Posted in Sermons

Sermons preached by Pastor Hannah and guest speakers at West Concord Union Church.

Reborn

John 3:1-17

Nicodemus knows that someone named Jesus is making waves.  How does he know? Maybe he has heard about how Jesus came out of the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit swooping down like a dove right above him. Maybe he has heard about how Jesus changed jars of water into a very fine vintage of wine at a wedding. Almost certainly, he has heard about how Jesus spent his first day in the holy city of Jerusalem driving money changers out of the temple.  Nicodemus learns that someone named Jesus is making waves, and he wants to learn more.  So this esteemed religious leader shows up, at night, at Jesus’ door. 

Sometimes folks imagine that Nicodemus is ready to become Jesus’ disciple as he visits this night, if only secretly. I imagine Nicodemus is ready to examine this upstart uneducated Galilean Rabbi.  What does this Jesus really believe? What has he been teaching the people?  Will this youngster need to be reigned in before he causes trouble with the Romans?  But Nicodemus doesn’t get a chance to ask his questions or offer his guidance.  Jesus sees this experienced elder, and begins teaching him, instead.  “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

Now, as it happens, Nicodemus does not live in America in the 1990s.  So, he has no idea that the phrase “born again” might have a spiritual meaning.  Jesus’ teaching, therefore, seems simply ridiculous. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Nicodemus asks, bemused. “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb?”

Jesus replies, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus does not know what to do with Jesus’ answer. “How can these things be?” he asks. We might want to ask the same thing.  It’s hard to be sure exactly what Jesus is saying, but he seems to be saying that to get close to God, we need to be reborn. Reborn, through water. Reborn, through the Spirit.  Reborn, or born again, or depending on how you translate the original, born from above.

But what does it mean to be reborn, born again, or born from above?  Isn’t everyone born just once? We only get one shot in life, right? There’s no starting over, physically or otherwise.  Our past can’t be changed. We can only go forward.

Plus, even if we could start again – would all of us really want to?  Especially folks like Nicodemus, who seems to have it all together?  He’s educated, he’s respected. He’s probably financially secure. Nicodemus is even spiritually revered.  Why would someone like that risk it all to be reborn? Why would he need to?

Jesus tells us that the way to get close to God is to be reborn.  “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

With God’s help, we can start over, Jesus tells us. But he’s not talking about starting over to build more successful lives, lives with more money or fame.  Instead, this starting over has to do with loosening our attachment to the external parts of our lives, so that we can respond more freely to the wild, unexpected movements of God in our hearts.

This teaching of Jesus makes me think of the spiritual leader Richard Rohr, who’s spent time unpacking psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s ideas about the two halves of life.  The first half of life, he claims, is dedicated to building an identity for ourselves through outwardly noticeable achievements.  The second half of life begins when these outward achievements are no longer sufficiently meaningful.  Instead, we begin seeking spiritual or religious experiences that can fill the outward structure of our identity with a new kind of inward satisfaction.  This is the work of finding God deep within.(Read more here or in Rohr’s book Falling Upwards)

Consider the caterpillars we are learning from this season.  Starting as a small egg, caterpillars eat and eat and grow and grow – just like in the book, the very hungry caterpillar.  In fact, caterpillars are so good at eating and growing that they outgrow their own skins more than once!  The goal of all this, we might imagine, is to become the biggest and best caterpillar out there.  But just when they’re getting really successful at being caterpillars, caterpillars stop being caterpillars at all.  Instead, they hang upside down, create a chrysalis, and give up their caterpillar lives to become something else entirely.

So I wonder: what have you been trying to achieve in your life so far? What have been your goals?  Maybe you’ve achieved those goals spectacularly well. Maybe it hasn’t gone exactly the way you hoped or planned. Either way – are these the same goals that you want to claim for the rest of your life?  Or is it time to start doing something else altogether – even if it means undoing parts of the life you’ve built, letting go of some privilege or prestige you’ve enjoyed? 

Each of us is only born once.  Nicodemus is right!  We can’t enter a second time into our mother’s wombs.  We can’t even undo our mistakes, or erase our scars.  But Jesus wants us to know that everyone can still be reborn.

We can be reborn, if we’re broken and troubled and desperate.  We can be reborn, even if we seem to have it all together.  Humble or proud, rich or poor, successful or struggling, all of us can be renewed. All it takes is acknowledging the emptiness we feel inside the outside shell of our outer lives, and inviting God to fill us.  

Simple, but not easy.  Letting God fill our lives means moving into mystery, and letting go of everything we thought we knew.  It means putting our trust in absolute eternal love, and not much else.  This kind of life isn’t something we choose only once.  Instead, being reborn is a choice every day: as we slowly deconstruct the self we thought we needed to be, to become the one we are called to be, instead.

Please pray with me. Holy God: You are the womb from which we all come, and through you, we can begin lives that are entirely new: empty of everything except the wind of your Spirit, blowing free.  Help us each to claim this bewildering opportunity, this mysterious offer, today and every day, for the sake of our own lives, and for the sake of your world. Amen.

Metamorphosis: Lent 2020

Matthew 4:1-11

At the beginning of the season of Lent each year, we return to this story about what happens to Jesus after his baptism, when the Spirit leads him out into the wilderness. Who does Jesus meet in the wilderness? (the devil!)

Now our cultures have all kinds of ideas about what the devil might be like, but there isn’t much about the devil in our scriptures. We don’t know if Jesus really saw the devil with his eyes, or if the devil was more like a dream, or what the devil might have looked like, or if the devil could have looked at all like Susan, who read the part of the devil in our scripture lesson.  We don’t know if Jesus really heard the devil with his ears, or if the devil was more like a voice inside his head, or what the devil might have sounded like, or if the devil could have sounded anything like Susan.

What we know is that the devil tempts Jesus three times.  He asks Jesus to prove himself by turning stones into bread, to fill his own belly; to jump off a high place, to test God; and to worship the devil, to gain power over the whole world. What does Jesus say to these temptations?  Does he agree to do them, or not? Jesus says no, and he says no by quoting the Hebrew scriptures. When Jesus has hard choices, he remembers what he knows about God and God’s ways.

