Thank you to everyone who helped worship and work on our last Sunday in the Meeting House before our Renovation — and for all who were with us in spirit.
Thank you to everyone who helped worship and work on our last Sunday in the Meeting House before our Renovation — and for all who were with us in spirit.
How does the story of our people start? The biblical story?
You may remember that in the book of Genesis we meet Father Abraham and Mother Sarah, and they are given God’s blessing and called to begin a journey. God’s blessing then passes down the family line, to Isaac and Rebecca, to Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah, to Joseph and his eleven brothers and his sister Dinah. Over time, one couple becomes a people whom God names “Israel.”
This people Israel travel down to Egypt to escape a drought. They receive mercy because Joseph has found favor with Pharaoh. But in time, a new king arises over Egypt who does not know Joseph. The Israelites are enslaved. Years pass – generations – and these people Israel who are blessed by God suffer. Finally a little boy named Moses is born, and miraculously survives childhood to witness God’s presence as a burning bush on top of a mountain. There God tells Moses: “I am the God of your ancestors, and I have heard the cries of my people. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
After much protesting, Moses and his brother Aaron follow God’s guidance and lead their people out of Egypt. Together they escape across the Red Sea and travel through the wilderness to Mt. Sinai. Returning to the mountaintop, Moses receives instructions for a new chapter in this holy story. Now God establishes a covenant – a holy promise – that binds God together not with one person, or one family, but with a whole people. God lays out the terms of the covenant, including the instructions that we know as the 10 commandments, and gives many other guidelines for the people’s life together.
If you read the bible from the beginning, the books of Genesis and Exodus, you may find yourself really enjoying this story, right up until you hit Exodus 25. At that point in God’s instructions, God begins to give chapter after chapter after chapter of extremely detailed commands about where the Israelites should worship while they continue their wilderness journey. You can read in these chapters about the measurements of each span of acacia wood, about the exact placement and number of the golden cherubs, about the intricate design of the cups – shaped like almond blossoms — about the ten curtains of fine twisted linen, and blue, purple, and crimson yarns. It all sounds glorious, but as reading material it is maddeningly precise and repetitive.
Why? Why would God care so much about the place where She is worshiped, how it is built and decorated? Why would our bible contain so much detail about the tabernacle, and the tent of meeting? This text argues that creating and setting aside a special place for worship is very important. It should be beautiful, made of the best materials, crafted by gifted craftspeople, tended by faithful leaders: the best that we can offer to God and one another.
Moses and the people receive these instructions, and they do their best to carry them out. But Moses is more concerned about the journey he will take with the tabernacle than its precise measurements. He tells God, “See, you have said to me, “Bring up this people,” but you have not let me know whom you will send with me.” And later, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.”
God reassures Moses: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And, indeed, when the tabernacle is made, it is consecrated by God, and filled with God’s glory. The cloud of the Lord is on the tabernacle by day, and fire is in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel, at each stage of their journey.
Here at West Concord Union Church we have spent three and a half years trying to decide how this meeting house should be renovated. Unfortunately, God did not provide chapters and chapters and chapters of instruction for us. The result of our efforts has been imperfect, both in process and design and in process. But I do believe we are doing our very best to honor God and one another with our efforts.
It’s hard to make a change from what is familiar to us, what is beloved. Looking around today, though, I wonder: how did the holy space we have now come to be? How is this a reflection of the callings and generosity of previous generations?
Our covenanters, whose name are on a plaque at the back of the room, began gathering in January of 1889. The first place they met was a community building called Warner Hall. Once they had gained in numbers and capacity and calling, these people erected our first church building, dedicated in 1894; you can see that building in the upper left hand corner of the cover of your bulletin. The next picture to the right shows how in 1910, the building was rotated on its foundation and significantly expanded and improved, creating the heart of the building we know today, including our lovely stained glass windows and our beautiful ceiling and our cross.
