Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning

  • November 14, 2017

Matthew 25:1-13

Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of heaven will be like this: Ten young women take their lamps and go to meet a bridegroom. Five bring back-up flasks of oil. Five do not. Unfortunately, the groom is late — very late — so late that everybody falls asleep and the lamps begin to go out. Finally, at midnight, the groom shows up, ready to start the party. Five young women refill their lamps with their back-up flasks.  Since these women refuse to share their oil, the other five women are forced to leave and seek oil elsewhere. When the women return from their errand, the door has been closed against them. The groom will not let them in.

I confess that this story is not one that I like very much. A whole group of young women, or virgins, or bridesmaids, waiting for the arrival of a tardy groom: It seems like the set-up for a cliché and sexist romantic comedy.

I also have practical questions.  Why would failing to bring an extra oil flask to a wedding get you kicked out?  And who would actually be available at midnight to sell supplemental oil to desperate guests?

My biggest question, however, is: what are we supposed to learn here? It is challenging to draw any sound moral lesson from this tale.  Consider the heroes we have to choose from. The five supposedly wise women refuse to share.  The breathlessly awaited bridegroom is so late his guests fall asleep waiting for him. This is rude enough, but then he bars the door and denies ever knowing the five women who take a few minutes to purchase more oil. Talk about a double standard.

Thankfully, Jesus ends this story by dropping a big hint to let us know what it is really about. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (more…)

Sweet, Sweet Spirit

Here’s our teaser video for Sweet, Sweet Spirit: Our Congregational Giving Appeal for 2018. Thanks to Ruth for putting it together with photos from Tony Rinaldo and Kathy for getting it up on the web! On Sunday we had lovely members of our Junior Choir singing Doris Aker’s “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” alongside it:

There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place
And I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord;
There are sweet expressions on each face
And I know they feel the presence of the Lord.

Sweet Holy Spirit, Sweet heavenly dove,
Stay right here with us, filling us with your love.
And for these blessings we lift our hearts in praise;
Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived,
When we shall leave this place.

Questions

Matthew 22:34-46

Jesus is teaching in Jerusalem.  He is responding to question after question. People keep coming, the text tells us, to test him. They ask Jesus about taxes. They ask him about resurrection. They ask him about the commandments. In each case, Jesus responds wisely, revealing religious truth while sidestepping political land mines. Finally Jesus turns the tables, and begins to ask his own questions. What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he? How could he be the son of David, when David calls him Lord?

Suddenly the conversation dwindles. No one knows what to say. Everyone is afraid of getting it wrong, of looking like a fool. From that day on, the gospel writer tells us, no one dares to ask Jesus any more questions.

What a tragedy.

Reading the gospels, we learn that questions are essential if we want to learn about God. Much of Jesus’ teaching is in response to questions from the crowd.  And when he is asked a question, he rarely gives a straight answer. Sometimes he tells a story. Most often, he asks a question in return.  In our gospels, Jesus asks 307 questions. Questions are his favorite way of teaching.

Today we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But that’s not quite right. The reformation was a complex social movement that lasted for hundreds of years and across many nations.  What we’re marking today is the anniversary of the date when the German monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. In this document, as you may know, Luther outlined his disagreements with the Roman Church’s teachings surrounding indulgences.

Interestingly, among Luther’s 95 theses, 8 are technically not “theses” at all. They are questions. Luther says, “The unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult even for learned men to rescue the reverence which is due the pope from slander or from the shrewd questions of the laity.” and then he proceeds to list 8 shrewd questions, including this one: “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?”

Luther concludes his famous document by asserting that Christians must follow Christ at all costs, even if it means endangering themselves by going against the church.  Nothing is more important, he says,  than being honest about our beliefs and staying true to our conscience.

In the years since Luther’s actions, countless Christians have agreed with the idea that the church is in need of reform.  We have questioned church teaching and practice. We have refused to endorse any teaching we do not believe to be true. We have separated from one another again, and again, and again, forming new movements and denominations to better embody our understanding of what it means to faithfully follow Christ.

The Protestant branches of the global Christian church which emerged from the Reformation have become known for our robust skepticism.  The theologian Paul Tillich calls it the Protestant Principal.  According to Tillich: “The heart of Protestantism asserts itself and says, “NO!” whenever a person, institution, or movement claims that its values are God’s values, its truth God’s truth, its action, God’s action.” In other words: no one ever gets it exactly right. Protestants are always looking for a way to improve.

The tradition we stand in as part of this congregation, the United Church of Christ, fully embraces this Protestant Principle. We claim among our ancestors of faith those pilgrims on the Mayflower who were willing to travel across an ocean to practice as they felt led. As they travelled, they carried with them these words: “I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.”

