Posted in Worship

Fishing for People

  • February 21, 2019

At the beginning of February, we invited you to share what moved you to follow Jesus, join together with this community, or simply show up at worship! Here are some of the responses:

  • Family (4)
  • Fellowship (3)
  • My parents (3)
  • To experience the love of God made manifest in worship! This congregation
  • Joined the church to become part of a community
  • With love I received God
  • The acceptance of all people
  • Adult choir needed another singer
  • Community
  • Something about the feel, the openness of the church and the warmth of the congregation; hard to remember back 46 years!
  • For the wonderful community and dedication to service
  • Recognition of my faith. Strengthening of belief. Prayer and praise.
  • To be closer to my Dad, who is now in heaven with God
  • I came for salvation and to seek God’s favor
  • Community and inclusion for all (and play-dough!)
  • To learn more about Christ
  • I needed a new church family and to feel more love
  • Inner belief in God that required a community at this time of my life (empty nest)
  • Open & Affirming policy and the feeling of God in the people and space
  • To be part of a faith community
  • Love
  • A place where everyone is not just tolerated but valued: Sunday Fellowship, children, leaders of all abilities
  • Community that loves music and takes care of each other.
  • The loving, accepting community
  • Blue skies
  • Grandchildren
  • Because I get to sing in Junior choir, because I learn stuff at church and because I get to make new friends
  • For community and for my children
  • The moment on the hill in Madison
  • Share values with my community
  • I saw the rainbow flag and “Black Lives Matter” sign outside and knew it would be a welcoming place. From the first interaction I had when I walked in the 1st Sunday. The greeter said “You’re here!” with a smile. Boy did I feel welcome, noisy toddlers in tow to boot.
  • To be part of a loving, supportive group of Christians
  • Warm caring community for our interfaith family
  • Searching, not sure what, not sure where
  • Welcoming and friendly people, feeling of belonging
  • Faith community
  • It feels good to be in a community with everyone, sharing together and being with God.
  • My marriage and now the welcoming community
  • Russ Hatch’s faith
  • Music, choirs
  • Good preaching and welcoming congregation; inclusivity
  • Sense of love, of children; good organ, great music
  • Inclusion
  • To spend time with my Mom and to have snacks.
  • (Rainbow colored fish)
  • I came to WCUC because my grandmother came here when she lived in Concord, and because of the beautiful stained glass windows, and because I can walk here from home. I stayed because of the music and the community.
  • Companions for my journey in life who seek to love as God loves us.
  • I like church class.
  • To learn about God and Jesus
  • With love and kindness that God brought me
  • Sunday Fellowship
  • My Mom & Dad brought me here. What did I catch? New relationships, better understanding of my faith.
  • I like to sing.
  • Change! I needed to be enlightened and have found sense of service here.
  • To worship God.
  • A need to be part of a loving, questioning, accepting community.
  • Coming to church reminds me of what is important in life.
  • Thinking about God
  • Warm and welcoming moral community.
  • Desire to reconnect with spiritual life and community
  • A faith-based and loving community. Peace, bells, music.
  • Came to church because I needed to hear the scriptures on Sundays.
  • SF Food & Fun! But also because of all the fishers before me…
  • To be together, to let us shine in the presence of Jesus, holy spirit and God.
  • Peace of mind
  • Sunday school and snack
  • A neighbor invited me. I wanted and found a home, a family, people to love and people who love me.
  • To be part of a community! To be needed and to help others.
  • A community of love and trust, spirit-filled
  • To join a community
  • Was familiar with WCUC through visits with my family and decided it was where I wanted to be.
  • Music, calm.
  • Family, Community, Social Justice, Love
  • This church is full of helpful folks
  • The people, friendly outreach
  • Rest, love, humbleness, music
  • A call to belong to a loving faith community. A place of peace in a stormy world.
  • Peace
  • Hearing the voice of God through the congregation
  • It was a church community that shared my values

Healer

  • February 19, 2019

Jeremiah 17:5-10, Luke 6:17-26

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus is a healer. His very first act of ministry is healing, and the healing continues on from there. Jesus overcomes fevers and leprosy. He restores a withered hand. Jesus even reverses paralysis. People with all kinds of diseases and physical challenges come to Jesus. He lays his hands on them; and they are healed.

Jesus’ healing also goes beyond the physical. He performs exorcisms; he knows how to silence demons. He pronounces the forgiveness of sins, the healing of the relationship between a person and God. Jesus understands his mission as caring particularly for sinners, for those who are far from God. He says: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:21)

Jesus is a healer. He heals bodies, and he heals spirits. He pays special attention to the most painfully suffering bodies. He feels a particular calling to serve the most tortured spirits. Even when he teaches, Jesus is healing: extending an invitation to the minds and hearts of his listeners, to be changed.

What does Jesus have to teach us in this gospel? What kind of healing might his words provoke?

What we hear today is a passage from what is known as Jesus’ sermon on the plain; he is preaching, not on a mountain, or in a boat, but “on a level place.” The passage begins on a very encouraging note. Jesus says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” According to Jesus, those who are most in need will find their needs met through the grace of God. Even hatred, exclusion, and defamation may be a reason for joy: after all, the greatest prophets suffered the same.

Most of us are familiar with the idea of God promising blessing and help to those in very difficult circumstances.  But from here the text takes a troubling turn, in a passage unique to this gospel. Jesus says, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

It’s one thing to promise comfort to those in need. But why proscribe suffering for those who have money, or food, or laughter, or acclimation? Some of us may have more than we need, but who needs woe?  Why would a healer desire woe for anyone?

