A Wonderful Sale!

Check out the fabulous pictures from our FANTASTIC greeting card and chalkboard napkin ring sale, sponsored by Children’s Ministries and Sunday Fellowship!  Last Sunday was a wonderful success, and we thank all who participated and supported our ministries and our lessons about Congregational Giving.  The proceeds from the sale will be divided between Children’s Ministries and Sunday Fellowship and offered as our pledges for 2019.  Stay tuned for the sale totals!

Earning, Spending, and Giving Away

As our preschool and kindergarten children continue to learn about Congregational Giving at WCUC, last Sunday they had a hands-on lesson on managing money.  Assisted by several older Middler helpers, stations were set up around the classroom that either cost money or earned money by participating.  Washing a truck earned one coin, babysitting earned another one.  Serving food at the restaurant earned a coin, but buying food cost one.  The children even had to purchase their snacks for two coins each!  Sometimes the lights would go out and a coin would be paid for the electric bill.  The heat bill was paid too.  And all children were invited to share a coin that they earned back with the church.  It was a fun and dynamic lesson about earning, spending and giving away money – just as Jesus taught us!

Unlimited

I Kings 17:8-16

In the book of Kings we learn about the leaders of the Kingdom of Israel. The book begins with stories about the great Kings, David and his son Solomon. It continues with many lesser rulers of a divided kingdom, each seemingly worse than the last. Jeroboam and Reheboam, Abijam and Asa, Nadab and Baasha; Elah and Zimri and Omri; almost all of them regularly do what is evil in the sight of God. But perhaps the worst of all is King Ahab. It is during the reign of this awful Ahab that we meet Elijah: one of the greatest prophets of all time.

Just before our text today begins, the word of God comes to Elijah, predicting a drought. God tells Elijah to go east, and hide himself by the Wadi Cherith. Elijah survives by drinking from the wadi and eating bread and meat delivered by ravens, according to the command of God.

Unfortunately, in time, the wadi dries up. Elijah is no longer provided for. God gives Elijah new instructions: “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”  Elijah goes to Zarephath and asks a widow for water and food. The woman replies, “I have only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

Elijah is not daunted by the woman’s reply. He says, “Do not be afraid; but prepare some of your food for me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For God says: The jar of meal will not be emptied, and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” The woman agrees to do what Elijah asks. And amazingly, she discovers that Elijah is right: her jar and her jug do not fail: her household is well fed.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend several days with a bunch of church people at a continuing education course on fundraising. We wrestled with big questions about money and faith. We considered new ways to invite people to use their financial resources to support the missions of our organizations. I left totally excited about the role of generosity in our faith lives, and the opportunities we have here at this church to deepen our shared commitments.

It is clear from this passage in the book of Kings that Elijah did not have the opportunity to attend this particular fundraising course.  He’s asking for food, instead of money, but it comes down to the same thing. Elijah does just about everything wrong, from a fundraising perspective. He doesn’t get to know the woman at all before inviting her to give. He doesn’t explain what his mission is, why he might be a worthy investment.  He doesn’t even truly ask for anything: he just demands what he wants. Worst of all, Elijah doesn’t take no for an answer. When this woman explains that she and her family are literally starving, he still pursues his object aggressively, demanding that she feed him before her own child, and promising that God will not allow her food to run out.

I love the look on the child’s face in the picture of this story. His face says it all. You’re asking us for what? You’re promising us what? I’ve seen that look before. I’ve felt it, on my own face.

Strangely, this story ends well. The widow decides to feed Elijah. Meal and oil magically multiply in their containers to satisfy her whole household until the drought is over. What on earth are we supposed to learn from this?

