since we began planning for this renovation. It has been a long time coming.  We have not worshiped together in this sanctuary since May 21st — that’s 18 weeks we’ve been away.

During the time when we’ve been away, this building has changed, and we have changed, too. Let’s take a little time now, to notice.  Look around the room; look into your own heart. I ask you to think for a moment about three questions: What is the same? What is different? And how do you feel?

(The congregation shared its observations…)

So, we bring all of this: our memories of what was, our feelings today, our anticipation about what is to come, as we worship this morning.

I have to admit that when I imagined coming back into our building after the renovation I imagined something a little different than what’s happening here today. I imagined a “grand re-opening.”  It was going to happen in September. There would be a big celebration that was really well-planned ahead of time. Maybe there would be balloons, or everyone would process through the new entryway, or a brass band would come. We would be so excited to see everything fixed and finished.

But as construction moved along, it became more and more clear that our first time coming back into our building wouldn’t be like that.  A competitive construction season slowed us up. One of our sinks got stuck in Texas, our countertops are still traveling towards us from China, and our moveable platform won’t be ready for another two weeks. The new entryway is not done. The painting is not done. We did not even know for certain whether we would be allowed to be in here today until mid-afternoon on Friday.

So, instead of a grand re-opening, we have today what you might call a “soft open.”  Everyone worked incredibly hard this week to get us to where we are this morning, but there is plenty yet to do.

I won’t pretend that I haven’t gotten frustrated during the process.  Construction dates and details kept changing and so our plans had to change again and again. But I will say this: I think it’s better this way.

I think it’s better this way, because our first time worshiping here was never going to feel like we had really arrived. Some of us are mourning what used to be. All of us need time to adjust to the changes. Our spirits take coaxing to feel completely at home.

I think it’s better this way for another reason, too. There will never be any illusion that our building is perfect.  Everything is still in process, and even the parts of our building which are finished are not perfect. Our newly refinished floor has already been scratched. The new paint has already been smudged.

Sometimes, we like to pretend at church that we have it all together: the correct beliefs, the right behavior, an enviable life, a great show that we put on for one another.  But church isn’t about having it all together.  We’re never finished. We’re never perfect. In fact, the stories of our tradition have a completely different narrative.

We come to the book, and we read the work of the psalmist, who writes: “To you, O lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust.” We don’t know much about the psalm writer, but the psalm makes it sound like she has been through a lot. She has enemies.  She has made mistakes.  She is messy. And in her messiness she turns to God for guidance, goodness, mercy, and steadfast love.

We come to the table, where we give thanks for the acts of God throughout history. And the one thing we always remember, when we gather at the table, is the story of Jesus.  We thank God for the gift of Jesus: Jesus, who lived for us, and who was willing to die for us. Jesus, of whose broken life God made something beautiful: a resurrected Christ who lives on in the church today.

We come to the font, where we remember how God has moved over the waters from the beginning of time, and in the waters of the wombs that held each of us before we were born. At the font, we are invited to renounce evil, be free from sin, and be born again in to a new life. We are blessed by God’s spirit and bound to God’s people.

Church is not about having it all together. It is about bringing ourselves, just as we are, with our mistakes and our tragedies, and seeing what beautiful things God might be able to do with them.

Today we have new furniture to help us to remember the word, and celebrate the meal, and be washed by water and the Spirit. Ann Schummers brought over our bible, which is now in its rightful place, in a pulpit that was made  to fit it. I baked some bread to bless our first meal at the table, and Susan Coppock brought flowers to brighten it. Some of you have brought water from many places to bless the font. I invite you to come forward, and tell us where the water is from; we will respond, Thanks be to God.