If you keep following the pictures, you can see how in the 50s, the chancel was filled with furniture, with one central pulpit and a communion table in front of it. In 1960, the education wing was added, with a Bauhaus-style entrance. In 1971, our beautiful tracker organ was installed in the back of the sanctuary to replace another organ that had failed. The next picture shows the chancel as it was in the 70s and 80s, with paneled furniture and choir seating in the chancel, and what appears in some pictures to be orange shag carpet. I’m still looking for confirmation on that from someone who was there at the time.
1986 marked our last major renovation, including the current Pine Street Pedestrian Entrance, as well as the chancel you can see today. Our modern elevator and its tower were added just a few years back, in 2009, the result of an amazing effort to expand our welcome during an interim time; you can see the tower in the last picture on the bottom right.
The meeting house of this congregation has changed a lot. Each change was made in an effort to serve the ministry that was happening: to accommodate growth, to enhance our music, to mark shifts in theology and practice.
Consider, for instance, the sacrament of baptism. Members were baptized at the very first gathering of the church in Warner’s pond. When this building was made, the chancel was constructed to hold a large baptismal pool in the center, perhaps as a result of the Baptists who were part of the congregation. In 1987, a new font was purchased that could be brought out among the people, dedicated in honor of Elizabeth Debinder, daughter of Pat and Todd. Records show that over one thousand people have been baptized here in the past 125 years, including many current children and youth, as well as many children and grandchildren of our current members. A few adults who are here now were baptized at WCUC as well, including Pris Clark, Carlin Andrus, Andy Carlisle, Andrew Southcott, and others.
Communion has been celebrated at at least three different communion tables during the course of the church’s life. This one was dedicated in 1987 in honor of Winifred Carter, mother of Bob Carter. It was made at the same time as the pulpit and lectern, which were dedicated in honor of Charles Comeau.
There have been at least 439 weddings here. Many current members have had children married here, and some who are among us now or of recent memory were married here themselves: including Sue and Gary Lanchester, Polly and Keith Jenkins Man, Annie and John Holt, Carolyn and William Robinson, Janice and Thomas Hart, Charles and Beverley Bartlett, Norm and Marilyn Cousins, Caroline and Holly Holden.
We have had many memorial services here, for beloved members, too many to count.This sanctuary also has a wonderful musical history, including two different organs and one grand piano. The dedication to musical excellence is clear throughout our history records.
In renovating the church this summer, we are following an established tradition. We are trying, to the best of our ability, to modify our building to the current needs and practice of our shared ministry. But it is still hard to imagine it changing. How will it look, how will it feel?
As we prepare to travel this summer, and then to re-enter a renovated building, a changed sanctuary, it is natural to have grief about what we are leaving behind: the pine street steps, most of the sanctuary pews, our table, and font, and lecterns, the lights, our current kitchen. It is natural, too, to feel some hope and uncertainty and excitement about what we are headed towards: greater safety, accessibility, flexibility, and environmental responsibility. All of us here will have different and sometimes conflicting emotions about the changes we are about to undertake. We need to be gentle with one another.
Whatever we are feeling as we face this journey, there are two questions that are most important. The same ones that Moses asked. Will we all go together? And, Will God be there?
On this front we have good news. You love one another enough to keep worshiping together in new circumstances – even if it means traveling all the way across the street, or two miles across town, or returning here and sitting in chairs. We will go together. As for God, as the Israelites learned, She travels with us, and dwells with us, even if we are on the road. Her glory will fill and consecrate any space we worship in.
Let us pray. Holy God, Great is your faithfulness to all generations. We thank you for our past. We ask for your support in this time of grief and anticipation. Help us to stay close to one another. Fill every place we meet with glory. Stay always before us, and lead us on. Amen.
It was a very busy day on Sunday for the WCUC Youth! In just a little over two hours, they packed up for kitchen in preparation for the renovation, painted gratitude prayer flags which will become part of a larger church-wide project happening next Sunday, and hosted a bake sale that raised $276.00 for Greater Lowell’s Habitat for Humanity. Many hands do indeed make work lighter and we are so grateful to have such a helpful and committed group of young people at our church!
Near the end of the 14th century, a woman known as Julian of Norwich wrote a book called Revelations of Divine Love. It is, as far as we know, the first book written in English by a woman.