Most of us have a complicated relationship with money, with resources. This relationship is shaped by our history of having too little, or just enough, or more than enough. It’s shaped by the attitudes of our family members and friends, and any faith communities and cultures we have been a part of.  Sometimes folks talk about having “common sense” when it comes to money, but in my experience, people have very different ideas about what that common sense should be. There are several radically different philosophies about money floating around in our culture. For example: our American commercial culture tells us to take as much as we can get, and buy the most expensive things we can possibly afford. Commercial culture promises that money can give us pleasure, even happiness, while demonstrating to others how valuable we are.  Alternatively, many of us here in New England have been taught to be very cautious with our money. Don’t show what you have; don’t talk about what you have; don’t spend more than you have; make sure you can be responsible for yourself. This Puritan-inspired attitude promises that our money management will prove our morality, preserve our pride, and keep us secure.

Most of us are already confused about money when Jesus comes to crash this party with an entirely different point of view. Jesus tells us that we cannot serve two masters – God and money. Jesus tells a rich young man: “Sell everything you have a give the money to the poor.” Jesus tells us to consider the lilies; not to worry about our basic needs. Nothing that Jesus says could be considered common sense. If we follow Jesus, he won’t make us rich OR responsible. Instead, he tells us something that belies most of our experience. Jesus, and our wider scriptural tradition, tell us: It’s not about the money.

It’s not about the money. How can that be true? Money is great, and helpful, and often necessary. It’s one thing to hear that it’s not about the money in Concord, Massachusetts, where most of us are not planning to lay down and die after our next meal. It’s quite another thing for the widow in our story today. Surely it is about money, about resources, for her.

I struggle with why so many scripture stories lift up the generosity of those in true poverty. I don’t want to romanticize poverty, or spiritualize it. Want is real, and it can be brutal. I do wonder, though, if our ancestors realized what modern research teaches us: it is those with the most limited funds who are statistically the most likely to share them. Those who have the most limited resources are the most likely to be our leaders in generosity.

Why is this? Why are those with the most limited resources the most generous? I wonder if struggling with a lack of money reveals money’s limitations more starkly. Money can do a lot; but in the end, it fails to bring lasting pleasure, true happiness, moral superiority, individual independence, or security.  When money is not available, when there is not enough, the truly valuable things are perhaps more obvious: relationship, compassion, community, faith. Money is a means, but not an end. If we make it our end, we are doomed to profound disappointment.

Each year, during our congregational giving appeal, I let you know what I plan to give, and why. I am glad that I am able to continue to give ten percent of my income to this church, dedicating it to God and to the ministry that we are doing here together. I am also working on a better plan for my giving outside of the church: an area for growth.

I should admit that my commitment to the church is not always easy for me. Sometimes I get a little twinge when a pleasure is out of reach of my family. Sometimes I get a little twinge when I think that we should be doing more to ensure our future security. Mostly, I am glad to say, my giving commitment gives me a profound sense of peace and gratitude. I want to keep letting go of false ideas of what money could get me, if I kept it to myself. I want to keep experiencing the power of throwing in my lot with others, of letting the wealth that has come into my hands work for the good of many. I believe in what God is doing here among us, and it moves me to be able to support it. Those quotes, those dreams we heard at the beginning of the service – they are worth the world to me.

Ultimately, scriptures teach us, nothing actually belongs to us individually. Ownership is an illusion. We can only be stewards for the wealth that comes from God and belongs to all God’s people, all of God’s creation. The amazing thing is, that the more we learn to share what we have with one another, the more it grows. Instead of fear and scarcity, as we give and connect we discover abundance: abundant resources, abundant love, abundant possibility. As our hands open towards one another, loaves and fishes multiply, and meal and oil appear out of thin air, through the mysterious and marvelous grace of God.

Dear God, money makes us anxious and afraid and enthralled and protective. It pushes our buttons, and we get all wrapped up in it, instead of being focused on you. Whatever numbers are in our bank accounts, help us to breathe deeply, day by day, shedding fear and shame and pride. Teach us that our true value and security come from you. Teach us how to share what we are able and called to share with glad and generous hearts, that we might relieve the wants of others, free ourselves of every burden, and participate in your miraculous multiplication. Amen.