(Folks came forward with water from Lake Michigan; Verona, Italy; Zürich, Switzerland; Slovakia; London; Great East Lake, NH; Assabet River under Pine St. bridge; Lac Tremblant Nord, Québec, Canada; Lake Shirley, Lunenberg, MA; Cannon Beach, OR;  Québec, Canada; Tanglewood MA;  Pacific Ocean, San Diego, CA; Sheep Pond in Brewster, MA;  Lake Ossipee, NH; Hog Island, ME; Lake Washington, NH ; Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, MA; Wells, ME;  Nile River;  Walden Pond;   Prince Edward Island, Canada; Myrtle Beach, SC; West Concord)

Let’s join together in blessing our furniture and this renovated sanctuary:

Holy God, whom the heavens cannot contain,
We give you thanks for the generosity of those who have built and rebuilt this house of prayer.
We praise you for the fellowship of those who through their prayer have made it holy.
As we gather now, we dedicate this space once again to your worship,
And ask for your blessing.
Bless this pulpit, that the words shared here might be true to your gospel.
Bless this table, that the meals shared here might be full of your presence.
Bless this font, filled with water from so many holy places,
that those who are baptized and who remember their baptisms
May find freedom, renewal, and unity with your church and with your creation.
Bless all who gather to worship here, that seeking you, we may find you;
And that our hearts might be filled with joy and peace. Amen.

God is God

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Exodus 16:2-15

The psalmist proclaims this morning that God brought the people Israel up out of slavery in Egypt with joy and with singing. However, when we meet those same Israelites in our second reading from the book of Exodus, their mood is not quite so cheery.  At this stage in their story, the jubilation of a miraculous escape has faded.

Now the Israelites are on a seemingly endless journey, out in the middle of nowhere, without enough to eat or drink. They are tired. They are hungry. They are afraid.  So, they do what humans do everywhere when we find ourselves in a bind: they turn to their leaders and complain. “If only we had died…in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

In other words: this is awful, and we blame you.

Moses and Aaron aren’t too thrilled to be on the receiving end of these complaints.  It seems a little hard to be blamed for helping people escape from slavery. And Moses and Aaron didn’t come up with the idea of escaping from Pharaoh by themselves. In fact, neither of them really wanted anything to do with the whole Exodus project. They simply gave in to God’s insistent instructions.

So, Moses and Aaron do what humans do everywhere when we find ourselves blamed for unfortunate events: they pass the buck. They tell the people, “What are we, that you complain against us? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”

In other words: God’s the one who’s really in charge around here. Look to God, if you want things to change.

We began our series on the Reformation two weeks ago talking about the pre-reformers, John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. Then, last week, we spent a little time with Martin Luther, who started the Reformation proper with his indignation over the church practice of indulgences. This week, we turn our attention to yet another famous reformer, a Frenchman named John Calvin.

Calvin began his professional life as a humanist philosopher and lawyer. In the early 1530s, he experienced a conversion, and turned his life over to God. The newly Christian Calvin found himself in sympathy with those in Paris who were urging reform and renewal in the church. Eventually Calvin’s beliefs became so dangerous in France that he fled to Switzerland. There he wrote his famous Institutes of the Christian Faith, a book of systematic theology. He established himself as a pastor and a city leader in Geneva.

Calvin is famous today for many things. One of them is his preaching. While he was in Geneva, Calvin preached more than two thousand sermons, sometimes preaching seven times a week. Each sermon lasted for more than an hour and he did not use notes.  This guy had a lot to say, and he was methodical about sharing it. Calvin seems to have worked his way slowly through biblical books as he preached, so that he gave two hundred sermons on Deuteronomy – in sequence – over the course of a year. I wonder how that would go over here.

But today, what I want to highlight most about Calvin is not his amazing preaching record, but his theological emphasis on what he called the Sovereignty of God.

What does it mean to believe in the Sovereignty of God? It doesn’t seem too UCC, does it — the Sovereignty of God? (more…)

Selling Salvation

I Corinthians 1:18-24
John 3:13-17

This fall, on the 500th anniversary of the reformation, we are revisiting history to ask what it might have to teach us about our faith and life today.  And if we ask what issue is at the heart of the reformation– what was the biggest point of debate that divided the church –  what would you say? What were you taught in history class? Often, the reformation is considered to be the result of the selling of indulgences.

