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…)

Holy to the Lord

  • January 2, 2018

Luke 2:22-40

On this Sunday after Christmas we hear a story that is only found in the gospel of Luke, a story that often gets lost amidst the other stories of this season. Jesus’ parents bring him to Jerusalem, to the great temple, to present him to God, and to designate him as holy to the Lord.

In this story we witness the faithfulness of Joseph and Mary. They are following ancient Jewish customs despite very limited means. To travel to Jerusalem after their trip to Bethlehem must have been difficult. They do it anyway, and their temple offering of two turtledoves marks them among the very poor.

It was a modest ceremony for a faithful family: important, but unremarkable. But this ceremony is transformed by the witness of two very special people. One is Simeon, a righteous and devout man, who is full of the Holy Spirit, and anxiously waiting for God’s action in the world. The other is Anna, an elder who worships perpetually in the temple with fasting and prayer. Both Simeon and Anna recognize Jesus as a source of redemption and praise God for the gift of this special child. Their words amaze Joseph and Mary. Apparently the events of the pregnancy and birth had not yet quite convinced them what was in store for this tiny baby.

When the ceremony is over, the family returns home, to their own town of Nazareth. The text tells us: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

This story is rich with meaning. It could help us reflect on the place of Jesus in Jewish and Christian traditions, and how our Christian tradition both honors and fails to honor Jesus’s Jewish faith. It might lead us to consider the role of elders such as Simeon and Anna: their power to shape how we understand ourselves and our faith. We could explore how Simeon and Anna play a role in moving us from Christmas to Epiphany, spreading the word about Jesus to the temple community and the world.

Today, however, I am struck most by how this very special presentation of a baby in a place of worship echoes what happened to many of us. As babies or children, many of us were brought into churches, or synagogues, or other holy places, to be named, or blessed, or baptized. Our families longed to see us recognized and dedicated as “holy to the Lord.”

Jesus was unique. But all babies are special. Each person is created in the image of God and is recognized by God. We are each holy to the Lord, regardless of what ceremonies are performed. But how many of us carry that sense of holiness, of specialness, of blessedness, far beyond any days of special ceremony?

As we travel over the brink between Christmas and Epiphany, between 2017 and 2018, many people think about starting fresh. Making resolutions. Turning over a new leaf. Setting new goals.

Here in the church we are called to remember that we are already precious in God’s sight. We have always been known and loved. And any change we seek, we will find most fulfilling if it is also a change that God longs for, for our healing and for the healing of the world.

How can we know what God is longing for? One way is to listen. This year we are returning this year to a tradition we have tried before, the tradition of star words. Words have been chosen and placed on these shiny stars, and laid out for you here in the sanctuary. You are invited to come and choose a star today, to see if God might lead you through the word written on the back of it. There are a few rules: please don’t peak, no give-backs, no changies. Let’s seek out a star to guide us, as Jim plays for us. 

Does everyone have a star? Have you read your word, or had help reading it? Now maybe your word speaks you. Great. If it doesn’t, I ask that you give it a chance. Let it marinate, look up its meanings. Hang it up somewhere and wait to see if it has something to offer you in a week, or a month, or next December. If you hate your word, let me tell you, you’ve hit a jackpot: because that means it has something to teach you. Whatever your word is, I invite you to take it home with you, and try to allow God to guide you through it, in the coming year. And then we’ll gather here again, next Christmas season, and see what new stories God has told among us.

God, you made us, you know us, you love us. We have been holy because of your blessing from the beginning of our lives. Help each person here to feel how deeply we are treasured. Grant us the help we need for the next stage of our journey, this season of challenge and change.May our hearts find ever better ways, with your guidance. Amen.

Stars will be available on January 7th for anyone who missed picking them up!

Finding a Posada

Luke 2:1-20

The beautiful holy story we remember tonight takes place amidst bureaucratic red tape.

The Roman Empire needed money, and so it needed to collect taxes. But how can you collect taxes if you don’t know who you’re taxing? The first step is a registration: a census. And for some strange reason, in this story, everyone is counted not where they live, but in their place of origin, in the city from which their family’s male line comes from. It seems like a strange plan to me for organizing a census; but that’s the way our story goes.

Joseph’s people were, Luke tells us, from Bethlehem. And Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth. So Mary and Joseph join the nameless crowds of people that were on the move that season. So many people, traveling by foot or by animal or by cart. So many people, improvising places to stay, and ways to get fed. So many people, standing in lines, and filling out forms. It must have been terribly disruptive and inconvenient and costly and even dangerous for these folks to travel. Still, it was less risky than disobeying the empire.

That journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was not a good time to give birth. But babies don’t wait for bureaucracy. They don’t care about borders, either. They come when it is their time to come. And, as it happened, Jesus was ready to be born. So Mary and Joseph have to do the best they can, in a truly unfortunate situation. Mary births outdoors, perhaps, or in a stable – the text doesn’t say. And Mary lays the baby in a manger, in a trough made for animals to drink out of – because there is no place for her family in the inn.

It’s only one phrase in the story: “there was no place for them in the inn.” But it’s a phrase that helps shape our whole understanding of Christmas. And out of this phrase came the tradition of Las Posadas, which means the Inns, the shelters, the accommodations. For nine nights, in Mexico and in Spain and beyond, communities fill the streets. They follow behind people dressed as Mary and Joseph, and sometimes a real live donkey. They look for a place to stay. At first the Holy Family and their friends are turned away. No, there is no room, you are strangers, we couldn’t possibly help. But then, eventually, each night, the travelers are welcomed in; to a home full of light and food and music, or into a brightly decorated church. The travelers come in to kneel around a nativity, and to pray or to party or both. The last night of Las Posadas is tonight: Christmas Eve.

This tradition that we reenacted with children at our five o’clock service tells our holy story in a wonderful way. Las Posadas also invites us to consider: who is getting left out today? Who is barring the door? And how can we all work past the very human instinct to distrust a stranger, and welcome holy families, and holy children, into our midst?

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to think of people being left out today. We might remember the immigrants and refugees who seek safety and opportunity in our nation, or in Europe. Too many of these precious children of God are spending their holiday season in detention centers or in refugee camps; away from family; in want and in fear. Others are being left out for other reasons. They are not seeking a new nation, but face distrust and discrimination right where they are, because of differences of skin color, culture, religion, wealth, sexual orientation, gender expression, and more.

Some say that God sent us Jesus, our Emmanuel, our God-with-us, so that we could finally see the divinity that resides in humanity. It has always been there, of course – God created us, all of us, in God’s own image. But two thousand years ago, we seemed to need a reminder that God’s glory could coexist with the common stuff of human life. So God sent us Jesus. Jesus: in whom the presence of God is so blindingly clear, that it cannot be missed. God wanted to let us know: even in these flawed and humble creatures, in their great complexity and diversity: even in people like you and me, lives the breath of God. When you help the least of these, you are showing hospitality to God herself.

In our Christmas story, God is born as a human child in a world of tragedy and injustice and poverty and division. And his birth changes things. Now, Mary and Joseph still have no choice about taking their trip to be counted in Bethlehem. And they can’t change, either, the distrust or dismissal or exhaustion that leads all the innkeepers to turn away a mother in labor. Yet still, through the grace of God, Mary and Joseph find a welcome. Animals keep them company while they cradle their child. Angels are put to work bringing news of his arrival. Shepherds, dirty and rude, come rushing to witness the babe. There’s enough folks for a party, or a prayer service, and good news to celebrate: good news of great joy for all the people.

No matter what you witness when you look out into the world today, at Christmas we remember that humanity has been at least twice blessed: by God’s creation of human life, and by the incarnation of God as Jesus. If God made us, and has accompanied us from the beginning; if God came to be with us in flesh and blood; then perhaps we are, all of us, redeemable: capable of recognizing and following the divine within us. Capable of recognizing and honoring the divine within one another.

In this beautiful place that is marked by unjust laws and selfishness and cruelty and plenty of our own modern bureaucracy, God keeps gently inviting us into lives that are run by a different logic. Look, God says: see the holy child, filled with everlasting light. Listen to the solemn stillness, and the glorious songs. Observe the tender care of the new parents, the awe of the shepherds, the angels’ watch of wondering love.

If all this is true, then perhaps we may find ways to welcome the Marys and Josepsh that come knocking at our doors, heavy laden by life’s crushing load. If all this is true, then perhaps along our own weary roads, we may find rest in the Posada, the inn, of God’s own love. For God is waiting for every wanderer, for all of us – ready to provide some modest but truly warm accommodation, with shelter, and food, and light, and love, and prayer, and maybe even a party. Thanks be to God.

Stillness Speaks: Finding Hope for our Hearts

  • December 20, 2017

On Sunday, December 10th, people filled the parlor after worship seeking stillness – time to pause, ponder, and pray.  Through contemplative music, short readings and reflections, lighting candles of individual and collective hopes, and silent meditation, we drew closer to God and to one another.

.

• Hope opens us to the future but releases us into the present.

Advent draws our eyes toward the horizon as we watch and wait for the Christ who comes to us. In this season, we sing with Zechariah, By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us(Luke 1:78). When we are in grief, looking toward the horizon with hope and anticipation is no small feat. Instead of luring us away from the present, however, Advent invites us more deeply into it, where the kingdom of God is at work even now. This is the nature of the hope that Advent cultivates in us. Rich with memory and infused with expectation, hope calls and enables us to work here and now, in company with the Christ who is already about the work of heaven in our midst.