We know very little about Julian; we don’t even know if that is really her name. She probably came from a privileged family. She may have been educated by Benedictine nuns. We do know that she was an anchoress, someone who lived at least a part of her life in seclusion, devoted to prayer. Beyond that, we can only be sure of what we read in her book. Julian writes that at the age of 30, she suffered from a serious illness and experienced visions of Jesus. She describes these visions in detail in her writing, and includes further thoughts on their meanings.
One of the most striking parts of Julian’s book for modern readers is her description of God as a Mother. Julian describes God in Jesus as conceiving, nursing, enduring labor, and providing nurturing care; forgiving us our sons, and loving all people with great devotion. God, Julian writes, is a Mother – and so much more.
When God says “It is I,” Julian writes, it is as if God is saying, “I am the power and the goodness of the Father, I am the Wisdom of the Mother, I am the Light and the Grace which is blessed love, I am the Trinity, I am the Unity, I am the supreme Goodness … I am the One who makes you love, I am the One who makes you desire, I am the never-ending fulfillment of all true desires.”
Julian is a Christian mystic: someone who experiences a rare intimacy and unity with God. Her book is an attempt to share her experience with others. She wants to break open our concept of God, to make it live and sing. Julian uses words to meet the hunger that lives in so many of us, the hunger to know: what is God really like?
In our scriptures today, we meet Jesus as he gives his farewell discourse in the gospel of John. This is Jesus’ long goodbye before his crucifixion. Jesus tells his disciples that he is leaving them, and then he tries to reassure them. They will not be alone after he goes. The Holy Spirit will come to guide them, and then, finally, when the time is right, Jesus will come to them again. He will lead them to join him in the eternal home that God has made for them.
These words are comforting. They’re so comforting that we often read this passage during memorial services, to remind us of how our loved ones have found a home in God’s care beyond death. The disciples, however, are far from satisfied by Jesus’ reassurances. Thomas worries he won’t be able to find the way to this mysterious destination. Philip has a different concern. He doesn’t want Jesus to leave before he truly understands and experiences the nature of God. Philip says, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
Of course, Jesus has been trying to show the disciples their God ever since he met them. He has taught with parables and questions. He has performed healings and dramatic miracles. And he has shared his love with them, love that is from God, love that is God. How many more ways can Jesus show them God? But Jesus tries to explain, again: “ If you know me, you will know my father also… Whoever has seen me has seen the Father… I am the Father and the Father is in me.”
What is God really like? Many of us have particular names or images or metaphors that we like to use for God. But our tradition resists the idea that any one word could capture the nature of God. Some Christians think it is impossible to describe God with human language at all. They prefer silence in favor of any language that falls short of the fullness of God. It is better to be silent, or to say what God is not, than to pretend we can say anything entirely true about God.
Our Scriptures, and mystics like Julian of Norwich, take another tack, using what we might call expansive language, using every possible word and image they can imagine to help us try to grasp God. Just in the two scriptures passages from this morning, God is called Father, Son, Lord, way, truth, life, living stone, cornerstone, and even, nursing mother. And Julian, in the space of one paragraph, describes God as power, goodness, Father, wisdom, Mother, light, grace, trinity, unity, love, desire, and fulfillment.
We can seek God in silence; or in expansive language. Or we can seek God in a person: the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the person of the eternal Christ, the person who God sent down to be God among us. But with all of these avenues, many of us still end up feeling incomplete, uncertain. Who is God, really? What is God like? With Philip, we demand, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
Here is the good news. While we may struggle to know and describe God, ultimately finding God is not our job.
God is our creator, and our destination. God is the ground of our being, and we are made in her image. God is as close as our next breath, and God is the spirit that animates our bodies. God first loved us, and God pursues us: whether we go to heaven, or to hell, or the farthest reaches of the sea.
If there is in you a hunger to know God more deeply, give thanks for it. May that hunger help you along, to greater understanding, and deeper trust. But we will never have a long enough silence, or a big enough vocabulary, to completely know God. God is beyond our knowledge. As it says in psalm 139: How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.