I don’t know whether anyone here has ever felt like the devil was whispering in their ear, tempting them to do something. But I do know that we all have to make choices, and that those choices can be hard to make.  How can we learn more about God, how can we get closer to God, so that we’ll make better choices?

In this season of Lent, we’re invited to choose a practice that will help strengthen our ability to make good choices.  We’re invited to set an intention, to make a change that will help us know God and God’s ways more deeply.  Perhaps we could try something that might help us become less anxious, less selfish, less judgmental, less isolated. Perhaps we could try something that might help us become more peaceful, more generous, more gracious, more connected.  We’re invited to try something new: just for 40 days.  Maybe it’ll become a habit we love and keep doing. Maybe we’ll never do it again. But almost certainly, we will have learned something about ourselves and about God by trying it.

Each of us is invited to choose a practice, to make a change in our individual lives. And all together, as a community, we’re trying a change as well, in our space.  Did it feel a little strange coming in today? Was anything surprising?  I wonder if you notice anything that is different in our space today. What is different?

  • There is purple fabric hanging in the air!
  • Our platform and our table are in the middle of the space.
  • Face new directions in our seats; see each other more, and the organ and windows more
  • We may not always see the face of the person who’s speaking or leading.

There are also a lot of things that are the same. What is the same?

  • Walls are the same
  • Same Furniture
  • Liturgy, the way we worship is more or less the same
  • The people!
  • God, the reason we gather is the same

This way of setting up echoes the design of the ceiling. It’s an extension of the most ancient pattern of Christian gathering, which was around a table.  It may help us feel closer to each other, or even closer to God, as if we’re wrapped around with  care.  Like anything we try for Lent, this may be something we love — and it may be something that we never do again. Regardless, I hope we learn something from it, about ourselves, and about God.

The imagery that we’re using this year for Lent is from the life cycle of butterflies.  Butterflies can inspire us as we consider what it might mean to change. And the most dramatic change in a butterfly’s life happens when it’s inside the safe walls of its chrysalis.

So, this season, I am imagining that God’s forgiveness and grace and love is our chrysalis.  God is our safe container, within which we can risk change.  We have some chrysalises, made on Ash Wednesday, on our table. The curve of our chairs, the sweep of the fabric above our heads, may also help us think of the wrapping around love of God.

Change is hard.  It’s hard to choose to change, and it’s hard to face changes we don’t have a choice in.  But we’re not alone.  Not even Jesus was alone.  When he begins his public ministry, in each moment of his transition, God is there: in a spirit like a dove, in words of blessing; in the wisdom of the scriptures; in visiting angels.  God is there, wrapping around Jesus to give him support as he dares to do something new.

Please pray with me: God, help us to feel your strength surrounding us, holding us, hugging us, grounding us, as the world changes, and as we choose to change, to become closer to you. Amen.

Singing Our Faith: Hymns of Many Cultures & Languages

Matthew 17:1-9, 2 Peter 1:16-21

On the feast of Epiphany, we celebrate Jesus, who was born beneath a star and becomes a light for the world. During the weeks following Epiphany we witness Jesus’ holiness shining forth at the time of his baptism, and in his work of preaching and healing.  On this last Sunday before the season of Lent begins, Jesus’ brightness is revealed again in a spectacular way. 

Just a few days after Jesus has broken the news to his disciples that he will be killed in Jerusalem, and raised on the third day, Jesus goes up a high mountain with Peter, James, and John.  There, at the top of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured.  His face begins to shine like the sun.  His clothes become dazzling white.  Moses and Elijah, the two greatest heroes of his faith, begin talking to him like an equal.  Then, as if all this wasn’t enough, a bright cloud overshadows everyone, and a voice proclaims, “This is my child, the beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

It must have been amazing to see Jesus’ face; to hear the conversation between him and Moses and Elijah; to feel the presence of God.  But none of us were there on that day. How can we feel the awe? How can we grasp the mystery?  How can the glory of God become real to us?

Only a few folks witnessed the events in the life of Jesus.  Thankfully, they shared their experiences generously.  As so we can still receive the blessings of these events today, not only in scripture, but also in song. There are Christians in just about every part of the world, speaking many languages, representing many cultures, and singing about the glory of God.

The sharing of Christian songs across culture, geography, and language has dramatically increased in recent decades.  As a result, our New Century Hymnal includes songs that did not originate in the European-American cultures that are the largest roots of our denomination, the United Church of Christ.

Our opening hymn today is one example: Siyaham’ ekukhanyen’ kwenkos.  This song expresses the longing of the black South African majority for rights and freedoms denied by an oppressive colonial white minority.  It is written in the language of the Zulu people, the most widely spoken indigenous language in South Africa.  Like so many protest songs, this one empowered those who sang it on their journey towards social change.  Some of us know it because it was recorded and published in 1980 by the Church of Sweden Mission, and became popular in North America during the 1990s.  In churches and concert venues, this song highlighted the fight against apartheid while introducing rhythms and energy that were unfamiliar in many predominantly European-American cultural institutions.

Our closing hymn, Sois la Semilla, was written by a Spanish theologian, Cesareo Gabarain, in the 1970s.  Father Gabarain wrote many hymns while serving as a parish priest and the Spanish chaplain to Pope Paul the 6th.  This one was translated into English by the United Methodist Church and arranged by Mexican organist and choral director Skinner Chavez-Melo.  Tragically, the nineteenth century missionary movement encouraged Latin American and U.S. Latinx people to forget their language and culture. Including the Spanish language and Latinx song styles in our worship today is a way of honoring the identity of many, both here and far away, who were threatened with cultural erasure by the church.

