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.

Sink a Worry, Float a Hope: New Beginnings for WCUC Youth

  • September 11, 2017

The youth kicked off a new year in our beautiful Welcome Garden with some time to get to know one another, some sharing of summer experiences, and then some “slow down” time to reflect on our worries and hopes for the new year and on God’s promise to walk with us always.  We used verses from Isaiah 43 to center our discussion and a few questions to help us see where life and faith might connect.  In closing, the youth experienced prayer walking in the labyrinth where they were invited to sink their worries and float their hopes.


These words of Isaiah are a good reminder for young and old alike!

Isaiah 43:

1 But now thus says the Lord,

    the One who created you, O Jacob,

    and formed you, O Israel:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;

    I have called you by name, you are mine.

2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; …

4 You are precious in my sight and honored, and I love you. …

5 Do not fear, for I am with you always. …

16 Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters…

18 Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.

19 I am about to do a new thing;  now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

 

Our reflection questions might be good for all generations too!

  1. As you begin a new year, there’s usually a mix of fears and hopes, anxiety and excitement.  No matter what we feel or face in life, God promises to be with us always.  What does this mean to you?
  1. What are some of your worries or fears right now?

     3.  What are you most excited about?  What are you hoping for?

We highly recommend taking these and other questions on your heart into the labyrinth sometime soon.  You might be surprised by what God has to say to you!

 

 

Walking Prayer Resumes at Walden Pond

  • September 6, 2017

It was as if summer just would not let go.  Even though it was the day after Labor Day, by the sights and sounds at the pond, it could have been mid-July.  What a gift to reunite with fellow travelers in faith, to share what’s been on our hearts over the summer, and to walk alone (but together) in silence around the pond looking and listening for God’s voice.  The flowers, the trees, the beach goers, the water, the birds, and even a turtle…all signs of a lingering summer refreshment.   In the words of Barbara Steele…”Nothing remarkable today, except so much glory.”

EXCEPT

Gauzy sky.

Exploded cattails.

Drifting rafts of oak leaves.

The river a mirror—

only the slightest distortion–

like fine old glass,

with the back paddle ripple

of mallards along the edge.

At the trail’s end,

a heron,

poised,

a study in stillness,

dark against the sudden glare

of sun on water.

I slow and hush and witness,

caught in that suspension of time.

Nothing remarkable today,

except so much glory.

Barbara Steele/Bethany Poets

 

Walking Prayer happens every Tuesday.  Meet us at 9:30am on the beach for some centering time and conversation, followed by a meditative walk around the pond (or along the beach, for whatever distance is comfortable for you), and a closing circle to share insights, inspirations, and reflections.

 

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…)

Renovation Update: August 30th

Take a look at some of the progress that has happened in the past few weeks. This is only what we managed to capture in pictures!