In the end, the practice of faith is a surrender to presence and mystery. We follow our hearts and minds until we can’t find the next step, and then we fall into the arms of a God who was there all along: a parent more perfect than any human parent; a home more final than any human home; a love too large for human understanding; the fulfillment of every true desire. Thanks be to God.
… Seeking Light and Hope to Guide our Way
“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen
We enjoyed a weekend together on Cape Cod that was blessed with sharing, praying, reflecting, singing, laughing, playing, enjoying nature (rain and shine!), creating, exercising, eating, and dwelling in the presence of God’s amazing grace!
Hope is all about the future
It is a turning away from the past,
the jagged memories, the fearful thoughts that circle in
a tightening spiral.
Hope is a choice, an opening to the
possibility of change.
It widens the view and restores the heart
Beating, like the wings of a flying bird,
on its way somewhere.
Just as I am and you are.
Inspired by a line in Carrie Newcomer’s song A Light in the Window…”I’m throwing seeds on a winter snow…”
I’m casting good bread upon the water I’m shoveling earth from off the ground I’m hanging my coat from the lowest hook I’m saving the best for first.
I’m throwing a long glance over my shoulder
I’m listening to what the little bird said
I’m hesitating before I’m lost
I’m walking a mile in my shoes.
I’m laughing with the doves of mourning I’m taking that leap of standing still
I’m planting feet firmly in the clouds
I’m forgetting who I thought I was.
Shelli Jankowski-Smith May 6, 2017
I have a friend and colleague named Tom who lives in Sudbury. He’s a UCC pastor. His wife Rachel is a lactation consultant. They have three kids and a house full of really great toys. They’re a fantastic family, full of love, not so unusual. Except in one thing. Their second child was born biologically female, and now lives his life as a boy.
Max has always thought of himself as a boy. When he was 2, he asked a face painter turn him into The Incredible Hulk. During his early years, he asked his parents for a short haircut again, and again and again – he estimates 245 times. When kids at school wondered if he was a boy or a girl, he didn’t know what to say. Finally he asked his Dad – is it ok to say that I’m a boy?
Tom and Rachel used a family trip to let Max experiment with a different haircut and different clothes, just to see how it felt. After going to the barbershop, Max says, “My life changed, because I felt good in my skin.” Soon, Max and his family were ready to enroll him in school as a boy, with his new name. They noticed a difference in him right away. Tom says, “He just seemed more alive.”
Going through this process has been easier for Max and his family than it would have been for many people. His parents were receptive and supportive. So were their family, their friends, and their congregation. Max lives here, in greater Boston, where attitudes are relatively accepting.
Still, it hasn’t been simple. Tom and Rachel check in with Max often to see how he’s feeling about his choice. They want him to be completely sure that it doesn’t matter to them if he changes his mind. They have some anxiety about the medical choices that will come as Max approaches puberty, and about Max’s safety and health in a country that is struggling to acknowledge and protect people like Max. And there’s grief: grief to lose the daughter that Max used to be. But mostly, there is love: love, and out of that love, a fierce determination to protect Max against anything that could harm him as he lives out the life that God has created him for, the life that God has called him to.
People tell Tom and Rachel that they are brave and courageous. But they don’t really feel like they had any other choice. They want Max to be happy. They want him to be safe. And the best way to make that happen is to support him in how he understands himself.
Now, not only are Tom and Rachel supporting Max in his choices, but they have become active in sharing their story with others and defending the rights of all transgender people. One recent protest poster went viral. On it is a picture of Max, an adorable 8 year old boy. It says: Not a threat to: you, your kid, your school. Only a threat to: Pizza, mud puddles, video game bad guys.
Our psalm for today is the most beloved ones out there. Maybe you can remember a line from it without looking in the bulletin. Maybe you could say it all by heart, perhaps the King James version. Psalm 23 is beautiful, and comforting, and so we keep reading it, and setting it to music, and teaching it to our children. This psalm reminds us of so many important things that God offers us: rest, guidance, protection, companionship, nourishment, blessing, abundance, mercy, shelter.