In other words, our forebearers were clear that the Reformation will never be over. Why stop now? Our hearts, our churches, our communities, our nations are still marked by imperfection.  In the UCC, we like to call ourselves “reformed and reforming.” It’s a process that never ends.

There is, of course, a danger in all of this. We could get too fascinated by our own clever questions and ideas and fail to honor the wisdom of others. We could get self-centered, and fail to work with others towards the Glory of God. I have concerns for our branch of the church in both of these areas. But when I have concerns, those concerns lead back to the same place. We are reformed, and we still need reforming.

Occasionally, when I meet with someone here at church, they hesitatingly reveal to me that they’re not so sure about this whole faith thing. I don’t know about Jesus, you tell me. I’m not certain about God. Other times, I hear questions you have about the church, because the church here or elsewhere has failed you, or because it mystifies you.

We may feel uncertain about sharing these kinds of questions with one another, or with God, but questions are never the problem. God is strong enough to withstand all of our questions.  The church becomes better because our questions. Questions do not signal disrespect, or blasphemy. To ask a question is to show how much we long to really understand, and to more deeply trust in both God and our Christian community. Questions are a gift, in our individual journeys of faith, and in the journey of the church. Jesus loved questions.

So, I wonder: what questions do you have today?  What questions do you have for God, or the church? How do you believe that we need to be reformed today: as individuals, or communities?

We read aloud the youth suggestions and came up with a few more:

  • Why are we afraid to ask questions when that is how we learn?
  • Let’s rejoice throughout the realm that You, Holy One, are still speaking. May all eyes be open to this.
  • Why do some church leaders support flawed politicians for political agendas?
  • How can we work toward being united with other Christian sects rather than being more separated?
  • How can we speak and act with both power and humility?
  • How can the church effectively spread dialogue and asking of questions to heal the rifts in our society?
  • How long, O God, must we wait for good to overcome evil in our country, in all places rent by violence?
  • O God, continue to show us your way through this wilderness time for our nation. Will we ever reach the “promised land” or will it always be just over the horizon?
  • How can we help faith communities be instruments of connectedness rather than divisiveness (as they have too often been)?
  • How do we confront racism effectively?
  • May all remain open to the changes occurring in our own church
  • We need more love and tolerance int he world. I ask why I was so fortunate to be born in this wonderful country with food, love, and safety at home while others were born in war torn areas without basic necessities.
  • How can we be more effective in bridging the divisions that exist in our community and our world while simultaneously staying true to our own values and consciences?
  • How do we really deal with poverty around the world?
  • There is a need for a new reformation of the world, remembering that God loves us and that all people should believe in love and forgiveness! How can we in prayer ask God to reform the world?
  • Loud protests — not just against, but in word and action, demonstrate what we are FOR.

 

Kindness Rocks at WCUC!

  • October 26, 2017

If you see some brightly colored rocks in the Welcome Garden next to West Concord Union Church, you’ve just discovered WCUC Sunday School’s “Kindness Rocks Project.” This simple yet powerful way of sharing messages of hope originated in the mind and heart of Megan Murphy, a mother of three from the Cape going through a life transition.

Each day she would walk on the beach looking for signs that closing her business and going back to school was the right decision. One day in 2013, she was inspired to decorate five ordinary beach rocks with messages of encouragement and return them to the beach. The next night, knowing nothing about their origin, one of Murphy’s close friends texted her a photograph of a rock she’d found on the beach with the message, “You’ve Got This!” It was just the sign Murphy needed to continue on her path. Just four years later, there are kindness rocks being made all over the world from the Cape to New Zealand!

The WCUC Sunday School decided to adopt this Kindness Rocks Project as a way of resisting hate and spreading hope within our community. Come on by the Welcome Garden and check out the messages our children have created. Feel free to take a rock with you or add one of your own. But you might want to come over soon! Kindness rocks have a way of finding new homes quickly! For more information about the Kindness Rocks Project and how to make your own rocks go to:  http://thekindessrocksproject.com

Reformation in 2017: Youth Write 9.5 Theses

  • October 24, 2017

“The church (or Christianity) would be better if….?”

In honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the youth were given this writing prompt as an opportunity to explore their own ideas for change in the church now, just as Martin Luther bravely published his ideas many years ago.

What follows is the official WCUC Youth “9.5  Theses” of 2017:

  1.  Worship were held later in the morning.
  2. We were better at honoring different viewpoints within Christianity.
  3. There were more leadership roles for people of color and other marginalized groups.
  4. We were more honest with ourselves in addressing the issue of Christianity’s role in colonialism especially in places like Latin America and Africa.
  5. More denominations would support LGBTQ people and allow gay marriage.
  6. There were more interactive activities during worship
  7. We made more room for people who don’t believe in God but see church as a good place to learn a moral philosophy.
  8. We had more lively and easy to sing songs, kind of like the ones they have in Sunday Fellowship.  “Hymns are ok, but sometimes feel a little archaic.”
  9. More attention was given to social action –  in direct services, increased giving, and more general awareness of the various local and global organizations that help the most vulnerable in our society.