The long road that led us to the sale of indulgences starts with a simple question: how do we heal our relationship with God when we have damaged it? Or, to use different language, what should we do when we realize that we have sinned? In Catholic tradition, which is our heritage as western Christians, we recover from sin in three steps: contrition, confession, and satisfaction.  This is not so different from how many non-Catholics and even non-Christians understand the process of setting things right after doing something wrong. Contrition: First, we realize and regret that we’ve done something wrong. Confession: Then, we admit to God and others what we’ve done. Satisfaction: Finally, we attempt to “right the wrong,” either directly or indirectly. Contrition, confession, and satisfaction.

Indulgences are one way of solving the “satisfaction” part of the equation. If we feel badly about what we’ve done, we want to make up for it. And if we believe in hell or purgatory, as nearly all medieval Christians did, we want to avoid suffering in them. But what can we do to achieve satisfaction? And how will we know if we’ve done enough?

In response to these questions, the church developed a system to quantify how much satisfaction was required in each circumstance, and in what ways one could earn it. When people followed the church’s guidance, they received an indulgence, a promise of release from the punishment of sin, issued by a bishop or by the Pope. At first, indulgences were offered to those who had done something significant to make up for their sins: for example, going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or building a cathedral, or fighting in a crusade.

Soon believers to begin to wonder: instead of going to all the trouble of a pilgrimage, a building project, or a war: couldn’t I just pay to make things right?  As it turns out, the church had plenty of use for Christians’ money, and so the sale of indulgences began in the 12th century. It proved popular, and it grew. Then, as the papacy weakened, secular governments increasingly demanded a cut of the pie, too. Governments would only allow the sale of indulgences if they got as much as two-thirds of the sale returned to their own bank accounts. Guilt, it turned out, was profitable for many.

From the beginning, however, there were questions about indulgences. Something didn’t seem quite right about the church or the state benefiting financially. Then, you had to consider the needs of the poor — what about those who couldn’t afford to pay? And why should a bishop or a pope have the final say in where a person ended up after death?  Martin Luther’s arguments on this topic were the ones that really caught fire. He wrote:

“Ask, for example: Why does not the pope liberate everyone from Purgatory for the sake of love (a most holy thing) and because of the supreme necessity of their souls? This would be morally the best of reasons. Meanwhile he redeems innumerable souls for money, a most perishable thing, with which to build St. Peter’s church, a very minor purpose.”

Ultimately, Luther came to believe not only that the sale of indulgences was a racket, but more importantly, that salvation is free. Contrition and confession are necessary in a life of faith, but not satisfaction. God’s forgiveness and grace is a gift we can never earn by through works or money. It is instead, against all logic, freely given.

It is because of the Reformation that at the beginning of worship in this community, when we have an opportunity to confess to God anything that we may have done against God or against God’s will for the world, we are immediately assured of God’s forgiveness –without any service or payment.

How could Luther be so sure? Why would God give us something so precious in return for so little? Can it really be possible that God is willing to reconcile with us after our most grievous sins, simply because we repent and confess them? (more…)

Family Feud

Matthew 18:15-20

Today is Covenanting Sunday, when we start up new programs, when we call back those who vacation from church in the summer, when we remember our Covenant to keep one another company along the journey of our faith.  As we gather together today, we hear a piece of scripture from the gospel of Matthew that comes from a whole section in which Jesus gives instructions to his followers about how to live in community.  There’s all kinds of great advice in this section for us to consider, like: Treat one another as children of God; avoid doing what would cause other people to stumble; care for those who are most vulnerable; and forgive one another without limit. Great advice, if sometimes difficult to follow.