I love the text from Jeremiah today in conversation with Jesus’ words.  Jeremiah has his own list of blessings and curses – perhaps these inspired Jesus. But my favorite part of this passage comes at the end: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart…”

We like to think that our hearts are pure. Listen to your heart, we tell one another. Follow your heart. But what if our hearts are not always reliable? There was a wonderful UCC devotional about this recently by the Rev. Quinn Caldwell. What if our hearts are persuaded and perverted by evil?  What if our hearts are flawed, and we don’t even know it?

There are plenty of examples of heart perversion and heart delusion in the news. Politicians, who refuse to own up to the ways in which they may need healing from the widespread scourge of racism. Church leaders, who refuse to take responsibility for committing sexual assault, or for reassigning sexual predators within the church. But it is too easy to point fingers at others. All of us have been taught racism and misogyny and all manner of other prejudices: they’re embedded in our cultures, and in our social structures. Many of us enjoy privileges such as wealth, skin color, or education, that we barely notice, let alone try to mitigate.  How can we heal from hurts that are hidden from us?  How can we recover from illnesses that we consciously or unconsciously ignore, because they benefit us?

The prophet tells us that God tests our sometimes untrustworthy minds and searches our sometimes devious hearts. God digs deep, and gets close.  When no one else can, God offers us accountability for those parts of ourselves we wish we could keep hidden from everyone

What if Jesus does not so much wish blessings on some, and woe on others, but healing for all? 

Healing: in the provision of food, and funds, and laughter, and reassurance, for those of us who desperately need it. And healing: in the redistribution of wealth and food and pleasure and acclimation away from those of us who have been glutted by them, whose hearts and minds have been damaged by overabundance. 

We may, almost all of us, be in need of both kinds of healing.  The meeting of our deep needs and greatest hungers. The chipping away of overabundance and habits of dominance. To quote Isaiah: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” (Isaiah 40:4)

This kind of dramatic rebuilding of our inner landscape, and our social fabric, may hurt while it helps.  The rebreaking of the bone, the opening of the heart: healing can be terrifying as well as tender.

This gospel shows us Jesus as a healer. We touched last week on the terrible truth that God does not always heal or provide for us in the ways that we desire.  Still, I believe that Jesus is reaching out towards us in healing. That wherever we are unhealthy from a lack of something, God is blessing us there. That wherever we are unhealthy from too much of something, God is trying to help us with that, too. God is working with us for the healing we desperately desire, and the healing we haven’t realized that we need, and the healing that is really inconvenient and uncomfortable for us. For God desires our healing, and the healing of communities, and the healing of creation.

Gracious God, there are a lot of blessings in our lives, and a lot of woe, and sometimes we’re not even sure which is which. Keep working on us; keep working with us, on everything from our bank accounts to our bodies, on everything in our minds and in our hearts. You know what true health is, for us, and for us together, and for our world. May your power heal each of us us, and work in us for the healing of the whole. Amen.

Lowering Expectations

  • February 12, 2019

Texts: Psalm 138, Luke 4:16-30

When Jesus preaches to a hometown crowd in Nazareth, he starts out bold: declaring that he is a fulfillment of the ancient scriptures, a messenger of God’s good news. Everyone is transfixed by his presence, and his preaching.  Everyone speaks well of him. He is a hit.

Oddly, Jesus isn’t satisfied by this overwhelmingly positive response. He seems determined to deflate everyone’s excessive expectations. Jesus tells the crowd: “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’… The truth is there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah…yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath…There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them were cleansed except Namaan the Syrian.”

Jesus knows what the folks gathering around him are thinking. They are counting on miraculous personal healing. They are expecting a complete political overhaul. They are looking to him for the answers to all of their problems. So Jesus warns them not to get their hopes up too high.  Even the great prophets Elijah and Elisha only helped a small portion of those in need; why would he be any different? I can’t do everything, he tells the people.

How do the people react? What do the people of Nazareth do when he tells them that he can’t fix all of their problems? They are so filled with rage that they drive him out of town, and try to hurl him off of a cliff.

Our scriptures are full of good news. The psalmist tells us that God preserves and delivers us. The prophet Isaiah promises good news for the poor, release to the captives, and the end of all oppression.  And yet, suffering and injustice still exist.  God can’t fix everything; or at least, God hasn’t yet. If that fills you with rage, and makes you want to push someone off a cliff: you are not alone.

Whole schools of theology have developed around what is sometimes called “the problem of evil” or “theodicy.” Scholars have dedicated lifetimes to the puzzle of why a good God allows evil to exist.  Great literature also picks up this issue; one famous example is the book The Brothers Karamazov.  If we want to wrestle with the question in the context of scripture, the go-to-text is the book of Job. But we need not be great scholars or theologians to notice the presence of evil and suffering in our world. Nor can I say that all the learned effort of so many people has led to a solution to the problem that is entirely satisfying.

What does it mean to put our trust in a God of love and healing and hope, while suffering continues?  Are we simply fooling ourselves? Or is there an honest way to get through the muddle?

Some of you are familiar with the story of Kate Bowler, assistant professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School. She was busy with her life, getting married, having a baby, teaching classes, doing research, writing a book on the prosperity gospel — when everything was interrupted by the arrival of cancer. More specifically, hard-to-diagnose, and probably imminently life-ending cancer.