One more international selection for today is the Taiwanese hymn “God Created Heaven and Earth.”  English missionaries Boris and Clare Anderson translated the text into English in 1981. The melody is from the Pi-po tribe, originally from the island of Taiwan.  I-to Loh, a professor of church music and hymnologist, harmonized this tune in 1963. Before the groundbreaking work of Professor Loh, the sharing of indigenous Asian hymnody was so focused on western accessibility, that it compromised indigenous musical styles or character.  Professor Loh has played a key role in researching, educating, and promoting the sharing of authentically indigenous hymnody.  Let’s sing…

Many issues arise as we use hymns that originate beyond North America and Europe.  Some of us are uncomfortable singing in an unfamiliar language or musical style. It may be challenging to sing, or feel less “holy” to us than the songs and styles we know by heart. Others among us are excited to have new cultural experiences.  Regardless of our personal preferences, questions of justice remain.  How can we be confident that we are honoring language, music, and stories that do not belong to us?  When might the use of songs from other cultures become appropriative?  How can we acknowledge the colonial and missionary history that has shaped this music, especially within congregations and denominations that are predominantly white?

These considerations also apply as we turn our attention to music that arises out of minority cultures in the United States. Wakantanka Taku Nitawa is a song from the Dakota people.  It was written in 1842, using an existing Dakota tune. The author is Joseph Renville, son of a French-Canadian trader and a Dakota mother.  Renville served as an interpreter between white missionaries and Native Americans, helping to establish the Lac qui Parle mission in Minnesota. This hymn was paraphrased in English by R. Philip Frazier, a Native American and Congregational minister, in 1929.  I don’t feel comfortable singing in Dakota without someone to teach us, so let’s sing in English…

Among many hymns of African American origin in our New Century Hymnal is Lift Every Voice and Sing.  James Weldon Johnson, the text writer, was a teacher, poet, lawyer, newspaper founder, diplomat, and a leader in the NAACP.  He worked together with his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, a musical composer, performer, and director. This hymn was first performed in 1921 for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and is often referred to as the black national anthem.  As with all spirituals and songs from African American traditions, I wonder what it means to sing this as someone who benefits from white supremacy.  As we sing together, notice the words “our” and “we” and consider their meanings. Let’s sing…

Writing to the faithful many years after the Transfiguration, the author of the second letter of Peter assures their audience that “no prophecy ever came by human will, but people moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”  With humility and gratitude, let us receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit revealing herself through the holy songs of many peoples.  For God’s glory cannot be limited to any one language or culture, rhythm or hymnody; it bursts forth in a magnificent diversity of expression.  As witnesses and students of this music, as participants in this music, may we receive a clearer understanding, a brighter glimpse, of the God at the heart of it all. May it be so.  

Choose Life

  • February 18, 2020

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses is tired. He has been leading the people Israel through the wilderness for decades. With God’s help, he has faced their complaints, met their needs, and given them guidance.  Now the people are on the plains of Moab, almost within reach of the promised land. But Moses is 120 now, and according to his own account, he no longer gets around very well.  Who can blame him?  Moses is nearing the end of his life, and he’s not going to make it to the promised land. So before he dies, he shares some more wisdom with the people on God’s behalf.

After all that he’s done and said, what is it that Moses wants to make sure that the people know? You have a choice, says Moses. You have a choice. You can choose between prosperity and adversity.  You can choose between blessings and curses. You can choose between life and death. You can choose between honoring the God who brought us up out of Egypt, and worshiping someone or something else. You have a choice, and your choice matters.

This season we listen to both Moses and Jesus share ideas with us about how to live faithfully.  Many of us have heard it all before.  Don’t lie or steal or kill.  Don’t spend your energy on worry or hate.  Don’t worship wealth or seek power for its own sake.  Instead, honor creation and be generous with what you have.  Strive to forgive other people and help those who need help the most. Love God with all that you are, and your neighbors, and even your enemies, as yourself.

These instructions may be familiar to us. They may even seem simple.  But one thing’s for sure: they aren’t easy.  So what does Moses mean when he tells us to choose? Can we really just choose a way of God, a way of life, once and for all, and everything will fall into place?  If so, why hasn’t it happened already?

The ways Moses asks us to choose aren’t simple to live out.  His insistence that we have a choice may even make us angry as we remember just how many things we can’t choose.  None of us get to choose the circumstances of our birth or upbringing.  We don’t get to choose what we’re naturally good at, or what is really hard for us, or what jobs we get or lose. We don’t get to choose who falls in love with us. We don’t get to choose if we or our loved ones get sick. We cannot choose how the people who are closest to us will act, siblings or spouses or children or parents or friends, even if we really, really wish that we could.

There are so many things we don’t have a choice about — not only in our personal lives, but in our common life, as well. It’s President’s Day weekend, and this is an election year. We don’t get to choose who runs for office, or who other people vote for, or how politicians act once they are elected.  We cannot force our leaders to tell the truth, or care about the truth, or uphold any kind of moral code. We cannot single-handedly stop hateful speech and action, or redistribute wealth, or eliminate oppressive laws and practices, or halt climate change, or transform our immigration policies. 

Choose a way of life, Moses?  What choice do we really have? If we pay attention to the world around us, and particularly if we stay up late reading or watching or listening to the news, it’s easy to end up feeling entirely powerless. I wonder how those folks Moses was talking to felt, coming up out of slavery in Egypt only to endure 40 years of wandering and want. How many choices did they feel that they really had?

But Moses never claims that we can choose the circumstances of our lives, or that we can choose anyone else’s actions. He only reminds us that we have a choice about how we will live in the midst of everyone and everything else.  God creates us for choice in the very beginning. God designs us to be free and even creative. God does then offer us guidelines for meaningful and just living, suggestions for how to use our freedom, lots of them; but God has no interest in forcing us into obedience.  Instead, throughout our holy text, God cajoles, pursues, provokes, questions, and entices.  God invites us to recognize and claim our freedom to say no to whatever is life-taking, life-denying. God invites us to recognize and claim our freedom to say yes to whatever will nurture, heal, inspire, connect, strengthen, honor.

God gives us freedom. God makes us free. It is our work, then, to claim that freedom. To choose despite the pain of our past, and our fear of the future. To choose despite the pressures of our families and cultures and political systems. To choose with as much creativity and faithfulness as we can, and then, when we make a mistake – as we will inevitably do – to accept God’s forgiveness, and choose again.