9.5  What would you add? …..

Scripture in Song

This sermon was offered by Polly Jenkins Man on October 22nd, 2017.

Matthew 22:15-22

A man was being challenged by members of the establishment who were ardent defenders of the faith. Attempting to trap him with well-rehearsed questions, they were eager to discount his teachings and perhaps even find a way to arrest him. He was becoming too popular: they noticed that more and more people were following him, being led astray by what these men regarded as heretical ideas.  Their power and influence, even their livelihood was threatened.

A familiar gospel story; the Pharisees confront Jesus. Actually no, it isn’t.  The event I just described occurred in Leipzig, Germany, almost 500 years ago. Germany’s master debater, Johann Eck, a Dominican friar with some other theologians, invited Martin Luther to discuss the doctrine of free will and grace.

But it does have the familiar ring of the gospel passage. It’s a timeless story of a radical, an innovator coming up against an establishment that is terrified of losing its power and influence.  Jesus, a master debater himself, was able to wiggle out of the Pharisees’ grip with a brilliant object lesson.   “See this coin”, he said, “whose image is on it?” “ The emperor’s,” they replied,  “All right then, give it to the emperor since it his.”  “But give to God those things that are God’s.”

How long do you think it took before the Pharisees, scratching their heads as they walked away, figured out that giving to God what was God’s, meant giving that which bears God’s image, that is, themselves, him, us and all children of God.   Scholars of the Torah, they knew very well what Jesus meant: “God made humankind in God’s image, male and female God created them”.

However, the debate between Luther and Eck took a slightly different turn. Like Jesus, Luther was challenged to defend his belief. Yet, unlike Jesus, he could not find a way to satisfy his listeners and stand by his conviction at the same time.  In the end, he stood by his conviction: scripture, he declared, is the only true authority for Christians; not popes, councils or theologians. The head of the church is Christ, No one occupies his primary position.

Sola scriptura, scripture alone, became the watchword of the new movement.  All anyone needs; all wisdom, instruction, words of promise, solace and hope; God’s love and God’s anger, all are in the words of the Bible.

It was a lovely idea…and a huge problem, because very few people could read. And even fewer, Greek and Latin the languages of the New Testament and the church.

Education in reading and writing was available only to priests, monks and scholars, which had been true since earliest times, yet, even then, church leaders sensed that it was important for the laity to have direct access to the Biblical story.  Which is why, as early as the 2nd century, there began to appear frescoes on the walls of the catacombs, later Byzantine mosaics, then reliefs and statues, culminating with the flowering of the great art of the Gothic cathedrals.

These amazing buildings, are like Scripture in Stone.  Figures carved into the façade tell the stories of both testaments, saints and prophets marching up and over the arch, covering every inch. Inside the cathedral, stained glass windows glow with  figures of the patriarchs and matriarchs, and  stories from the gospel. People learned all this as they entered for Mass and stood through the service.  Visual instruction.

But then, along comes reformation theology with its desire to distance itself from all popery, of anything that smacked of connection to the Roman church.  Reformers began to remove   art, which, they viewed as distractions from the power of the Word.

Yet here was another problem for Luther.  His translation of the New Testament into German would suffice to fill the teaching gap for those who could read, what about all the others?

And so he went the next step.   In addition to everything else that he was: monk, theologian, preacher, translator and reformer; he was a fine musician, who sensed that music could reach a place in people’s hearts and minds that words alone could not.  He began a mission to bring more music into the church; with congregational singing and by giving the pipe organ a central role in worship.  Those two changes opened up the field for the great composers who would follow. Someone once said, “If there had been no Luther, we would not have Bach!”

The Roman church did have music, although not for the crowd. Priests, monks and a choir sang the Mass. Giovanni Palestrina was a Renaissance musician and composer who wrote for them. His setting of Psalm 42, the motet “ Sicut cervus ” expresses the longing of the soul for God as a deer longs for flowing streams. To get a sense of this music, I ask you now to visualize our choir as 16th century monks while we sing a brief excerpt from his motet.

(Choir sings the excerpt of “Sicut Cervus”)

Luther had always been fond of church music.  Now he wanted to expand its role. A pioneer once again, he believed that if everyone could sing the words, then the Word would become integrated into people’s hearts, would become part of them.