Suddenly, the underlying assumptions of Kate’s life were up in the air. She couldn’t count on moving forward with any of her long-term career plans. She couldn’t even count on raising her son, or having any more time with her husband. She certainly couldn’t count on everything working out for the best, or everything happening for a reason. That kind of everyday positivity suddenly seemed like a terribly false fantasy. Kate discovered that her life, instead of being a slow progression towards greater accomplishments, and greater wisdom, might just end, in the middle of everything; breaking her heart and the hearts of many others.

Graciously, Kate has welcomed us into her struggle with mortality. She has written a wonderful book as well as many articles, and she has given several interviews. If you haven’t already, I really encourage you to read and listen to what she has to offer. Kate Bowler’s honesty is rare. So is her humor, and her challenge to deeper faith

Kate’s story is her own. And, one of the reasons it is so powerful to read is because she touches on a universal problem. If we are lucky enough to live long enough, and love well enough, we all have our hears broken by how unfair and painful and tragic life can be. Any certainty we have in the good is challenged.  Even our bodies betray us, and the delicious illusion of immortality erodes.

Jesus comes to us with God’s good news, the news he learned from his ancestors in faith. All of us who follow Jesus are called to share the good news with one another, too. But Kate’s story, and so many that are like it, caution us to pause and examine what exactly that good news is.  Does God really promise us boundless prosperity and perfect bodies and astounding romance and flawless purpose-driven years of eternal life on earth, if only we’ll wait and hope and pray?  No; though most of us seem to get confused about some or all of that, from time to time

God’s good news is not human wish fulfillment. God doesn’t act on our terms, or on our timeline, or in any way according to our plans. God doesn’t stop death, and She hasn’t yet stopped all suffering. Rage is an understandable response.

Still, God does preserve and deliver us. God can heal and save us. God is love, and love is real. Love is the strongest force in the universe. Love begins and ends all things. Love is in and around us all the time.  Love helps us to endure what seems unendurable. Love helps us to heal what seems impossible to repair. Love draws us together, and points us towards what is beautiful, and empowers us to make our own small contributions to the work of love, that is, the work of justice and compassion.

Continuing to put our trust in that great big capital -L Love of God, amidst the reality of everything else, may only be possible in community. In community, where folks show up beside us with little-l love all the time.  With prayers, and soup, and awkward silences, with tears and laughter, and with just another hand to hold in the waiting room, and another voice to join in the song.

Together we can find a way to keep singing. We shall sing of your ways, writes the psalmist, for great is your glory. You have increased the strength of our souls. Your steadfast love, O God, endures forever.

Thanks be to God.

Deep Sea Fishing with Jesus

This sermon was offered on February 3rd by Jessica Torgerson, Director of Children’s Ministries. The focus text is Luke 5:1-11.

I have taught this story to children probably four times since I began teaching at WCUC.  I love this story.  Jesus is blossoming at the very beginning of his ministry.  He is baptized, he spends 40 days tempted in the desert, then he returns to Nazareth and begins traveling, preaching, and healing.  Word spreads about this guy really fast.  So fast, in fact, that by the time this story begins in Luke, there is such a crowd pushing in on Jesus that he has to escape to the water in Simon’s boat where he continues to teach.  Now Simon is a fisherman, and perhaps a sub-par fisherman at that, as he tells Jesus he was out all night and literally caught nothing.  He’s probably exhausted and frustrated, and I’m betting he just wants to clean his nets and go home.  But he welcomes Jesus into his boat and pushes out into the water – allowing Jesus to finish teaching to the crowd.

In Sunday school, whenever we present bible stories to the children, we always spend some time wondering.  “I wonder how that story made you feel,” “I wonder why that story is in the bible, “I wonder what happens next.”  Sometimes our wondering is general, sometimes it is specific.  In this story, I wonder a lot.  I wonder if Simon grumbled when Jesus asked him to use his boat.  Or did he offer without hesitation?  I wonder if the two of them knew each other before this.  Were they buddies? What was their relationship?  Turns out just before this story in Luke, Jesus visited Simon at his home and miraculously healed his sick mother-in-law.  So maybe Simon figured he owed him one – you saved my mother-in-law, I’ll let you use my boat for a bit while you teach.  Little did Simon know how central he would become to this story very soon.

So Jesus is in Simon’s boat and finishes teaching.  Interestingly, Luke says nothing about what Jesus was teaching to the crowd.  That part isn’t important – it’s what follows his teaching that becomes vital to the story.  Jesus says to Simon, “Put your nets out there in deep water.”  Jesus is not a professional fisherman.  Not even sure if Jesus has ever fished before.  So Simon responds, “yeah – we tried that all night and caught nothing.  But sure!  If you say so!”  So the experienced fisherman, on the advice of Jesus – again, not a fisherman – trusts him so much that he does it.  Doesn’t even really hesitate about it.  “If you say so, I’ll let down the nets.”  I wonder – could I do that?  Could you?  Could you trust someone so deeply that you respond to a call or an invitation with very little logic behind it?  Would you say yes?  Would I?

So we all know what happens next – nets so full of fish they begin to break, boats so full of fish they begin to sink.  Simon becomes overwhelmed with fear and wonder and expresses his complete unworthiness, falling on his knees, telling Jesus “Get away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  Jesus comforts him saying, “Don’t be afraid.  From now on you will be catching people.”  The boats full of fish are brought to shore, and Simon and his partners James and John leave everything behind – leave behind the greatest catch of their fishing careers – to follow Jesus. 