Sometimes, though, words like this from scripture may ring hollow. Something happens, and we face great uncertainty, or suffering, or loss. We can no longer be sure that we or our loved ones will be safe in body, mind, or spirit.
This psalm may seem like cold comfort in moments like these. It’s worth remembering, though, that this psalm comes right after the psalm we read on Good Friday, the psalm that says: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Our scriptures are much more honest than we usually are about how hard life can be. Psalm 23 comes, then, not as a denial of pain and suffering, but as an answer to it. It reassures us that when we find ourselves in suffering or in trouble, God has not forsaken us.
Psalm 23 reminds us of who God is, and what God does, even in a world in which there are other forces at work. If you’re looking for God, God’s the one doing the caring, and the comforting; the walking-alongside-us-in-the-valley-of-the-shadow-of-death; the protecting of the innocent and the vulnerable; the making of the feast, the giving of the blessing. God’s doing all of that, all around us. That is happening, also.
Our work is to notice this. To give thanks for it. And also, as a church, to be a part of it: empowered by God’s Spirit to make a way out of no way, alongside all of God’s beloved children: children like Max, and like you, and like me.
God, my shepherd! You keep giving me what I need the most:
A lush meadow to rest in, Quiet pools to drink from, Rest for my soul.
Your guidance sends me in good directions.
Even when my way goes through valleys of death, I am not afraid.
You travel with me. Your shepherd’s crook makes me feel safe.
You provide an abundant meal that nourishes me as my enemy sits across the table.
You bless me as one of your own and fill my cup to overflowing.
Your goodness and mercy chase after me every day of my life;
So I return to you, again and again, and call your heart my home. Amen.
In the reading from the book of Acts today, we press fast-forward on the story of the Church. Peter is speaking to a great gathering on the day of Pentecost, which we won’t celebrate until the beginning of June. On that day, followers of Jesus who have spent the 50 days since the resurrection in fear and uncertainty are out in the streets. Also there are faithful members of the Jewish Diaspora, in Jerusalem for the festival. All of these people have just witnessed something extraordinary – the miracle of Pentecost — wind, and flame, and a miraculous multilingual exchange about God’s deeds of power. People are amazed and perplexed. No one is sure what to make of it. Some even suggest that the whole crowd has had too much wine to drink.
Peter has a different explanation. He tells the crowds: God did great things through Jesus among you, wonders and signs. Then Jesus was killed, but God raised him up, freeing him from death. Now Jesus has poured out the Spirit of God among us, as the prophet Joel described.
So far, so good. I imagine the crowds nodding their heads. Everything is starting to fit together, and it is all good news. But then, Peter continues. He says, “Know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
This Jesus who you crucified. Wow. According to Peter, God is doing amazing things, but the people have done something truly awful. They have killed their own messiah.
Now, of course, this Pentecost crowd wasn’t directly responsible for Jesus’ death. Some of them weren’t even in the city when he was killed. Ultimately it was the Roman state who executed Jesus. But Peter tells the crowd: you are complicit. You failed to recognize who Jesus really was. You chose not to follow him. You were too afraid to protect him when things got tough. This was your messiah, and you did not stand between him and capital punishment.
I am amazed that Peter is brave enough to say this to the crowd. He could have gotten in deep trouble. Instead, something amazing happens. “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” And Peter said them, “Repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, and for your children, and for all who are far away…”
Peter’s Pentecost sermon about God’s amazing grace and the people’s collective guilt is met not with resistance or a riot, but with repentance and renewal. About three thousand people are baptized, receiving God’s forgiveness and the Holy Spirit.
For many decades now, if not longer, there have been voices confronting us with a new terrible truth. The earth, God’s creation, our home, is suffering and is in danger of death. And not only that: we are the ones carrying out the crucifixion. We are the ones who are killing it.
Of course, no single individual among us is completely responsible for this phenomenon. And yet, collectively, we are all responsible. We are the ones living in a way that is not sustainable. It is our cultures and economic systems that have accelerated the rate of natural abuse. It is our governments that have failed to curtail the damage. It is our ignorance, our denial, and finally our cowardice that have created this crisis. Temporary profit and comfort for the wealthiest are prioritized about the health and safety of earth and all of its creatures, including humankind.