In among all this great advice is one much more specific piece of instruction, which we heard this morning. It explains what to do if someone has sinned against you. This piece of scripture is often repeated to help us figure out how to deal with conflict as Christians.  If someone sins against you,  go directly to the person who caused your injury. Talk with them. If, after a frank discussion, the person will not listen, then take someone with you, and try again. If the issue is still not resolved, bring it to the church as a whole. And if even consultation with the whole church will not resolve the conflic, then the person must be separated from you, and from the church, become an outsider.

It’s remarkable just how good Jesus’ advice is. He told us two thousand years ago not to triangulate; and we’re still trying to learn that lesson. He knew that people can’t solve conflicts without talking directly and honestly with one another. The rest of his advice is good, too. When we can’t solve a problem one-on-one, bringing in some helpers makes sense. And he is wise to point out that sometimes we still have to set a limit and fundamentally change our relationship with someone because of the way they have treated us.  Jesus knows what he’s talking about.

But here’s the rub: Jesus’ instructions tell us what to do if someone sins against us.  But there’s at least two sides to every story. When we get into a conflict with someone, how do we really know who is sinning? Or who is sinning more? When push comes to shove, which side of the argument should the church be on?

500 years ago, the church founded in the name of Jesus Christ got into a fight. A massive, no-holds-barred, down-and-dirty brawl. It started simply enough: with disagreements about theology and church practice. For years, across Europe, folks raised concerns about the selling of God’s forgiveness through the sale of indulgences.  People questioned the hierarchy of the church, the system of priests, bishops, and pope. People debated the relative importance of scripture and tradition as a source of authority in the church. People argued about the liturgy and the sacraments, and whether ordinary people had enough access to holy things.

These issues are important. But as with most conflicts, this one became explosive not so much because of the issues themselves, but because of how the issues were dealt with.  Take, for example, the first prominent instance of Reformation thinking, back in the 15th century.

An Oxford seminary professor named John Wycliffe produced writings that criticized the church extensively. His ideas inspired Jan Hus, a priest and University dean in Prague, who proceeded to preach regularly on the failings of the church and its leadership. If you read up on them, you may find that you agree with their ideas; or not. What I want to highlight is not so much what they said, but how the church responded to them. After their Bishops failed to reign them in, they were both declared heretics at the churchwide Council of Constance. Then, Jan Hus, who had been guaranteed safe conduct to the Council, was burned at the stake. And John Wycliffe, who had already died, was exhumed in order to be burned as well. His writings were also destroyed.

As you can imagine, church reformers did not respond well to these actions. Leaders of Bohemia and Moravia sent a letter to the Council at Constance denouncing the execution of Jan Hus. In response, a Council leader sent letters back threatening to drown all followers of Hus and Wycliffe. Violence broke out across the region, leading to 15 years of war between the people in what is now the Czech republic and their rulers, who were loyal to the church institution.

This was just the beginning. A prelude to the conflict of the Reformation itself. Because, it seems, no one learned a lesson from those events.  The church continued with its existing policies. In fact, Pope Sixtus IV expanded the sale of indulgences, so they could be applied not only to the living, but also to the dead.  Meanwhile, church reformers were energized by the ideas of both men, and by Wycliffe’s efforts to translate the bible into English. A hundred years after Hus and Wycliffe, a monk named Martin Luther took up their arguments.  This time, with the help of the printing press, a revolution began.

You may wonder why we are spending time on the reformation this fall, apart from the fact that it’s an anniversary year. Surely, enough has changed now that this history doesn’t have much to do with us. But I am struck by just how many issues of the Reformation we are still dealing with. What should the relationship be between religion and politics? How does new media change the world? And what is the Christian faith really about?

Beyond the issues which began it, the Reformation is also a case study in conflict.  Through the course of the conflict, we see failures on every side to recognize who the church is called to be.

Standing where we are now in history, and as part of a Reform church tradition, we may describe the Reformation as a conflict between a corrupt Roman Catholic Church and a brave band of ideologically pure reformers. But it’s important to remember that the reformers were an integral part of the Roman Catholic Church themselves. They were priests, and monks, and everyday churchgoers. What happened 500 years ago was a family feud. It was a conflict within the church, which became a conflict within nations, which became an international conflict.