This encounter with Jesus has completely turned the lives of these fishermen upside down.  There is really nothing extraordinary about Simon Peter and his fishing partners.  They were doing what they did every day – fishing (not particularly well), cleaning nets, getting ready to go home when Jesus comes along and changes everything.

Jesus calls Simon and his partners exactly as they are.  He doesn’t ask for Simon to get his act together and come back with a resume for a detailed interview for a discipleship position in his ministry.  He accepts them with all their sins and vulnerabilities and inadequacies.  And what’s more amazing to me – these fishermen say yes! 

In the past when I have heard and taught this story, I always end up thinking – I could never do that.  Literally drop everything to follow Jesus?  I can’t.  I’m definitely not worthy.  Not prepared.  Not trusting enough.  But I wonder – what would it be like to go deep sea fishing with Jesus?  Would you go with him if he called you?  Stepping out of your comfort zone, letting go of certainties and logic?  Because the truth is, we have all let down our nets in response to a call from God.  That is why we are here. 

In each of your bulletins you will find a little paper fish.  I invite you to think for a moment – what brought you to West Concord Union Church?  Every one of us has heard a call or an invitation to join our community, maybe to get involved in a ministry.  Why did you say yes?  When you cast out your net, what did you catch?  On your fish, I invite you to write down what has brought you here to our church.  What call are you responding to?  How is God inviting you?

Thank you God for calling us in so many different ways to get to know you and each other.  Thank you for catching us in your deep, wide net of mercy and love, as we continue to cast our nets out and fill them to bursting.  In your holy name, Amen.              

Together

1 Corinthians 12:12-26

There is a great video online made by Temple Shalom in Cincinatti called, “The Little Table.”

It starts out very simply. Two people have flyers for a game night at the temple. They wish that they had a little table to display the flyers in the lobby. So, they bring the suggestion to a temple board meeting.  Leaders discuss if they need a little table in the lobby. Then the question arises: if this community truly needs a little table, can’t they use one that they already have, rather than spending money on a new one? Already, things are getting heated: not everyone is using the right kind of tone while talking about the little table. Finally, a compromise is reached: they will try to find a donated table.

But it doesn’t end there. The person who agrees to seek out the donation of a little table feels overworked and refuses to follow through. A new volunteer with a business background is called in to help the board with a little table cost/benefit analysis. However, the board still cannot agree about the little table. Finally, an outside consultant is called in. He has a PhD in little table buying.  He leads the board in a visualization exercise: do the game night flyers desire to be displayed on a little table? Just what kind of little table would be right?

At the end of the video, a new table finally arrives in the lobby, accompanied by tears of joy and feelings of accomplishment. The flyers for game night are lovingly arranged on top. Unfortunately, the game night happened eight months earlier. (you can watch the whole video here!)

Sometimes I wonder why people put up with the church. Churches, like temples and many other kinds of human communities, are terribly inefficient. We try to include lots of different people.  Everyone brings their own backgrounds, skills, perspectives, and inclinations.  Coming together on anything can be difficult: whether it’s big things like our worship style or major renovations, or small things, like little tables.

If you’ve ever thought that West Concord Union Church is unique in facing this challenge, let me assure you: we are not. That little table video struck such a chord that it has been viewed over 18 thousand times. Even the apostle Paul, addressing one of the earliest churches, long ago, and far away, has something to say about the struggle to find unity in community.

Don’t forget that we are one, Paul tells the church in Corinth. The church, in its diversity, is still one body. We have different gifts, but they come from the same spirit. We give different services, but all of them are activated by God. Therefore, we must find a way to work together.  What’s more, we should unite not through any kind of hierarchy, but in a radical form of equality. He says: “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect… God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

This sounds great — but the struggle is real to come anywhere close to the vision Paul calls us towards. It is hard to share! It is hard to share decisions. It is hard to share money. It is hard to share a building, and staff time, and worship.  It is hard to share with well-meaning people who somehow disagree with our own invaluable wisdom. It is hard to share, and it is hard to trust: trust that we ourselves, in our imperfections and particularities, are recognized, and valued, and even treasured, by God and this community.

Doing things together is hard. Sharing things together is hard.  Trusting in one another is hard.  So it is important that we take the time to recognize, and celebrate, what we manage to achieve despite all of these barriers. It is important to notice the startling beauty of what we do together, despite and because of our differences.  What have we done this year?

  • This year we have continued our great strength in music, thanks to Jim and Susan and so many committed musicians.
  • This year we have continued our great strength in our ministry with children and youth, thanks to Jessica and Joyce and Melissa and Lisa and so many committed parents and other volunteers.

  • This year we have continued to nurture adults in fellowship, worship, and enrichment, from Walden prayer walks to bible study, Parent discussions, and book group
  • This year we have continued and grown in our Sunday Fellowship ministry, celebrating its 35th anniversary, deepening relationships with staff and families, and sharing our witness with the wider church.
  • This year we have continued with vibrant Sunday morning worship, continuing to increase participation in the service, trying new sermon series, singing Mr. Rogers, adding a screen to the sanctuary (with a new version still in the making), expanding accommodations so that more folks might participate fully.
  • This year Our community is growing in its generosity, both to and from the church: we got an incredible response to our Congregational Giving appeal, we gave 11% of our 2018 budget to supporting mission partners; we gathered items for Open Table, the Prison, Mitten Tree, Angel Gifts, and more.
  • This year we have done more together, with each other and the wider community:  the Minute Man March, apple picking, a vigil at Kerem Shalom, an Open House

Please join me in prayer. God, it can be so hard to recognize that we are one body: all, indispensable; all, treasured; all, a part of a beautiful whole. Bless us with love for one another, Gratitude for what we share, and courage for what lies ahead. Amen.