What might you choose, if you truly felt free?  How might you live, if you claimed all your choices?

Keep in mind that Moses wasn’t speaking to one person here, but to the whole people of Israel.  A free human community. As we struggle to make choices in the directions of goodness, and kindness, and justice, we will discover others who are striving to choose these things too. And while each of us has very limited power, together we have astonishing power.  Power to influence, and power to change.

Just before he asks us to choose life, Moses says this:

“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’  No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

Please pray with me.

God, you are close enough for us to cling to, and the wisdom you give us is not far away, but planted here, in our hearts. Whatever challenges we face, personal and political, grant us the strength and courage to still claim some part of that magnificent freedom you have given to us. Guide us as we struggle to choose faithfulness, wisdom, and life: by ourselves, and together; for your sake and for our own  sake and for the sake of one another. Amen.

Salt and Light

Isaiah 58:1-9a, Matthew 5:13-20

In this season, we remember how Jesus is baptized and begins his ministry, and how he invites others into discipleship.  We remember how we were baptized, many of us, and how Jesus invites us into discipleship. But what does this mean, discipleship? How could we really do it? What does it mean to follow Jesus, or to live a life faithful to God?

Our scriptures offer us two lovely answers today.  Both of them are worth a longer examination, if you want to take home your bulletin and look them up.  In the book of Isaiah, we find a God frustrated by their people. People pretend to care about me, God says, and they pretend to care about my ways. But at the same time, they are oppressing each other, and fighting with one another. (This may sound a bit familiar; you may have witnessed some of this in the news recently.  Times haven’t changed so very much.)

God says, if these people who talk so much about me were really interested in my ways, they would be undoing injustice, and sharing their bounty with those who really need it, and recognizing everyone as kin. Only when they do these things will their light shine forth, and their healing spring up. Only then will they feel my presence, right there, alongside them.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus, preaching what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, offers a similar message.  He knows that his audience has heard the law of Moses, and the wisdom of the prophets. You have probably heard at least the basics of it, too: love God, and your neighbor as yourself. But too often even those who know these guidelines do not follow them; or at least, we do not follow them with our whole hearts. Jesus tells us: you already have everything you need to follow me.  You know what you need to know, you are who God created you to be. So, be who you really are. Salt seasons all it touches.  Light brightens all it touches. You were blessed to bless others, so be salty, be bright, be yourself, and bless everyone who comes near you.

This church has taken seriously our calling to love God and neighbor, to bless others – even those we don’t know.  As part of our response, we give a portion of our budget  — recently, 11% —  to organizations we call Mission Partners.  And along with our wealth, we share other things with them, too: time, labor, prayer. 

I give thanks to all the folks who are leaders in this work of connection, several here among us today.  Two of them will now offer us a glimpse into why they do what they do…

Barbara: This church has a long history with Open Table.  Gordon Fraser was its faithful champion along with others when we first came to WCUC 16 years ago.  When Jesus says, “feed the hungry” there is not a lot of confusion or spin around what he means.  Community suppers in Maynard and Concord offer weekly healthy meals and the chance to socialize.  The food pantry, operating in what was formerly the Aubuchon Hardware building on Main Street in Maynard, serves upwards of 80-100 families on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.  Our monthly food donations are part of providing that need.  Local farms, businesses, and the Boston Food Bank fill in the rest, and the team of volunteers to pull off this feat is awesome.  There are so many pieces to a community resource like this.

We all know about housing costs in this area.   Many people who work even full time have trouble managing rent/mortgage, utilities, not to mention the possible need for child care or medical bills and paying back student loans.  Helping families with food frees up money to meet some of these other bills.  If you are like me, the emails, letters and phone calls keep coming—so many worthy causes, so many needs.  I get overwhelmed.

I have needed to find my place of radical solidarity.  I think this is what Jesus calls us to, to partner with the hungry, the homeless, the displaced, the refugees, with those who are struggling.  When I worked in community mental health that was my place of radical solidarity.  In retirement Open Table connects me again with people who are struggling, with job loss, illness, family problems, low wages—all of which impact their ability to provide basic needs for their family.  It is also a place to welcome people new to this country, working to get settled.  For my own spiritual health I have needed to get out of my bubble.

I am grateful to God for the presence of Open Table in our communities and for my opportunity to partner with Open Table.

Constance: Why I support Habitat for Humanity

  • Habitat for Humanity is international, at one point present in more than 100 countries.
  • Habitat for Humanity is a binding national network—across social, political, monetary,     and religious lines.
  • Habitat for Humanity is regional and local, sometimes at work in your own town.
  • Habitat for Humanity is cooperative—“each one, teach one” is an unspoken motto.
  • Habitat for Humanity is young people baking and selling their wares to raise money for a nearby project.
  • Habitat for Humanity is a team of women bonding over a wide variety of tasks during “Women Build” Week.
  • Habitat for Humanity is celebrating a 75th birthday in grand style, challenging friends and family to raise money at the time of the local affiliate’s annual gala.
  • Habitat for Humanity is an agnostic Jew and a proud atheist (nephew of two Lutheran pastors) bonding as they dig foundation trenches.
  • Habitat for Humanity is learning humility—being just one more team member when the team leader may be 1/3 of your age.
  • Habitat for Humanity is being amazed by Jimmy Carter’s steadfast dedication to a cause he did not found but has supported more visibly than anyone for decades.
  • Habitat for Humanity is climbing tall ladders to wash windows, getting up on a roof that turns out to be steeper (and higher) than it had seemed, wielding new tools.
  • Habitat for Humanity is humbling—patiently washing paint brushes, picking up trash, sorting screws.
  • Habitat for Humanity is moving 1000 concrete blocks across a London worksite because they had been delivered to the wrong spot and were in the way.
  • Habitat for Humanity is replacing 1000 bolts in fencing because the wrong size had been delivered but everything had to be finished by the end of the Jimmy Carter Week in Vác, Hungary—and someone had to make the switch when the correct bolts arrived.
  • Habitat for Humanity is, in the words of founder Millard Fuller: “Love in the Mortar Joints,” “A Simple, Decent Place to Live,” “The Theology of the Hammer, “More than Houses.”
  • Habitat for Humanity speaks to me because it pulls me out of the isolating intellectual writer’s world where I spend too much time into physical partnership with people in need—and because Habitat for Humanity can use time and talent as well as dimes and dollars.