Probably, everyone felt that they were in the right.  If they looked to Jesus’ instructions, I’m sure they felt that someone had sinned against them! Someone was speaking blasphemy, or leading believers astray, or suggesting radical redistribution of property, or threatening political overthrow.  So it was only right that when a conversation of letters and councils failed to solve the issue, these members of the church resorted to separating from one another: with denunciations, and excommunications, and new church formations, and international relocations, and war.

But Jesus’ three great sentences about how to deal with a conflict don’t stand alone. They’re part of a broader message, even if you only read the chapter they are located in.

Jesus asks us to be honest about our disagreements, and to deal with them directly. If necessary, he tells us, we may separate from one another. Separation, however, is different from escalation, and it is different than violence. In the church, in our nation, in our world, Jesus calls us to treat one another as children of God; to avoid doing what would cause other people to stumble; to care for those who are most vulnerable; to forgive one another without limit. And wherever two or three gather in God’s name, as Jesus tells us at the end of the passage, God is with them: whether they are on what we choose to call “our side” or not.

This is a provocative message.  It goes against all of our instincts. How can we simultaneously denounce anyone’s ideas and actions, as fundamentally dangerous to the sanctity of the church, or to the common good, or even to our own personal safety – and yet still keep in mind that this person is a child of God, worthy of care and forgiveness?

Try, for a moment, to imagine a person in today’s world towards whom you have a righteous anger. Hold in your mind a person who you believe has spoken or acted in a way that defies God, endangers community, or maybe even threatens your welfare or the welfare of those you love.  This person may never listen to your truth, no matter how many witnesses you bring along with you. You may need to separate yourself, protect yourself against, this person, and their actions.  And yet, try to hold in your mind at the same time, the idea that God loves them, and includes them in God’s embrace, even when you cannot.

The Reformation, as it splintered the western church, made important changes that opened up the Christian faith to so many. Many conflicts today also have noble ends: for example, to release our country from the bondage of white supremacy, anti-semitism, homophobia. Jesus calls us to struggle on towards love and justice. And Jesus also call us to keep in mind that we are fundamentally one with our enemies.  Our welfare depends on one another.  We belong to each other, across divisions of church, politics, ideology, and geography.  Despite our division, God is drawing us together, towards a future unity that we cannot yet imagine. Thanks be to God.

God in Unexpected Places: On the Mountain

Exodus 3:1-15

When we prepared to leave our church sanctuary last spring, we read a part of the story of Moses. We remembered the time when the people Israel were traveling with Moses through the wilderness, stranded between slavery in Egypt and a new life in a promised land. In that time of traveling, the people worshipped God in a tent of meeting, and God promised to be with them, wherever they went. So we have also created a kind of tent, for our traveling time.  We have been watching and listening and paying attention to how God may still be with us, in unexpected ways, while we are away from our house of worship, and throughout our lives.

Today, as summer draws to a close, we back up to hear earlier parts of Moses’ story. We heard the story of Moses’ birth and then his call to lead the people Israel up out of slavery.  When the baby Moses grows up and sees the suffering of his people, he doesn’t know what to do, so he travels far away from the problem. But God knows that Moses could help to free his people. So God comes to visit Moses, while he is taking care of sheep on top of a mountain.

God comes to visit Moses, and appears as a burning bush. Unexpected, right?  A bush that is on fire, but not consumed, not burned up.  God calls to Moses from out of the fire, and Moses responds, “Here I am.” And then God asks Moses to do something before they continue with their conversation: take off his shoes.