Children’s Ministries Special Sale!

  • November 8, 2018

Don’t forget to bring your cash or checkbooks THIS Sunday to purchase our very special handmade birthday, thank you, and get well cards, as well as sets of chalkboard napkin rings (complete with chalk marker!  Perfect for teacher gifts or your holiday gatherings!).  Our Sunday School kids have been hard at work producing these fantastic goods for you, and they will be ON SALE this Sunday right after worship.  All proceeds from the sale will be pledged right back to WCUC on November 18th as the Children’s Ministries contribution to our congregational giving appeal.  The prices are as follows:

$3 per card or $5 for two

$10 for a set of four napkin rings + chalk marker

Check out the pictures for a teaser of our fabulous products!  Thank you for your support of our special congregational giving lesson and Children’s Ministries!

Praying with our Neighbors

  • November 6, 2018

This past Friday night, folks from WCUC gathered along with members of many local faith communities and other friends to light the way into Shabbat services for our Jewish neighbors at Kerem Shalom.  Some folks provided candles to share; others, including Jim, helped lead us in music. We held signs and witnessed to the light of hope together.  The Kerem Shalom community graciously welcomed us in to participate in the Shabbat service.  This beautiful worship experience included songs and prayers in Hebrew and English, a special remembrance of those who died in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue, and words from Rabbi Darby Leigh. Rabbi Darby invited us to consider last week’s tragedy in the wider context of intolerance and violence, and encouraged us to continue to build local connections that will nurture love and understanding in our communities. The folks at Kerem Shalom provided a wonderful reception and warm fellowship for all who were there. It was truly a blessing to be there!

Please read below for Pastor Hannah’s brief remarks during the service:

I give thanks to Rabbi Darby and this congregation for your hospitality in welcoming those of us who are your neighbors, to share this tender time with you.

This Sunday, many Christians will be studying a text from the book of Ruth, a text that is holy in both Jewish and Christian traditions. In this story, we meet a woman named Naomi who is grieving the loss of her husband and both of her sons. Naomi tries to send her daughters-in-law away from her, back to their parents. She has nothing to give them; no way to protect them. But her daughter-in-law, Ruth, says: “Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay.  Your people shall be my people, and your God my God…Not even death will part me from you.”  So Naomi and Ruth journey on together, and together they make a new life.

As we witness hateful speech and action around us, we must condemn the wrong that is done.  As a Christian pastor, I especially grieve that violent anti-Semitism has been justified by Christians and by Christian scriptures. Jesus himself was a faithful Jew; and Judaism is both an honored ancestor and a beloved sibling to the Christian faith. We share sacred texts and holy values. We both follow a call to love God with all that we are, to honor one another, to care for the most vulnerable among us.

I pray that all of us, from many traditions, religious or not, will respond to the tragedies around us today not only by grieving, but also by growing in our practice of the kind of love that Ruth models. Let us go with one another; let us stay with one another; let us understand ourselves to be one people, bound together. May it be so.

Bringing Forth Our Love

I wonder if you all could help me this morning think of ways that our church welcomes people. When people arrive at our church doors on a Sunday morning, what are some of the things we do to help them feel welcome? (Ideas included: provide greeters, say “good morning!,” shake hands, provide an elevator.)

As folks come into the sanctuary and participate in worship, are there things we do to make people comfortable, or to make sure they can participate? (Ideas included: chairs to sit on, space for wheelchairs, large-print bulletins, hearing assist devices, visual worship guides, headphones to block out noise, toys to keep our hands busy if that helps us, activity stations.)

Do we do anything outside our building to help people feel welcome? (Ideas included: Welcome Garden, special parking spaces, rainbow flags, Black Lives Matter & Yes on 3 signs)

This church does a lot to welcome people, and we keep trying to make our welcoming muscles stronger. We want everyone to feel that they have a spiritual home; that they’re not alone.