Voices have been confronting us with this terrible truth. But unlike those gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, we have mostly refused to take responsibility or change our habits. This approach has gained us nothing. On the contrary, it has cost us precious opportunities to turn things around. And still, we argue amongst ourselves about what is happening and who is to blame and what to do about it, if anything.
But there is another way. The way that crowd on Pentecost chose. The way of repentance, and humility, and shared effort at forming a new way of life.
Yesterday, people gathered to march for the climate. They gathered because they had come to believe the terrible truth that we are harming the earth. They gathered because there are still too many who refuse to acknowledge this truth, or respond to it. Among that number are our new President and his administration, which has worked to roll back environmental protections and stop collecting and sharing data on climate change.
So people gathered to march. There were people in DC, tens or hundreds of thousands of them, and people at over 300 sister marches or rallies around the country and around the globe. In Augusta, Maine, protestors spoke up for marginalized communities. In Tampa, Florida, marchers shared their concern about rising sea levels. The weather conditions weren” great. In D.C., there was record heat. In Denver, it snowed. In Chicago, it rained. People came anyway.
All kinds of people marched. There were environmental advocates, expressing anger but also resolve. There were water protectors, reminding us that water is sacred, and water is life. Nurses marched, because pollution is a health issue. People of faith marched, including UCC folks in Boston, and our own Polly and Keith in D.C., and so many others, because we believe in the value of God’s creation and in the wellbeing of God’s people. And of course there were the unions and immigrants, indigenous people and coastal dwellers, and so many children: all of them especially vulnerable to a changing climate.
You would think that such gatherings would be a somber affair. But they were not. Or not only somber. There was creativity and even joy. People rode stationary bikes to power loudspeakers. Someone put on a polar bear costume. A fisherman came with his 24-foot oyster boat, to let people know that climate change effects jobs. People wore flowers in their hair and carried children on their shoulders and made signs saying things like, “May the forest be with you.” There were brass bands and so many drums. The drumming, they say, went on forever.
It is a human instinct to stop our ears against bad news and avoid responsibility for terrible tragedies. But when it comes to the earth – and everything else – God demands honesty, responsibility, and repentance. This may sound awful, but it’s actually part of God’s magnificent good news. Because once we are willing to face the truth and acknowledge our role in it, we are free. God forgives our sins, so that we need not carry them anymore. And as an extra bonus gift on the far side of grace, we receive the Spirit. The Spirit. That’s what we see, when climate marchers dance in the streets, and share snacks, and imagine a better world, and sing in the face of all that is happening.
God has given us this earth, and we have done terrible things to it. But God’s good work does not end with the making of creation. She offers us a chance to repent, and be forgiven. She grants us the power of her Spirit for wisdom and courage and joy in whatever comes next. This promise is for us, and for our children, and for all those are far away. Thanks be to God.
At dawn on the first day of the week, some women went to Jesus’ tomb. The earth shook and a dazzling angel rolled the stone from the tomb. Roman tomb guards fainted from fear. The angel told the women that Jesus had been raised from the dead and invited them to see the empty tomb. As the women ran to tell the joyful news, they met the risen Christ and worshipped him.
The children’s eyes were wide as they watched this mysterious and amazing story played out with the help of our wooden story figures and props. Afterwards we invited them to approach the story: I wonder how the women felt when they saw that the tomb was empty. “Scared.” “Shocked.” “Confused.” I wonder why an angel came to meet the women. “?????” I wonder what happened when the women saw Jesus standing before them. “They recognized his voice.” “They remembered what he looked like.” “Why do his hands have holes in them?” I wonder what the women will do next. “They will go to Galilee!” “They will tell the disciples!” Which character would you like to be in this story? (Mostly Marys, one guard, one Jesus, and one angel).
Ask your child about Hot Cross Easter Buns and Pysanky (Ukrainian Easter Eggs). Download the free song “Alive, Alive, Alive Forevermore” at www.ShineCurriculum.com/extras.
As always, I was honored to be a learner with your children this morning!