All of us can be part of this. Thanks be to God.

Celebrating 2019

Matthew 4:13, 17-23

As Jesus begins his public ministry, he takes a stroll by the Sea of Galilea. While he is walking, he spots two brothers, Simon and Andrew, going about their daily work, casting a net into the sea. Jesus calls out: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  Immediately, Simon and Andrew leave everything behind, to follow Jesus.

Jesus walks on, with his two brand-new disciples in tow. While they are walking, Jesus sees two other brothers, James and John, going about their daily work, mending their nets. Jesus calls out to them – this time, we don’t know what he said. What we do know is that these two brothers also leave their lives behind, to become disciples of Jesus. Now they’re a group of five.

Like many biblical stories, this one leaves a great deal unsaid. I have a lot of questions. Have Simon, Andrew, James, or John ever even met Jesus before?  Did they have an initial discipleship interview, so that they could learn more about the position, and he could learn more about them? Are fisherfolk the only people available to be recruited for discipleship by the sea of Galilee, or does Jesus have a particular fondness for people in that profession? Is there a reason Jesus chooses two sets of brothers? What about Jesus compels these four to give up their livelihoods, and their families, to follow him?

There are a lot of holes in this story. There are a lot of spaces that require our imagination. Perhaps the most confusing part of this story, though, is Jesus’ invitation itself. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  What’s that, now?  Why would anyone want to be forced to catch other people in a net?  We can give thanks that there seems to be only nets, not hooks, used in fishing in this story. Still, what a terrible way to describe the role of disciple, the work of ministry.  What a terrible way to describe the wonderful tasks of showing forth God’s good news and inviting folks into God’s grace.

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” I’ve never really liked this invitation from Jesus. But this year I heard it differently. Maybe it’s because this fall we talked so much about being bound together in love, and binding the world together in love. What if Jesus saw Simon and Andrew casting a net into the sea, and he thought: that’s what God needs. Folks to cast out a web that others can catch onto, to save themselves from drowning in despair or loneliness or luxury or want. What if Jesus saw James and John, mending their nets, and he thought: that’s what God needs. Folks who are mending what binds us together, so that we can find one another and God again, so that we can be tied together in holy community.

The story of our ministry this year, and every year, is a story of webs and nets and ties. It’s a story of connections.

This year we have continued the work of connecting with one another across demographics and ministry areas and organizations, with programs like Sunday Fellowship Food & Fun, and interactive services like Maundy Thursday, with combined choirs, and with community partnerships.

This year we have connected through giving. Folks gave with extraordinary generosity to our annual appeal. We gave $43,000, 11% of our budget, to our mission partners, as well as in-kind gifts for Open Table, Prison Gift Bags, Minuteman Arc Holiday gifts, and Mitten Tree items.

This year we have continued to explore and expand our dedication to inclusion.  We discussed White Fragility. We kept working on our worship resources. We added an automatic door opener to our main entrance. We tried more inclusive words for well-known hymns.  Stick around for Annual Meeting, when we hope to expand our Open and Affirming Statement.

This year we have connected through acts of care. We supported one another through losses and memorial services and surgeries. We have delivered flowers and made visits and knit shawls and written cards and welcomed visitors. We have even baked pies. And each week, folks offer rides to church, prayers, a listening ear.

This year we have connected by through acts of service, small and large. Folks showed up to water and weed and prune the garden throughout the year. We worshipped in the garden all summer, thanks to a dedicated crew (especially Andrew). David Frink and others have fixed and installed countless items. All year, folks have showed up to move chairs, and platforms, and bell tables; to serve food and set the communion table. Each Sunday, there are people making coffee, handing out bulletins, singing, reading, helping with Sunday School, counting the offering. The Schummers even designed and installed a new name tag holder!

Maybe there have been days where there were too many items on your list of church to-dos, and you wondered: why am I doing this?

I suspect that for most of us, it was because one day, someone, or something, whispered in our ear: Come, and be part of it. There is a place in God’s great community for you. And not only that: you can be a caster of nets. You can be a mender of nets. You can be a bringer of good news. You can become part of the binding, part of the weave, part of the stretch, part of the strength, that reaches out into the world for others to grab onto.

Because all those acts of service combine through the power of the Holy Spirit into something amazing that none of us could have put together by ourselves, that looks something like all ages and abilities giant uno games; the wonder of a child; the joy of finding a place, a home, a friend.

Thank you all, for what you have given to West Concord Union Church. Through your ministry, we have witnessed the glory of God here among us. Thanks be to God.

Singing our Faith: The New Century Hymnal

Genesis 3:1-14

What is your favorite name for God?

by Kelly Latimore

Our tradition teaches that the Holy is beyond our understanding; that it cannot be fully described with human language.  In fact, the most accurate biblical description for God may be the one spoken to Moses as he witnessed the burning bush.  Moses wants a name to bring back to his people to explain who will be leading them out of slavery in Egypt.  But the force we so often call God refuses, saying simply:” I am what I am. I will be who I will be.”

Some believers embrace the unknowability of God, finding blessings in mystery, in the absence of language. Still, many of us, like Moses, long for a name, or even an adjective, or a verb: something that will give definition to our conceptions of the divine. In search of the mystery that is God, we have come up with more divine descriptions that can possibly be counted.  You can find them in scripture, mystical writings, poetry, liturgy, songs, and beyond.  Each of us may have our own favorite names, the ones we most often use in prayer, the ones that resonate most deeply with our hearts. Wonderful. But which ones should we use when we are all together?

This year we are spending one Sunday each month exploring the music that we sing together at church. Today, we’ll talk a bit about the formation of our Black Hymnal, the New Century Hymnal, published in 1995.