Our scripture story today is about someone who felt alone, and afraid, and who didn’t have a home. Naomi and her family are refugees, people who are forced to leave their homeland to survive, like so many people in our world today. They are able to travel to a new place, and they find the food they need. But then, Naomi’s husband and sons die. The only people who are left in Naomi’s family are her, and her two daughters-in-law. Naomi knows that she does not have what she needs to keep her daughters-in-law safe and healthy. So, she tells them to go back to the homes they had grown up in. She tells them to let her go, alone, back to the place where she grew up: Bethlehem of Judah.

Naomi is trying to be practical, and she is trying to be generous. She’s worried that she doesn’t have much to offer anyone else. But here is the really amazing part of this story. Ruth decides that being together with this person that she loves is more important than anything else.  She decides that whatever is going to happen next, it will be better if she and Naomi face it together. So Ruth tells Naomi: “Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay.  Your people shall be my people, and your God my God… Not even death will part me from you.”

Ruth goes with Naomi, and together they help one another make a new life, and a new home.

This season at church we are thinking about how we can be more like Ruth.  Ruth gives the gift of help and companionship along the way. She goes with Naomi, even though it means traveling to a place she has never been before.  Ruth brings the gifts that God gives her out into an unfamiliar world.

How can we be like Ruth? If we’ve already built strong welcoming muscles, how can we strengthen our muscles to bring forth the love of God beyond our walls and into the world? A few ideas:

  • On Friday night, folks from this congregation and other congregations and the greater community gathered at our local Jewish synagogue, Kerem Shalom. Because of things that are happening in our country, we wanted to be sure that folks there knew that we care about them. We lit candles, and sang songs, and then joined them in worship, to help make sure these neighbors felt at home.
  • This morning, we are gathering gifts for Open Table. We want to offer food to folks nearby who, like Naomi’s family, are going hungry.
  • In the hallway, you can see a poster of our Mission partners, folks who we dedicate our shared resources to help, bringing our wealth and service into our community for the common good.

How else can we be like Ruth? What are some other ways we can bring forth God’s love and justice into the world? (Folks reflected on this and recorded their ideas on hearts to share).

Dear God, open our hearts to follow in the ways of our ancestor Ruth, Going, and staying, and living, and dying, together with all your children. Amen.

All Our Saints

Revelation 21:1-6a

In the book of Revelation, John of Patmos recounts what God has unveiled before him in visions and in voices. One of the most famous passages from John’s writings is the one we hear today: a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. In this new reality, John writes, God is at home among the people. There is no mourning or crying or pain anymore.  Even death has ceased to exist.  All things are made new, and God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

Is this what is in store for us? I have to say, I hope so. It is one of the more beautiful passages in scripture about what might come next.

People often turn to the church, and to scripture, when they are wondering about the great mysteries of death and dying, heaven and eternity. And it’s not only adults. In confirmation class, this is always one of the most popular topics. Children like to ask questions about it, too. We all want to know what will happen to us in the great beyond. We are curious, also, about what will happen, and what has happened, to those we love.

These questions are particularly prominent in this time of year. I often think of this as the dying time. Leaves are falling and plants are sinking back towards the earth.  People often find their way back to the earth, too, following the tidal movement of the season. This is a time when the barrier between the living and the dead feels thin, as we celebrate All Hallows Eve and The Day of the Dead and All Saints and All Souls. Today we’ll continue our series of visual sermons, focusing on what lies beyond.

When we think of the church’s view of what lies beyond, I am afraid that too many of us think first of the Last Judgement, an idea based around passages from the Gospel of Matthew and Luke. Here is Michelangelo’s depiction of God judging the people, sending some to heaven and others to hell. The idea is attractive because it is so concrete. Do good and end up somewhere good. Do bad and end up somewhere bad. Trust that God will mete out justice in the end to anyone who treats you badly. But what does this theology say about God?