Jan Richardson

This Luminous Darkness:  Searching for Solace in Advent and Christmas  

Advent Prayer Walks at Walden Pond

  • December 20, 2017

Tis the season for making cards, going shopping, baking cookies, wrapping gifts, mailing packages, preparing for special meals…in the midst of all of this, what a treat to take time out to be in nature, to share our hearts, and to walk in peaceful solitude listening for God’s wisdom.  Here are a few scenes from recent Prayer Walks and some reflections that were shared to bless us on our way.  We meet every Tuesday on the beach at 9:30am.  Newcomers are always welcome!

First Snow

The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how,
whence such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
The silence
is immense,
and the heavens still hold
a million candles, nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
creekbed lies
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain — not a single
answer has been found —
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.

~Mary Oliver~

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare you way.”  Mark 1:2

Blessing the Way

With every step you take, this blessing rises up to meet you.  It has been waiting long ages for you.  Look close and you can see the layers of it, how it has been fashioned by those who walked this road before you.  How it has been created of nothing but their determination and their dreaming, how it has taken its form from an ancient hope that drew them forward and made a way for them when no way could be seen.  Look closer and you will see this blessing is not finished, that you are part of the path it is preparing, that you are how this blessing means to be a voice within the wilderness and a welcome for the way.

Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace

 

 

Youth Advent Adventures: Joyful Noise, Completive Prayer, Inspirational Reflections

The youth are traveling through Advent with a variety of opportunities to connect with God and with one another.  Opening our hearts and minds to the messages of Advent, we find inspiration and encouragement to slow down, to be more patient in our “waiting”, and to trust that the light of God’s Love really does overcome darkness.

In early December, the youth visited Harvard’s Memorial Church to attend the Kuumba Singers Christmas Concert:  “Voice in the Night”.   This gospel choir, which has been singing since 1970 in celebration of Black creativity and spirituality, beautifully captured the power of Christmas story – both the peace that Jesus brings and the hope that he inspires to continue in the struggle for justice.  http://kuumbasingers.org

That same weekend, youth were invited to experience “Journey in the Light” at WCUC – an evening for contemplative prayer walking in a 12-circuit labyrinth that covered almost the entire floor in the sanctuary.  Youth members engaged the program as participants and also as helpers so that the younger children could enjoy the evening too.

In recent weeks, the youth have been learning about Advent in their Sunday morning classes, exploring its history and its context in the larger liturgical church calendar.  Themes such as “waiting”, “balancing stillness with active preparing”, and noticing “light in dark places” have all been prominent in our Bible study and class discussions.  Particular attention was given to the virtues represented by the candles of the advent wreath:  Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace as we wrote, reflected, and shared on these four prompts/questions:

  1. “I really hope that…”
  2. Where have you experienced love/kindness in recent days?  Given and received.
  3. What brings you joy?
  4. Who in your life especially needs to feel God’s peace right now?  (We held a minute of silence to pray for these people.)

Finally, we celebrated Gaudete (Joy!) Sunday in style with donuts and a viewing of this incredible documentary about Walden Pond and the life of Henry David Thoreau.  A local treasure and a man who was inspired by nature to believe in God’s transformative power as well as the power of people working together to transform the world.  If you have 22 minutes to spare, this will be well worth your time!

https://www.walden.org/walden-film/

May you experience many blessings during this Advent season and may you find moments of unexpected Grace as the Prince of Peace arrives yet again.

What Mary Knew

Luke 1:39-56

Imagine if you will, a picture of Mary: Mary of Nazareth, Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Even those of us who did not grow up Catholic have seen plenty of images of her, the most famous woman in our Christian tradition.  Imagine Mary. If you are like me, the Mary that first comes to mind is white, and young, and very beautiful. A soft light shines around her. Her eyes are downcast. Her expression is peaceful. Her hands are folded in prayer, or wrapped around the Christ child. Mary is passive. Mary is quiet.

Western culture has made Mary into our ideal woman. She tells us just what women are supposed to be like. But it turns out that the Mary we see in Christmas cards and church statues and museum portraits is not the Mary of the bible.  The biblical Mary is not white. She is not passive. And she is not quiet. On the contrary, Mary is a loud woman.

When we first meet Mary in the bible, she doesn’t have much to say. But that’s probably because she is having the shock of her life. An angel appears to her, and tells her that incredible things are about to happen: a spiritual pregnancy, a royal son. All Mary can get out of her mouth in that encounter is a question: “How can this be?” ; and then, finally, a response: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Or, to paraphrase, “Ok, I guess if this is what God has in mind we can go ahead.”