As this hymnal came into being, the social movements that had begun to move through our culture decades before were finally being felt in theology and religious practice. Civil rights, Disability rights, Gay rights, Feminism & Womanism, Ecological activism: all of these movements challenged the cultural assumptions of the mostly white American Protestants who made up the United Church of Christ.

If you compare the New Century Hymnal to its predecessor, the Pilgrim Hymnal, you may notice several shifts. The New Century Hymnal draws from a far wider range of cultures, Christian movements, and time periods. Its hymns address new issues, like social justice and stewardship of the earth. The New Century Hymnal shows more respect for the practice of faiths other than Christianity. It eliminates instances in which the word “men” is used to represent all people.  It begins to shift descriptions of people in other ways, too, in response to racism and ableism, as they were understood by the editors at the time. But what the New Century Hymnal is most known for is its language for God.

The first hymn of any hymnal is telling. The New Century Hymnal committee chose “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise.”  This hymn, which we sang at the beginning of our service, acknowledges the unknowability of God, while using a wide range of adjectives and images to describe the divine: most blessed, most glorious; unresting, unhasting; with justice like mountains high soaring above.

In seeking the broadest possible description of God, and address shifts in theology, the hymnal committee “identified words, phrases, and theological implications in hymns” to revise, retranslate, or eliminate in well-known hymns (Companion, 8). These words & phrases included those that emphasized the maleness and hierarchical power of God.  Singing a very familiar and beloved hymn with these kind of alterations can be jarring, as some of us experienced at Christmas. However, the hymnal committee was convinced that the way that we speak and sing about God should reflect what we believe. Perhaps they also considered how our singing shapes our belief, and the beliefs of those learning these songs for the first time.

The hymnal committee did not simply seek to eliminate what it found problematic, however. More than anything, it sought to diversity our imagery for God, to reflect in song the variety that already existed in the bible and beyond. In the words of the hymnal companion, it is  “a hymnal boldly committed to a spirit of inclusiveness. It welcomes and celebrates the diversity of all the people of God as surely as it confesses the mystery of diversity within God the Holy Trinity.” The preface to the hymnal proclaims: “One of the great gifts to our time is the spirit now moving among us calling us to affirm the fullness of God, the goodness of creation, and the value of every person. The search for language and metaphor to express that breadth and richness marks this book.”

Remarkably for the time, that breadth and richness included female imagery for God. Let’s sing together #467, Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth.

Now, you may be wondering, “Why is it appropriate to use female imagery for God?” After all, if we acknowledge that God is not male, and we try to avoid using too much male language for God, we must surely also know that God is not female. God is not a person; human gender does not apply to God. Yes. And, in an absence of gender indicators, we often allow our deep training, our subconscious bias, to go undisturbed. If hearing the name “she” for God surprises us, this is a helpful indicator that it is good for us to use it, among many other names, to loosen the hold of the male description that is embedded in our religious tradition.

There may be a better pronoun for God, however, if we need to use a pronoun at all; one that has emerged since the publishing of the New Century Hymnal. Many have suggested that “they” is the most appropriate pronoun for God. The singular “they” has become a popular option for those who find themselves outside our gender binary system. If we’re describing God, “they” has an additional layer of meaning as it reminds us of the three persons in our trinity.  “They,” then, might describe any mixture or absence of genders; it can suggest both unity and multiplicity. I’ve used this pronoun for God before; listen for it again later in the service.

But back to the music! The majority of the more unfamiliar language in this hymnal is not female.  It is often described instead as expansive, encouraging us to stretch our brains to grasp a bigger understanding of that “I am what I am, I will be who I will be.” One hymn that beautifully captures this is God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale, #32. Let’s sing it together.

Beloved: this hymnal represents change, and change can be hard. It is hard to accept alterations to things we already know and love. It is hard to learn to love entirely new things that disrupt our assumptions or stretch our imaginations. But this year-long exploration of hymns has taught me that hymns are always being revised, and new songs are always being written. In fact, there is a wonderful quote in the preface to our Pilgrim Hymnal that reads, “Each generation responds to the call of Christ in its own distinctive way. There is need for periodic revision of our hymnals.”

I give profound thanks for the folks who came together to make this book, and to the mysterious, unknowable God who inspired them. This hymnal was the first of its kind, as far as I know, anywhere in the world; certainly it broke ground here in the United States.  It has impacted the hymnals that came after it in other denominations, and it continues to challenge us, 25 years after its publication. It invites us to broaden our minds and hearts to more fully grasp the immeasurable, awe-inspiring force of Love at the center of our faith. Treasure your favorite names for God, whatever they are; and see if you can find some new ones, in the pages of this book.  Let’s sing together, Bring Many Names, #11.

Repeat the Sounding Joy

Luke 2:1-20

The story of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke is a story full of holy messengers and holy messages.

An angel visits a priest named Zechariah to announce the coming of a child named John, who will turn many people towards God. An angel visits a young woman named Mary to announce the coming of a child named Jesus, whose holiness and power will be greater than any who have come before.  Angels visits shepherds, bringing good news of great joy for all people, announcing the birth of a longed for Messiah, a baby who bears God within.

These holy messages of our Christmas story began spreading over two thousand years ago. Once a year, we gather to heed them again.  

We gather tonight to receive the holy messages of Christmas in scripture, and perhaps even more, in song. Hymns and Carols are such an important part of what it means to celebrate this feast. Perhaps the most famous Christmas Hymn is Joy to the World, this year celebrating its 300th anniversary.

Joy to the World was written by the prolific English hymn writer Isaac Watts. Watts draws on Psalm 98 and several other pieces of scripture to share his exuberant belief that through Jesus, God brings about righteousness and equity in the world.  This is such good news, that he encourages all of creation to break into song. Let heaven and nature sing! Let fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains, repeat the sounding joy!

Set later to a tune that echoes Handel’s Messiah, this hymn returns each year to proclaim: Joy to the world! The Lord is come!

We gather tonight to receive holy messages in scripture and in song. What will we make of them? These messages are very familiar to some of us; but familiar or not, they are quite strange.  How could the birth of one baby, or even two, change the world so very much? How could the presence and person of Jesus somehow liberate us from all that is evil? If these events so long ago were really so momentous, wouldn’t things be different today?