Why would God ask Moses to take off his shoes? Lots of people have tried to answer this question.  Some people argue that God is demanding respect. That seems possible, but surprising.  Usually, if we’re meeting someone important, we wear the nicest shoes we can find instead of taking off our shoes.  Some people argue that God wants Moses to take off his shoes to be closer to creation, to the earth. Maybe. There is even speculation that Moses’ shoes symbolize something about money or politics. Not everyone in Moses’ time and place could afford sandals; and the sandals of some Egyptian rulers bore the image of conquered peoples on the insole, so they were literally walking on their subjects. Maybe God was trying to say something about who should serve her, or how they should serve. But none of these answers really satisfy me. There must be a really important reason why God asks Moses to take off his shoes. (more…)

Yes, Lord

Matthew 15:10-28

Our text begins today with Jesus teaching. He is teaching those who have gathered how to live a righteous life, a life that expresses the love of God.  There are so many different guidelines out there, and Jesus does not want anyone to be deceived.  This matters to him. So he calls the people in, he asks them to come closer.

Jesus tells the crowd, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles… What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart… Out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

This lesson that Jesus is teaching is not a new lesson. Throughout the gospels, Jesus tries to teach anyone who will listen that following  rules of empire, or even rules of faith, such as ritual handwashing before a meal: following these rules is not the most important thing. God deserves our ultimate loyalty, and following God requires flexibility. When we observe others eating differently, or praying differently, or somehow living differently than we do ourselves, we should not treat them poorly, or separate ourselves from them. We should not even assume that we hold moral superiority. Rather, we should treat them with kindness, and wait to observe what their actions reveal about their hearts.

Jesus offers this teaching, and then he moves on. He travels to the district of Tyre and Sidon. As he arrives in this new place, a woman comes out of the crowd and demands Jesus’ attention. She shouts “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

This is, perhaps, not the most polite way to ask for help.  This woman’s words express deference to Jesus, but she is loud, forceful, and direct. Not only that – but just by looking at her, you can tell that she’s not an Israelite. She’s a Canaanite. At first, Jesus ignores this woman. Desperate for help for her daughter, however, she continues her efforts. She badgers the disciples who surround Jesus with further requests. Irritated and uncomfortable, they ask Jesus to intervene. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

Finally, Jesus turns towards the woman and speaks to her. He says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Perhaps he says these words with compassion. But his message is still clear: look elsewhere.  We don’t serve your kind at this establishment.

Nevertheless, this woman persists. She will not give up. She kneels before Jesus, begging: “Lord, help me.” And then, what comes out of Jesus’ mouth? He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

I have to admit, this passage is always a little painful for me to read. Even you, Jesus?  Even you – who teach us the story of the Good Samaritan?  Even you – who step in front of a woman about to be stoned? Even you – who eat with sinners and tax collectors?  Even you deny care to someone because of her background; and, when pressed, dismiss her as a dog. Have you not taught us that love and mercy are more important than culture, health, wealth, propriety, or religion? Have you not taught us that it is what comes out of our mouths that  will show others what is in our hearts?

I don’t know why Jesus fails himself and his God in this story. Maybe he didn’t spend quite enough time up on the mountain, praying, in the previous chapter.  Maybe he is still tired and overwhelmed by all demands of his calling. Whatever the reason, in this moment we see the fully human, totally unfiltered part of Jesus. We see that his heart has been harmed by taking in the biases in his upbringing, in his culture.  So, in an unguarded moment, that heart unleashes slander that defiles him.

Thankfully, in that awful moment, Jesus has a worthy teacher.  So many other people, repulsed by Jesus himself, would have slunk away into the crowd. But this woman – this Canaanite woman! She has been ignored. She has been rebuffed. She has been denied. She has even been insulted. Still, she looks Jesus in the eye and says, “Yes, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Jesus turns on a dime. He must recognize her dignity. He must recognize his mistake. He says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is instantly healed.

There has been a lot to be angry about this week. Anyone been angry? Frustrated? Nauseous? Despairing? Afraid? Mostly, I’ve been angry.