Mary takes a moment to get her bearings. But as soon as the angel leaves, she springs into action. Mary hits the road, defying morning sickness, hurrying through the hills to see her cousin. Why are there no pictures of Mary on the move? Mary with a climbing stick, Mary with a rucksack, Mary with dirty sandals, sweating in her rush to share her news?

When she has something shocking and important to tell, Mary seeks out the company of women. As far as we know, she doesn’t share her news with Joseph at all. Instead, she wants to talk with her kinswoman.  Perhaps she imagines that Elizabeth is more likely to believe what she has to say.

Incredibly, Elizabeth does believe Mary, with the help of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Elizabeth figures out the news even before Mary shares it. And so begins the most extended conversation between two women that I can think of in the bible. Elizabeth exclaims with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women!”  And Mary responds, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!”

Elizabeth and Mary literally shout with enthusiasm. Two loud women. And in the midst of their exclamations, there is another woman there, too, in spirit.  Mary is riffing on the words of her foremother Hannah.

Hannah says: The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
Mary says: God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
Hannah says: God raises up the poor from the dust, to make them sit with princes.
Mary says: God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.

The biblical Mary is a woman with a voice — a strong voice.  She has a voice that is stronger because she has listened to the witness of other women.  She has a voice that is stronger because she can speak to other women.  Mary has a strong voice to proclaim God’s good news.  For this conversation between two pregnant women isn’t about nursing, or nappies, though perhaps they talked about that later. Why not. Both of them understand that what they’re a part of is not only personal but also political: part of a plan in which justice and mercy will transform the world.

Mary is nothing like we usually imagine her or see her portrayed.  She is a unmarried poor woman of color with a strong voice who cries out for justice.  Mary is one of a mighty host who prepare the way for the women who are crying out in this season.  There have been many loud women through the years, testifying to both devastating truth and astonishing hope. And a great many of these loud women have been women forced to the margins: enslaved women, Black women, Latina women, Trans women. For instance: Anita Hill. For instance: Tarana Burke.

Strengthened by the history and example of others, women have come forward in this season to say: #metoo.  I was also harassed, I was also assaulted, I was also abused, I have also been ashamed, I have also been punished for trying to tell my story. #Metoo. We have heard witness after witness, and we know that these witnesses represent the tip of the iceburg.

As a result of the witnesses in this season, and the people who have finally listened and believed the witness of women, the bows of a few of the mighty have been broken. A few of the powerful have been brought down from their thrones. But the problem of patriarchy, of male privilege and dominance, of fiercely defended white cisgender heterosexual male power, will take much more work to fully disassemble. We need more testimonies. But there have always been testimonies. We need more people to believe those testimonies. We need more men and more white women willing to change. We need more women and more people of color and more GLBTQ folks in leadership.

We also need change in the church. Discrimination and harassment and abuse have taken place here, too. In the church universal, and in this local church. Some of you are aware that a former pastor here, Dick Bauer, who served in the 60s and early 70s, and was beloved by many, was eventually removed from the ministry due to sexual misconduct. This misconduct occurred in several congregations he served in Massachusetts and Connecticut, including West Concord Union Church.  It’s not a secret.  It’s also not something we talk about much. It’s not pleasant to talk about. But unless we tell the truth about these things, with loud voices, we are a part of the problem: complicit in silencing testimonies that need to be honored. Complicit in upholding structures of oppression that need to be torn down. Failing in our duty to reckon with the past and ensure that the church, and our church, is a safe space for all people today.

Mary, the biblical Mary, has a loud voice that cries out for justice. How can her voice encourage us to proclaim the devastating truths that are part of our personal and collective past and present? How can her voice encourage us to proclaim the astonishing hopes that God has given to us to share with the world? How can Mary help us to listen to other loud women, other marginalized voices, with greater trust and concern, and a stronger response?

The Christmas song asks, “Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters? Mary, did you know that this child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know?”

Mary did know. Mary was the first human being to know.  God told Mary, and Mary is the one who told all of the rest of us. Mary may even have been the one to break the news to Jesus. She certainly helped prepare him for the life he would lead.

The gospel of Luke begins and ends with two women named Mary who are entrusted with God’s good news. In both cases, men do not believe them. Mary of Nazareth carries the news of God’s incarnation.  Mary of Magdala carries the news of God’s resurrection. Mary did know, and thank God for that. For she, and all who have come after her, bless us with their loud voices.

Mary of Nazareth said to Elizabeth:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in the God who saves me.
For God has recognized and blessed a humble servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.
God’s mercy is on those who regard her with awe, from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with her arm, scattering the pride of the proud.
God has dethroned the powerful, and lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped her servant people, in remembrance of her mercy,
According to the promise she made to our ancestors:
To Abraham and his descendants forever.

Thanks be to God.