Jesus’ Baptism, and Ours

Just about three weeks ago many of us were here celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus, as the angels cried, “Glory!”  Two weeks ago, some of us heard the story of how holy Jesus was as a tween, hanging out in the temple in Jerusalem and impressing everyone with his scriptural interpretations. One week ago, a lot of us got together to celebrate Epiphany, and hear about how the Magi made a long journey just to offer precious gifts to the miraculous child in the manger.

Jesus is holy, our scriptures tell us. Jesus is special: right from the beginning. So why did Jesus need to go out into the desert to listen to the terrifying words of a prophet named John? Why did Jesus decide join the throngs seeking a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?

Why did Jesus need to be baptized? And what is baptism supposed to do for us?

Christian baptism finds its roots primarily in practices of Jewish ritual bathing. Immersion in a mikveh, or special bath, is a Jewish practice that predates Christianity and continues in many Jewish communities today. These baths are specially constructed, and filled only with “living water”: water from a stream, an ocean, or from precipitation. People immerse themselves in a mikveh for many reasons, including purification, as part of a conversion of faith or the consecration of a priest, to seek healing, or to prepare for a marriage or other celebration. 

In the book of Jeremiah (17:5-8, 13) God proclaims that those who put their trust in humanity will be like a shrub in the desert, parched and isolated. By contrast, those who trust in God are like trees planted by water, which stay green and bear fruit even in times of drought. God, Jeremiah tells us, is the mikveh – the hope, or the bath, of Israel: a fountain of living water.

Although we refer to what happens to Jesus as a baptism, and connect it to our Christian practices, it is probably more accurate to call it a mikveh, or at least a Jewish ritual bath. Jesus is in a Jewish community and is washed by a Jewish leader in living water. We can’t know for certain why Jesus choses to do this. Is he seeking forgiveness and purification? Is he preparing for his ministry? What we do know is that God meets Jesus there, as he prays, still dripping with the Jordan River.  The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, and a voice from heaven proclaims: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.

The meanings of Christian baptism echo many of the meanings of a mikveh. Baptism can be a time of repentance and purification, especially if it is done by an adult. Baptism is part of the Christian process of conversion, it’s our way of entering into faith and the faith community. In Christian tradition we also embrace words about “living waters” from our sacred texts, both Hebrew and Greek. We understand God to be a source of refreshment and renewal.  We hope to meet God as we encounter the water.

There are plenty of differences, however, between Jewish and Christian traditions. Baptism is not always done by full immersion. If you want to get technical (and I’m sure that you do), people can be baptized by immersion of all or most of the body, by afflusion (or pouring), or by aspersion (or sprinkling). There are some really fun YouTube videos of different kids of baptism if you’re curious.

Christian baptism is accompanied by words specific to our faith. Which ones should be used is sometimes a matter of debate.  Many baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Others use some variation on that trinitarian formula that widens our imagery for God. Others baptize in Jesus’ name only.

Perhaps most notably, Christian baptism only happens once. It’s not something we do over and over at important times in our lives. One time only. Sometimes, though, like Peter and John in our passage from Acts, Church leaders decide that the way an original baptism was performed wasn’t sufficient, and so they do it again for full effect. One colleague refers to this as “double dipping.”

Sometimes it makes me sad that baptism is a one-time thing. It’s so important, one of only two sacraments. For many of us, it’s something that is done when we are very small, and we don’t even remember it.  It doesn’t seem fair, somehow, that our access to baptism is so limited.

Thankfully, Christians around the world have found ways to address this gaping hole in our ritual practice, by finding ways to remember and re-experience our baptisms. We can do that here, together, as a community in worship; and we will in a moment. We can also do it at home. I have a handout today for anyone who wants to try remembering their baptismal anniversary at home. Some folks encourage Christians to remember their baptism every time they take a shower, or wash their faces. And the font is here every Sunday, we try to keep it filled with water, you can use that water to bless yourself or someone you know whenever you come in and out of the sanctuary.

In baptism, and in baptismal remembrance, we remember that we are created by God, that we are God’s beloved children.  We celebrate that we belong to one another, that we are bound together by water and spirit.  And we receive an opportunity to be changed: to be so freed by the love of God and one another, that our lives are refreshed, and renewed. 

Following this, the congregation was invited to remember, renew, or anticipate their baptism, or simply bear witness. We reaffirmed the promises in our baptismal service and offered a blessing with water (by aspersion!).


Pageant Pictures!

Thank you to all the many participants and supporters who helped our pageant come together. Take a look!

An Ordinary Miracle

A Christmas Eve meditation on Luke 2:1-20

Image by Steve Erspamer

According to this passage of the gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus begins in a very ordinary way. Everyone is just going about their business.

The Roman Emperor wants to collect taxes more efficiently, so he organizes a census.  The people who live under the control of the Roman Empire don’t want to get in trouble, so they follow the census instructions. Everyone travels to the town of their birth to be counted, and, naturally, rooms for the night grow scarce. Meanwhile, a baby is born in the stable behind an overflowing Bethlehem Inn. Not so strange — Babies come when they’re ready. They arrive every day. So far in this story, there’s taxes, travel, and birth: common human stuff.