For, of course, though we are all cleaned up for the holiday, there are some here among us tonight who are bearing great loss or pain. There are so many with unmet needs around us. Every nation and culture and community on this earth struggles to live in justice and peace.  Creation itself is groaning due to the destructive acts of humankind. Where is the righteousness and equity in our world today? Where is the joy? Where is our God?

We may long for a quick fix Christmas, for s sudden holy intervention, setting everything aright. But Christmas has never been about a quick fix.  Contrary to what we often pretend, Christmas is not about “be cheerful, no matter what” or “pull up your bootstraps” or “just pretend that everything is fine,” either. Instead, on this holiday, on this night, we gather to ponder the mystery of how holiness can dwell even in humanity; how hope can coexist with oppression and pain; how good can slowly emerge even in the most difficult circumstances. 

When those first holy messages of Christmas arrived, the human recipients didn’t jump for joy.  Zechariah, Mary, and the Shepherds all reacted with uncertainty at first, if not terror.  The invitation to holy hope in the midst of our everyday realities can be scary. It is only with time, with companionship, with prayer, that those the angels visit begin to trust in the holy messages they have received, and then share them with others.

Perhaps it is as if a great, beautiful bell was struck all those years ago, on that night when angels were thick in the air; when a baby was born to Mary by the Holy Spirit; when that baby was wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger.  A great, beautiful bell was struck, to drive out fear, and to offer hope, and to make way for change. The vibrations of this bell hummed in the hearts of those around the manger in Bethlehem. The tremors were so great, the rumbling even reached people in far distant places. 

The echo of that first bell is dim, now, but also pervasive, diversified. So many have received and shared its sound, again and again, over time and through space, that it shimmers around us now in wondrous harmonies.  If we open our hearts to prepare Christ room, we may find that it begins to pulse with sounding joy; with the whisper that Love is real and present among us; with the murmur that a different way of life is possible.

We are here to receive holy messages tonight, and We, too, can be holy messengers; instruments in the great orchestra of God’s creation; part of the praise band; part of the bell choir. Tonight, may the clarion call of God’s wondrous love born into this everyday world reverberate in you, driving out fear and despair, making room for healing and hope. Perhaps, in time, we will each find a way to join in the chorus, to magnify the message, to swell the song that bursts into our broken world again tonight, proclaiming glory and peace. May it be so.

A Visit with the Holy Family

  • December 23, 2019

Psalm 80:1-3

How shall we receive the Holy family as they come into our midst this week? The brief lines of their biblical stories have been layered over by so much art, so many hymns, so much tradition, that we may forget what is actually written there.  The story that we think we know has become so familiar, it may not feel like something that could touch and change our lives today.

But we long now, as folks have longed for generation upon generation, for God to come close to us, and to change our world.  The psalmist cries: “Stir up your might, and come to save us!… Let your face shine, that we may be saved.” Christians are invited to find God’s response to this longing in the events of this week.  Let us make our hearts ready to receive God, shining and saving, arriving in the form of a human child.

Luke 1:26-38

We know very little about Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus: but that hasn’t stopped us from celebrating her.  There are so few women with names in scripture; so few who speak; so few who are portrayed as taking an active role in making way for God’s work on earth.  And so, Mary has become in our traditions almost everything we can imagine a woman to be, and particularly those things that our cultures have desired women to be, even when that contradicts the biblical record.

Mary is almost always portrayed as beautiful, though the scriptures make no reference to her appearance. Mary is, all too frequently, portrayed as white, when we know her skin must have been some shade of beautiful brown.  Mary is cherished as an example of a strict sense of morality; though she would have been, at the time, a great scandal: an unwed teenage mother.  Mary is treasured as an example of female docility, meek and mild; when her brief appearances in scripture point to instead to bravery. Mary talks with an angel; she agrees to take on an overwhelming task of being the mother of God; she survives brutal gossip. According to one gospel, Mary travels while pregnant, and gives birth in a stable, all because of the dictates of colonial bureaucracy. According to another gospel, Mary travels post-partum with an infant, and becomes a refugee in Egypt, in order to escape the brutal violence of a tyrant.  Mary raises a son who leaves his family to become a traveling preacher, risking his life in open defiance of political and religious authorities. She accompanies her son through his execution.

Mary’s story is not glamorous.  I can’t imagine that she could have survived it without deep faith and unbelievable courage.  But perhaps the best proof of Mary’s character we get in scripture is in her longest speech, proclaimed to her cousin, Elizabeth. This outpouring of faith is known as the Magnificat because it begins, I magnify the Lord.  The words of the Magnificat are truly revolutionary; and that is beautifully captured in the version of it made by Rory Cooney; let’s sing together, the Canticle of the Turning.

Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph is the neglected member of the holy family. We hardly remember he was there. When we set up our nativity sets, he’s usually somewhere in the back, holding a staff, looking solemn. There’s only one hymn in our hymnal that has much to do with him; that’s the one we’re singing.

But Joseph, like Mary, must have been a remarkable person. He is visited by an angel in a dream, and decides to believe that holy message, and marry an already pregnant woman, despite the scandal.  He has an incredible lineage, including King David and traceable all the way back to Abraham and Sarah.  We can only imagine that he must have been proud of that.  Still, he accepts that his firstborn son will be adopted: that love is more important than genealogy.  Joseph goes on those same journeys as Mary, supporting her, pregnant on the way to Bethlehem; supporting her and the child Jesus on the way to Egypt, and back again.  And in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is the one who receives all the angelic visits and instructions: the one charged by God to keep this little family safe.  Like Mary, Joseph does not really fulfill his stereotype as a perfectly “traditional” dad.  He is something better, a partner and parent who is brave, flexible, self-sacrificing.

Let’s sing together, Gentle Joseph, Joseph Dear.

Isaiah 7:10-15

When we try to imagine who Jesus is, we often turn to the Hebrew Scriptures.  This is strange, of course, because we share the Hebrew Scriptures with many who do not understand Jesus as the realizations of Hebrew Scriptures depictions of a coming king, a suffering servant, a sign for the nations, Emmanuel, God-with-us.