I’m angry that hate is so unembarrassed in our country today that young white men marched in Charlottesville carrying torches and shouting slogans of white supremacy without even worrying about covering their faces.  I’m angry that our President has so utterly failed to take a moral stance against white supremacy, and is defending and encouraging it, instead. I am angry that the denunciations of white supremacy, white nationalism, racism, and Naziism from our elected leaders are not more definitive or widespread.  I am angry that they have not led to more comprehensive action.

I’m not only angry with our elected leaders. I’m angry with our country as a whole. I am angry that it takes the KKK literally taking over our streets and parks, committing domestic terrorism and vandalizing a holocaust memorial to alert so many people to the fact that racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism are still a powerful force in our country and in our state. These sins are not the exclusive habit of the few, but the practice of the whole. These problems are not only visible in the extreme event of domestic terrorism; they are woven in to the fabric of our lives together. They are reflected in all of our institutions, and laws, and practices.

Ultimately, I am angry with myself. I am a white American Christian pastor. My ancestors and I, mostly through our passivity, have helped to maintain the legacy of hate that we have been born into. My ancestors and I have reaped countless advantages from that hate without reparation or even full repentance. And the church to which I have given my heart, and within which I have found my calling, has played a major role in dehumanizing native peoples, demonizing Jewish peoples, and defending the enslavement of African peoples. The responsibility lies especially with people like me to stop tolerating lies, and to stop tolerating silence. The responsibility lies especially with people like me to tell the truth, and bring about an end, at last, to white supremacy. White supremacy in America is a white Christian problem.

So I decided to march yesterday. Sometimes anger can do good things. And, beloved, I have to say, it was beautiful. There were so many of us.  We filled up miles of road.  There were teachers, and nurses, and clergy people out in droves. There were lots of old hippies and – don’t worry about the young people – there were boatloads of millennials. Some people made funny signs, and other people wore funny clothes.  Lots of folks showed up with water and food and first aid kits, just in case. My water bottle was filled back up after hours of walking, and someone handed me a whole sleeve of ritz crackers.

All along the way, people leaned out of their apartments, cheering us on. Cleaning crews and nurses working shifts waved and clapped from doorways and windows.  People parked on the sidewalk with signs and strollers to show their children: this is who we are at our best. This is who we want to be. I especially loved the big brass band, with instruments painted in many colors, that showed up and kept us cheerful as we waited in the sun sweating because there were just so many counter-protestors on Boston Common, that no more would fit inside.

It made me think: maybe there’s hope for me. Maybe there’s hope for all the marchers. Maybe there’s hope for Massachusetts. Maybe there’s hope, even for that tiny crowd of white supremacists huddled in the gazebo.

Those of us who are white have been taught to hate; and to ignore and enjoy the disparities that come from hate. It is what we were born into. It has been all around us, all our lives.

But if Jesus can make mistakes, maybe we can finally admit that we do, too. Maybe we will find the courage to listen to those who are different than us, who are despised by our culture, and yet dare to speak up anyway. Maybe we will find the courage to acknowledge and share with one another the truth about white supremacy: the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  It will be painful, and uncomfortable.  But friends, our God is a God of unbounded grace and forgiveness. Won’t it feel good, to be released from this sin, to be liberated from these dangerous fantasies, and to wake up together into a new world of love, and justice, and peace?

Redemption is possible for those of us who have been taught privilege and dominance.  Healing is possible for those of us who have been taught submission and shame. It is not what has gone into our mouths — what we have been taught, explicitly and implicitly — that matters in the end.  It is what comes out of our mouths that will show what is in our hearts.  We, like Jesus, and through the grace of God, can learn and change and be freed. May it be so. Thanks be to God.

God in Unexpected Places: On the Sea

Matthew 14:22-33

A lot is happening for Jesus.

For one thing, Jesus is getting famous. Word has gotten around about this charismatic rabbi reformer, about his preaching prowess and his healing skills. Every new town he arrives in, the crowds keep getting bigger. There are those who need healing.  There are spiritual pilgrims.  There are thrill seekers, and celebrity sighters, and folks who just want a little entertainment.