It’s only when the angels arrive that we are invited to notice that something amazing is happening. An angel of God comes before shepherds doing their work in the fields. The angel shines with the glory of God, and says: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord!” Then a multitude of the heavenly host arrive, just in case someone has missed the point, shouting “Glory to God, and on earth, peace.”

We come here, tonight, in the midst of our own ordinary lives. Like the folks in the story, we have to contend with leaders who make choices about our nation.  Like the folks in our story, we know what it is to pay taxes, and to travel. Our lives are full, we work and rest and play. We fall in love, receive diagnoses, struggle, fight, grieve, break things, get exhausted, make up, fix what can be mended, and try again. Our lives are full to bursting with ordinary and heartbreaking stuff.  Babies are born here every day.

How often do we notice the wonder of it all?  How often do we take a deep breath, and gaze at life, and notice its beauty? 

We’ve been talking about Angels all season here. Angels, who bring messages. Angels, who bring comfort. Angels, who arrive unexpectedly. Angels, who guide us towards freedom. Angels do all these things and more.  And above and beyond these things, the angels in our scriptures invite us to awe. See the good in this, they encourage us. Feel the God in this. Sense the amazing power of this moment, and give thanks. Cry “glory.”

It’s a little daunting, to be asked to notice the good, to notice the God, going on in and around us. The folks in the story tonight aren’t sure what to do.

The shepherds, at first, are terrified. Who is this dazzling being?  From terror, they turn to curiosity.  “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.”  In other words, let’s see if this whole thing is actually true. Only once they have visited Mary, and Joseph, and the child, and seen for themselves, do the Shepherds get around to glorifying and praising God.

Mary shows us yet another possible reaction to the angelic invitation.  Instead of reacting in fear, or seeking proof, or giving thanks, Mary treasures the words of the angels, and ponders them in her heart.

No one said awe or gratitude was easy.  Still, the angels invite us to try them out.

On this holy night, we remember a time when God’s presence on earth was magnified. God shone bright in a star up above.  God beamed forth in the face of a newborn. Still, the miracle could have been missed. God does things in surprising ways. She chose a little one with brown skin, from a poor family, in a small nation, to show the world more about who she is. 

Thank God for the angels. The angels called to those folks back then, busy or bored, lost in pain or pleasure.  The angels called to them, and they call to us now.  Do not be afraid, they tell us. Dare to take a breath. Dare to take notice. Right now, close by, in the humblest place, is a love that can change your life, and a reason to cry, “Glory!.”

God, you are good, from the beginning of the world. Our lives are a gift from you, and our home is your beautiful creation. Still, there is a lot of pain here, and plenty of ordinary everyday. It’s easy to miss out on the most important stuff in the midst of everything else. Help us to notice the holiness shining forth in our lives: if only for a moment. Urge us on, to ponder it more deeply, and to pour forth our praise. Amen.

Entertaining Angels

Offered by Joyce DeGreeff on December 16th, 2018

Genesis 18:1-16, Hebrews 13:1-2

When I was a child, I lived in Ogunquit, Maine, otherwise known as the “beautiful place by the sea”. Many of you might recognize this place as a popular vacation spot with a gorgeous sandy beach. You might have walked the famous Marginal Way path that winds around the rocky part of this coastal town to the harbor of Perkins Cove, or visited the many interesting shops and restaurants in the local village.  Well, my family owned one of those shops – it was called The Oxbow Gift Shop – and we lived in a tiny 900 square foot apartment above it.  When I say “we” I mean our family of 8 … 2 parents, 4 kids, and 2 dogs! 

As you can imagine, I have many memories and funny stories to retell from our life together above that gift shop.  But one in particular comes to mind in relationship to this morning’s readings. 

On a cold winter day, my parents decided to give an open invitation at church to anyone who might like to come over for a sledding party in our backyard.  With very short notice, 37 people thought this was a great idea!  Now most hosts, in this situation, would enjoy the party outside and perhaps make a big pot of hot cocoa that everyone should share before calling it a day.  Well, not my parents.  They decided it would be fun to extend the party and invite everyone inside for a spaghetti dinner.  37 plus our 6 – that’s 43 people in 900square feet…for dinner!  Everyone had a great time and no one went away hungry as far as I know, and to this day, people are still talking about my mom’s famous spaghetti sauce.  My dad’s favorite part of the story is when he finally got his plate of food, he looked around at the overcrowded apartment and couldn’t find a place to sit – on chairs or anywhere on the floor.  Then he had what he thought was a brilliant idea and headed for the bathroom.  But when he got there, to his surprise he found two people already in there eating- one on the bath tub and one on the toilet! So he resigned himself to the fact that he would just need to eat standing up. 

When both of my parents, and some of their longtime friends, talk about this day (trust me,we’ve heard the story many times!) there’s a sense of joy-filled playfulness and pride in pulling off such an unconventional, and even downright ludicrous,dinner party.  There were no cloth napkins or fancy china, no candle light or peaceful music playing the background – just pure chaos, great food, and even better company.  As a child I thought it was really crazy and super fun.  And now as an adult, looking back, what stands out the most to me is the open hearted hospitality, the generosity, and the pure joy of the occasion.

