Posted in Worship

A Covenant of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, please join me in prayer.

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

Have Faith and Put Our Your Nets!

  • February 13, 2018

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

Mark 1:14-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Happy 35th Anniversary Sunday Fellowship!

  • February 12, 2018

It was awesome to see so many people at the 35th Anniversary of Sunday Fellowship. There was standing room only in our sanctuary! I counted at least 50 SF members as well as many MMArc staff, past SF leaders, and lots of friends and family members! 

Everyone did a great job helping to lead the service. Here are a few of the comments we’ve received so far:

“Still basking in the glow and spirit of this morning. What a great service! So spirit filled, so fun, so energetic.”
 
“What a great service today! There were so many folks there. A great celebration of the heart of the congregation.”
 
“Everything came out great and Pastor John’s sermon was great.”
 
“Such an amazing service this morning! I like SF songs.”

Many thanks to MMArc residential director, Andrew Forti and all of the MMArc house managers for working with us to facilitate transportation. Special thanks to the MMArc staff who came in early for the 9am shift to make it possible for people to arrive before worship. 

Thank you junior and senior choir members, Jim Barcovic, Susan Davies, Chris Porth, Pete DeRosa, Julie Beyer and Jeff Tustin for working with us to make beautiful music yesterday.

I’d also  like to thank Andrew Southcott and the Hospitality Committee for providing all of the healthy snacks we enjoyed after worship as well as our guest preacher Rev. John Hudson. John told some stories about his experiences with Sunday Fellowship back in the day when he was senior pastor at WCUC. And David Swain took over 300 photos. Here are some of them! Thank you all!

Power from God

  • February 6, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed & Filled

  • January 16, 2018

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

When does Jesus become Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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