Looking at the upper left hand part of this picture, you can see the people who are being elevated into heaven. This is the good news part of the picture. Everyone should look happy. But even though they are safe in the clouds, surrounded by light, they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves. Instead, they’re staring to the side in apprehension.

Maybe that’s because, right next to them, they see this: an absurdly muscular God making a threatening gesture, sending lots of other people down below…to flaming torment. I find nothing here that could be the will of a loving God.

Our scriptures and our church traditions were inspired by God, but formed and recorded by humans. Therefore, when an idea like the Last Judgement fails the test of demonstrating God’s love, it is best we look elsewhere for guidance. Thankfully, we have many other scripture passages that suggest an entirely different reality after death.

In the Gospel of John (Ch 14), Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples. He tells them: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. I will go and prepare a place for you; I will come again and will take you to myself,so that where I am, there you may be also.”

In the book of Romans (8:38-39) Paul writes: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Throughout the scriptures, we learn that God loves us; that we belong to God; that we are made and remade in God’s image; that we are a precious part of God’s holy creation. It is fitting, then, that after our human lives are over, we would all return more deeply, more fully, to make our home in God, who is our beginning and our end.

This leaves, still, the question of saints, and souls. Where are those we have loved and honored? How can we visualize the great cloud of witnesses who are hovering around us?

Probably you have seen pictures like this: saints in gold, carefully posed. Most of our images of saints in the west are like this: white people, in fancy clothes, often with halos, lined up in orderly ways, as if for a photo opp. The saints knew how to stand in a line, apparently. These images are beautiful, but limited. Thankfully, some artists have tried to help us expand the way we imagine the saints.

Some of my favorite saint images are from the Catholic Cathedral in LA, where tapestries depict saints of all ages and cultures and skin tones, both famous and unknown, including children. These images help remind us that there have been holy people all around the world, and in every social location.

Another favorite is the work of Robert Lentz. He who writes icons and creates images that depict those who have not normally been recognized as saints: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Caesar Chavez,and Eve, mother of us all. Brother Lentz also depicts those who have been formally recognized as saints by the Catholic Church, but whom we may not be as familiar with, or choose to feature, including ancient Armenian saints Polyeuct and Nearchus,  and the recently sainted Josephine Bahkita., from the Sudan.

While I love to be inspired to by the images and stories of courageous people who have changed the world, I have to admit that the most powerful saints and souls in my life are the ones that I have known, and cared for. Each of us have our own group of those we remember tenderly; here are a few images of those who many of us remember from our shared life here.

Beautiful, aren’t they?

Many of us experience fear or anxiety in thinking about death. All of us experience grief at the death of those we love. As we stand on this side of the mystery, God offers us at least two gifts. First, the promise that she is not only our beginning, but also our end, that she will provide a loving home for us. And also,  that we will have with us in that home each person who has made our time on earth better: legions of saints and souls, a cloud of witnesses, also safely in God’s care, and accompanying us into eternity. Thanks be to God.

Open House Pictures!

  • October 25, 2018

Belated thanks to everyone who helped prepare for and host our Open House! It was a wonderful day connecting with each other and with visitors. See photos below!

Puzzle pieces of faith

Last Sunday the children in all three Sunday school classes began a 4-week series of lessons about congregational giving and the special community of West Concord Union Church.  We asked the children to think about our community as a puzzle – what are the essential pieces of WCUC?  What happens if a piece is missing?  The children thought of themselves as a piece of our puzzle too, recognizing (with the help of some very powerful quotes from other adult members) just how important their presence and energy are to the faith experiences of everyone.  Next Sunday we will begin to talk more about money, learn about pledging and how the money is used at WCUC, and wonder about our dreams for the future.

In order to support the congregational giving appeal this year, the kids are again creating handmade greeting cards to sell during fellowship on November 11th.  All proceeds from that sale will be counted by the children and offered as our 2019 pledge on November 18th.  Check out the pictures to see a peek of their hard work and fantastic creations!