This dinner party is what first came to my mind when I read today’s story from Genesis 18where three men suddenly appear to Abraham outside of his humble house.  Immediately, Abraham offers them water to wash their feet and then goes into his tent to ask Sarah to prepare bread and his servant to prepare a meat offering. These travelers gladly receive the meal and eat it together, with Abraham standing by, under a tree outside of his dwelling place.  And then one of them, claiming to be ‘the Lord’,  mentions to Abraham that he will“return in due season” and that his wife Sarah will “bear a son”.  Sarah overhears this from the tent entrance and begins to laugh.  Given the circumstance of their ages, do you blame her? 

But the messenger questions her laughter and reiterates his promise:

The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarahlaugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’  Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season,and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. And he said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” (Genesis 18:13-15)

You gotta love Sarah – brave enough to bicker with the Lord!

It’s all here…hosptality, generosity, humor, and most importantly the very real presence of God. 

In both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture, hospitality was highly regarded and very important for those who wanted to be considered “virtuous”.  And travelers tended to lean on this “culture of hospitality”, relying on the kindness of normal folks when they found themselves in need in unfamiliar territory. So that they showed up isn’t all that unusual, but their identity and their message is a bit more intriguing.  Many have wondered

Who exactly were these three men?  Not all agree on the answer. 

The Jewish Talmud refers to the visitors as three angels, and although the Torah doesn’t mention the names, the Talmud identifies them as Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel.

Some Christians have interpreted the appearance of the three visitors as a vision of the Trinity – in that all three men, together, represent the one true God.

Neither of these explanations seems to fit the text exactly, though.  A more agreed upon Christian understanding is that one indeed was God (given the many references to “the Lord” in the passage) and the other two were angels – partly there for support and partly just passing through on their way to fulfill other missions described later in this chapter of Genesis. 

 In this case,  the visitation represents a “Theophany” or a manifestation of God in human form.  Some Christians would take it even a step further and call it a “Christophany” – suggesting a notion of a pre-incarnation of Jesus,  a foreshadowing of when God is made flesh through the eventual birth of the Christ child.

Regardless of how one chooses to understand the exact identity of these visitors, it’s clear to me that Abraham and Sarah experienced a “holy moment” – a life-changing and life-giving encounter with the Spirit of God.  It doesn’t seem to me that the author of this story is so concerned with proving the existence of heavenly messengers or supernatural beings;  rather, what I think is significant is to witness what happens when we offer hospitality and open ourselves up to entertain unexpected guests. Through human connection, generosity, and vulnerability … God shows up!  When we show up for each other, the Spirit of Love and Grace that is God, is there too – helping us to find the right words,to show compassion. and even to have a little fun!

As our brief reading from Hebrews this morning reminds us:  “Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for doing so, some have entertained angles unawares.” 

These words, commonly assigned to Paul, are likely a direct reference to the Abraham story which, for first-century Jewish writers, would have been considered the premier model of hospitality.  I can’t help but to notice the implications of this ancient text for our world today. What if we were to receive and welcome those in need with the same sort of hospitality that Abraham and Sarah, and countless other Biblical characters,offered to fellow travelers?   Refugees, immigrants, prisoners and other displaced people come to mind  … veterans, people mourning the loss of loved ones, struggling kids and their parents, people who need food, shelter, or maybe just a listening ear and some company?  My guess is that we’d often been tertaining angels – and in doing so, experiencing the very real gift of God’spower and love.

I can think of many examples here at WCUC, of the ways in which this kind of hospitality already happens.  I remember when Sarah Hindle opened up her home for a day long women’s retreat, and when others in this congregation have hosted Dine with Nine dinner parties and end-of-year celebrations for the staff or the choirs. This year there was even a  house party to brainstorm ideas for Congregational Giving! 

“Hospitality”, though, isn’t just about opening up our homes…more to the point, it’s really about opening up our hearts and inviting the Spirit to be with us.  God shows up in places like this sanctuar yand the downstairs classrooms when we welcome all people with no exceptions.   Jesus’ way of healing and inspiration shows up to journey with us when we gather at Walden Pond for weekly walking prayer.  And the Spirit often shows up in one on one conversations too, like the ones we had last year as part of our “In Reach” program.  Many of us experienced the true joy that can come from simply meeting up with someone we don’t know very well and sharing our stories.  In these moments of vulnerable storytelling,God empowers both the teller and the listener to gratefully receive the gift of Love found through genuine human connection.

 When youth group parents gather at my humble dorm apartment (Ok, “humble” is a relative term here…we do have more room than the 900 square feet of my childhood, but we also share our building with 31 teenage boys!)… In any case,when we fill our living room for important conversations about the joys and challenges of raising adolescents, God’s Spirit is there.

And when those adolescents arrive for game night with a distinct mix of awkward silence, playful laughter, nervous energy, and authentic presence… there, too, is God. 

 When we show up for each other, God shows up for us, time and time again. This grace-filled Spirit helps us to step out of our comfort zones, to take risks, and to open our hearts to unexpected possibilities and sometimes even life-changing transformation.

“The angels proclaim You will arrive among us, a joy to meet our longing:  Come, O Come, Emmanuel -God with Us”

Amen.


Angels in the Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6
I Kings 19:3-9

The scriptures of this second Sunday of Advent bring us each year to visit John the Baptist: a prophet who taught and baptized out in the wilderness by the Jordan River. Going out to be with John is a strange trip to make, both then and now.