Jesus is getting famous. But some other things are not going so well for Jesus. Recently he travelled back home to Nazareth. Maybe he was hoping for some comfort, or some rest, or some affirmation. Instead, he is questioned and mocked. Those who knew him when are offended by who he has become.

Jesus moves on from Nazareth, but things do not improve. Soon he finds out that Herod, the local arm of Roman rule, has executed his mentor, John the Baptist.  This is a big loss for Jesus. And even bigger, because at least one of the reasons that John is killed is because Jesus has been  making trouble for the colonial government.

Jesus has a growing list of personal problems, and thanks to his newfound popularity, he is facing a whole lot of practical problems as well.  Crowds are great, but Jesus and his disciples are still trying to figure out what to do with everyone. How many people can Jesus heal in one day? Where can Jesus preach so that this many people can hear him? What about food for all these pilgrims? What do we do with so many people?

A lot is happening for Jesus: personally, professionally. He’s wiser than most of us, so he knows that he needs a break. His first attempt is to get into a boat, and go to a deserted place. Unfortunately, the crowd catches on. By the time his boat is approaching the shore, the crowds have tracked him down on foot.  Jesus has compassion on them. They are so desperate. He cures those who are sick.  Then he feeds everyone, making a meal for thousands out of five loaves, and two fish.

Then, finally,  Jesus says, “enough.” He compels his disciples to get into a boat and leave him. He dismisses the crowd. And he goes up the mountain by himself to pray. (more…)

God in Unexpected Places: Seeking the Kingdom of Heaven

This summer at West Concord Union Church, we’ve been exploring the theme, God in Unexpected Places.  We’re in an Exodus time, a time away from our church building as it is renovated.  I know those of you from TriCon have recently had an exodus experience as well, during the construction of your beautiful new organ, so you know what it’s like.  As you may have heard, during our Exodus, we have created a kind of tent of meeting to take with us, to worship under, at Concord Children’s Center and here. And since we are already on the road, away from our spiritual home, it seems like a good time to pay attention to how God surprises us in places, and times, and ways, that we do not expect.

Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, has been giving his own sermon series about God in unexpected places.  He is preaching in parables, in stories, which have to be explored in order to discover kernels of truth about God. Jesus begins with longer parables: the parable of the sower, and the similar parable about a person who sowed good seed in a field that was later planted with weeds. Helpfully, Jesus takes time to explain both of these parables at length to the crowd who is listening to him. However, as he is wrapping up his teaching, Jesus gives us five additional parables about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, in rapid succession, without any further explanation.

The kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells us, is like a small mustard seed that grows into a great shrub and provides a home for birds. The kingdom of heaven is like one measure of yeast that causes three measures of flour to change and rise into good bread. The kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure, that someone is so overjoyed to find that he sells all he has to possess it. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant who sells all he has to buy a pearl of great value.  The kingdom of heaven is like a net that catches fish of every kind.

After firing off these comparisons, one after another, Jesus asks the crowd: “Have you understood all this?”  And they answer, improbably, “yes.”  I would guess they had at least a few questions about all the things Jesus has just said. I certainly do.

Perhaps there is no really precise way to explain the kingdom of heaven. Ask a pastor or a biblical scholar, people who you might argue are qualified to define it, and we stumble around a bit. The kingdom of heaven is something that is to come, and also something that is right now. It refers to something far away, and also something very close at hand. It describes something very holy, and yet also every day. The kingdom of heaven is a contradiction.

Jesus solves the challenge of trying to describe the indescribable by using many comparisons, scattering breadcrumbs along the way to lead us towards what we’re looking for.  The comparisons that Jesus uses are all very familiar to his audience. The people he’s talking to had seen a mustard plant, and baked bread with yeast, and used nets to catch fish.  Unfortunately, these similes are not as familiar to most of us. So how can we capture for ourselves what the kingdom of heaven might be like? How can we find words or images that will help to make it feel real to us? (more…)