He began to write hymns, often setting them to familiar folk tunes, even drinking songs. Jim is playing two variations this morning on one of Luther’s hymns: the prelude and the offertory; and every hymn in today’s service is a Luther hymn. Still though, was the old problem:  many who couldn’t read words, let alone music.  So what does he do? He calls the congregation together during the week to learn the hymns. He’d sing a line, the congregation would sing it back.  That’s exactly what we would have done this morning, if we were in a 16th century reformed church. Lauren would have sung one line, we’d repeat it back, and so on through the whole hymn.  Luther was the father of congregational singing. Thank you, Martin Luther! It’s where the Protestant byword “the priesthood of all believers” received its fullest expression.   Scripture in Song.

He was a man before his time because it is now well known how music affects us. Science has proven what music lovers already know: listening to music can improve your mood by lowering the stress hormone cortisol.

Music also stimulates the brain hormone oxytocin   I call it the love or the bonding hormone because it’s the chemical released when mothers give birth… it’s better than any happiness drug. (fun fact: females usually have more than males)

A swab of a chorister’s mouth immediately after a 2 hour rehearsal showed a significantly higher amount of endorphins than a sample taken just before they sang. This neurotransmitter is part of the pleasure-reward system.  It’s the brain chemical responsible for the feel-good states obtained from runner’s high, sex, and eating chocolate.  I mean, seriously, isn’t that a great reason to join the choir?

Serotonin also weighs in here.  Our senior choir rehearses every Wednesday at 7:45 pm and we get home about 9:30. Many of us are tired at the end of a long day. Can we really get up and go again? But we do because we know that after an hour and a half of singing we could almost fly home. That’s serotonin, better than therapy, cheaper and whole lot more fun. Convinced yet?

Music reaches into our hearts and souls, lifting our mood when we sing and even when we just listen.

More than all of that, though, is the power of music to heal. It’s apparent in the psalms,which were originally always sung and in many reform traditions, still are.   Psalm 96, “O Sing to the Lord a new song” is a song of joy, praising God’s glory.   There are so many like that.  And just as many about despair and sorrow, when the psalmist pleads to God to rescue him.  Think of Psalm 22.    David cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me ..trouble is near and there is no one to help”… then, ultimately, at the end, he is reassured, remembering that God has rescued him in the past.  God heard him when he cried out to him.

I like to think that it was in the sound of his voice and the music of his harp that seeped into his despair and gave him hope.

As it did for Michael Gruenbaum in 1943, a prisoner in Terezin, a German Nazi camp in occupied Czechoslovakia.  “There wasn’t much good in Terezin, he said, “it was a pretty miserable existence. 33,000 died there and another 800,000 were shipped to death camps elsewhere.” When Gruenbaum was 12 years old in the camp, those prisoners performed a childrens opera which ends with the chorus, “We’ve won a victory over the tyrant mean, sound trumpets, beat your drum and show us your esteem” Sounds a lot like a psalm.  75 years later Gruenbaum reflects, ‘We were free singing.’

The power to heal…after Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head by an assassin, she began the brave and long journey to heal her body.  But speech wouldn’t come. One day a guitarist came to sing to her.  Before long, Giffords began to sing along, the tune and the words. A woman who had not yet uttered any recognizable word.  Music had reached in to a place where nothing else had, and healing began in earnest.

What is that place? Where is it? In our heart, our brain, our tendons or nerves which vibrate like a strings of a harp?  Or is it in our soul, a spirit which resonates with the Spirit planted deep within us by none other than God, attuned to the joy and the hope that is part and parcel of being made in the divine image.

Thanks be to God.

Walden Wisdom

  • October 16, 2017

“The heavens are telling the glory of God;  and the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.”

Psalm 19:1

 

Beannacht / Blessing
by John O’Donohue

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.
And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

 

 

God speaks to each of us before we are,

then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,

go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

Flare up like flame

and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me. 

Nearby is the land they call life.

You will know it, when you arrive, by how real it is.

Give me your hand.

  • Rainer Maria Rilke

I’m stepping out from wooded shadows and into the bright arrival of a fresh day.  Beyond the forest, rugged trees give way to a clearing as I walk beside new possibilities.  Along the path, I gather tattered pieces from seasons past to place with care upon the mantle.  And to my surprise what I discover, resting nestled and preserved, are scattered dreams now recollected, their colors vibrantly reminding amid the slender pines.  Entwined twigs and fallen needles, I find childhood dreams that have lost their way, I uncover wild dreams yet unbroken, and dreams that used to keep me up at night, restless and alive.  Now is the time I pick them up, dust them off and let them breath into a wider opening.  Let their pulse race free with promise.  Let them blend with each morning’s faithful light.

From Susan Frybort’s Open Passages:  Doors and Windows to the Soul

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking Prayer happens every Tuesday at Walden Pond.  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.  Newcomers are always welcome!