A visit to John in the wilderness is a strange trip to make: because he was nobody important, and he was in the middle of nowhere. The gospel of Luke takes the trouble of telling us who was important at the time: the emperor, and the governor, and the local rulers,and the high priests. Surely, it would make more sense to pay attention to them. But, scripture tells us, the word of God came not to any of these people,in their well-appointed homes, in their busy cities, but to John, out in the wilderness.

The wilderness is also a strange place for us to go, today.  During December we’re surrounded by carols and lights, shiny decorations, and sugary treats.  It’s been Christmas in our culture since after Halloween. Why abandon the jingle bell cheer or even the sweet baby Jesus to make a trek out into the wilderness to meet this strange man?

John the Baptist is not a gentle person, or a cheerful one. He is the child of devout parents, but he practices his faith in a way I’m guessing his parents never expected.  He leaves his home and chooses to dwell far away from civilization. He puts on camel’s hair clothing; neither fashionable nor comfortable. He survives by scavenging insects, and wild honey. Surely there is a more moderate way of expressing devotion to God. I don’t imagine this kind of life is what any of you hoped for, those of you who have brought your children to church.

But John is an ascetic, a purist. He has a special calling, and a message about God’s nearness that he delivers with stirring and terrifying rhetoric.  And here’s the amazing thing: people love him.People who are hurting, people who are desperate, people who are spiritually hungry are drawn out into the wilderness to meet this man. John’s preaching about the realm of God changes lives. One after another, people come, and listen, experiencing a renewal in their hearts, and chosing to be baptized. They return to their regular lives transformed. Something amazing happens out there, in the wilderness, with John.

Preparing for this season’s focus on Angels, I went through the whole bible looking for their appearances.There are a lot. You may not be interested in angels yourself, but they are not easy to avoid in scripture. One of the things I learned in my exploration was that many of the angelic appearances recorded in our holy text happen out where John did his ministry: out in the wilderness. Hagar is out in the wilderness, near death from hunger and thirst, when she encounters an angel. The people Israel are out in the wilderness, on their 40-year journey between slavery and new land, when an Angel goes before them to lead the way. Jesus is out in the wilderness, facing temptationand preparing for ministry, when Angels come to wait on him.

When we meet Elijah this morning, he is also in the wilderness, fleeing for his life.  Elijah has just received a death threat from King Ahab’s wife Jezebel. If you read his back story, you may not be surprised– Elijah has done some outrageous and troubling things.  Now, distraught, Elijah travels across the border into Judah, where he might be safe from execution.  Then he leaves his servant and continues on for another day’s travel, before settling down under a solitary broom tree. Elijah is utterly alone, exhausted, and full of despair. And he asks God for death: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

But God does not send death to Elijah. Instead, an angel comes, and touches him, and says: “Get upand eat.” Elijah discovers bread, and water. He eats and drinks and lays down; and again, the angel comes to touch him, and offer him food. Somehow, this little assistance is enough: enough to persuade both Elijah’s spirit and his body to go on. Elijah travels on the strength of the food the angel provides for forty days and forty nights, until he reaches Horeb, the mount of God,where the word of God comes to him.

In our scriptures, the wilderness is a place, but also a spiritual state of being. Wilderness can be a time of great trial and also sometimes great possibility. Perhaps you have known some kind of wilderness in your own life: a wilderness of grief; a wilderness of loneliness; a wilderness of addiction, or mental illness; a wilderness of great personal change; a wilderness of physical or spiritual want; a wilderness of betrayal; a wilderness of distance from God. 

Most of the time, we don’t choose the wilderness, unlike the spiritual seekers who went out to find John. Instead, the wilderness finds us, or we are driven out into it, by forces out of our control.  Suddenly, there we are: untethered, unsupported, uncertain, and often, in great pain. 

No one’s required to be grateful for wilderness, and most of us aren’t. Still, the wilderness has this to say for it: it is a place frequented by God’s messengers.

Perhaps it is that God just cannot bear to see us lost, or in pain, and so She keeps trying to reach us. Perhaps it is that we are so desperate that we are more open to noticing and receiving the help that God is always offering us.  But again and again in our scriptures, those in the wilderness do find something that they need – perhaps just enough for their body or their spirit to continue. A cake baked on hot stones. A jar of water. The presence of a loving one who says, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  So little, that changes so much, sending us off in a new direction.

This season can be so bright and loud, full of forced cheerfulness and terribly high expectations.  The scriptures offer us an opportunity, today, to pay attention to something else: the honest state of ouown hearts.  Do you long for the kind of renewal that John invites us to?  Are you in need of the kind of comfort, and sustenance, that angels can provide?  Perhaps you can accept a gift from them, today: an offering that may sustain or redirect your life. Spend some time with these scriptures, and let them bless you.

We may also find opportunities in this season to witness the state of  the hearts of those around us, and to be messengers of God ourselves.  Keep watch for a way that you could provide something for folks who are deep in the wilderness, desperate for hope, love, connection, or even bread. What could we offer them, so that the journey might not be too much for them?

Please pray with me. God, you know what we long for, the needs of our souls, the wildernesses we have known, the fears and struggles we face today. Open our hearts to your messengers, who will help make a way for us, even if it seems that there is no way possible. God, you know what the world longs for, the wildernesses in which so many souls and bodies dwell. Open our hearts to these fellow travelers in life, that we may make a way together, trusting you to go before us, and to dwell with us,  and to help us find what we need to go on. Amen.