But the gospels do not tell us what Jesus was like, especially as a child.  A hymn assures us that “no crying he made” but really, Jesus could have had colic, or been one of those babies that just had to be held and jiggled all day. Did Jesus get diaper rash?  Was he fussy about eating, prone to spitting up? Was he a toddler full of laughter, or maybe, instead, an old soul with a deep seriousness only certain two-year-olds can muster?

We know more about Jesus as an adult, but even then, he’s still a bit of a mystery.  We don’t know much about what he looked like. We don’t know whether he had a romantic partner – plenty of commentary on that one, especially in popular culture, but no real answers. We get only tiny glimpses from the gospel of how Jesus felt, or what he needed. We are witnesses of Jesus’ public face: his wisdom, his stories, his questions, his final public protest and execution.

But Jesus was human, as well as divine. He was, once, a child: born poor in a little village, in somewhat questionable circumstances, in dangerous times.  He was loved and cared for, and grew up brave: ready to bring the best of himself out into a complicated world, and let it shine.  He was God, with flesh on; God among us, knowing human life and death: God with us, our Emmanuel.

Let’s sing Born, in the night, Mary’s Child, giving thanks for God’s gift of Jesus.

Singing Our Faith, Part 4

An image of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth from the community of Taize.

This year we have been taking one Sunday of each month to explore the music we sing together.  So far it’s been an extremely condensed historical survey, considering the Hebrew psalms, ancient Christian canticles, and the birth of hymnody as we know it during the Protestant Reformation.  In the years that followed the Reformation, more and more folks embraced its musical impetus. Congregations around the world sang in their native languages, with music that fit their cultures, and that was easy to sing all together.  We could spend a lot of time exploring all this music. But today, I invite you to jump another 500 years or so, to the mid-20th century, to another era of great religious, political, and musical change.

As nations faced the consequences of first one, and then two world wars, Christians of many denominations and nationalities became impatient with the divisions among them. There was a desire for unity and common mission in a broken world.  At the same time, many Christians began to feel dissatisfied with their modes of worship. Much of Catholic worship was, for some, too antiquated and formalized, disconnected from modern people and from everyday life. Much of Protestant worship was, for some, too prosaic and intellectual, disconnected from the senses, from ritual, from a sense of holy mystery. The division of the Western Church in the Reformation had led both Catholic and Protestant branches to dismiss those forms of worship that they characterized as belonging to the other. But now, after a break of about 500 years, they were curious about each other’s gifts, and about the gifts of even more ancient Christian worship, their common ancestor.

In the midst of all of this came the second Vatican council, or Vatican II.  This international conference of the Catholic church, held in several sessions during the years 1962-1965, marked a major shift in Catholic practice. For the first time, the mass could be held in the vernacular, not only in Latin.  There was greater openness to lay leadership and ecumenical partnership. A few women were invited to attend the conference – a small gesture, but a significant one.  Most relevant for our discussion today, this Council called on church musicians to adapt Latin hymns into vernacular languages, compose new texts and melodies, and create church music with contemporary musical styles.  This call generated the folk music still used in many Catholic settings, some of which has crossed over into Protestant use as well.

The opening of Catholic tradition to Protestant collaboration led to extraordinary developments.  A shared lectionary was designed, with readings for each Sunday of the church year, for use in Catholic settings as well as many Protestant ones.  New conversations revealed that we don’t disagree as much about the sacraments as we thought we did.  Denominations began to recognize each other’s processes of ordination and baptism. Christians across denomination began to explore the importance of worship space, sacred seasons, and the order of worship.

These innovations happened in local congregations, and at seminaries, and in denominational bodies. There were particular storms of creativity in special Christian communities around the world that don’t fit into any of these categories.  Today we’re sampling musical gifts from three of those special communities: the Iona Community in Scotland, the Taize Community in France, and Holden Village, a retreat center in Washington State.  All three have cultivated the development of innovative forms of music and prayer which reflect a fascinating mix of denominational, historical, and geographical influences.

We started worship today with a hymn from Iona (Who Would Thank That What Was Needed).  This community was founded in 1938 by a pastor in the Scottish Reform tradition.  The Iona Community is famous for its retreat center on Iona Island, but also for its publishing house, Wild Goose Publications, as well as one of its most prominent musicians, John Bell.  Through the generosity of Helen Sayles, we were able to host John Bell here several years ago. We sing music from this community throughout the year, such as: Halle, Halle, Halle; Cloth for the Cradle; and The Summons.  Iona has become a center for musical renewal in the church. Its music includes unexpectedly modern language set to traditional tunes from Scotland and the British Isles, as well as short worship songs gathered from around the world.

The Taize community in France was founded just two years later than Iona, in 1940, by a Catholic man who became known as Brother Roger. This community welcomed refugees during World War II and offered hospitality to orphans after it was over. Taize has become an interdenominational Christian monastic community of men which has a particular calling to nurture spiritual growth in youth and young adults, who often make pilgrimage there. Their worship style includes periods of silence and simple, evocative prayers, as well as repetitive chants, set to music. Much of Taize music was written by one brother, Jacques Berthier.  Both the brothers of Taize, and their worship style, have travelled around the world and blessed many other communities. Let’s sing together a chant from Taize, In the Lord I’ll be Ever Thankful. (Here’s a video for those who weren’t there to experience this!)

The third community I mentioned, Holden Village, is by far the most recent, and least well known of the three. It was founded in the 1960s, and is rooted in the Lutheran tradition.  I mention it not only because I went there last summer, but because it has developed music and worship that is similar, yet distinct, from the other two communities; right here in the United States. The most well-known of its musicians is Marty Haugen, a Lutheran who grew up to join the UCC and who also composes for Catholic congregations.  Marty Haugen writes hymns, call-and-response litanies, and full mass settings, as well as the evening prayer setting that we are using pieces of throughout our worship in Advent. We’ll sing another one of his pieces together, in a moment.

But first, I want to take a moment to reflect on the significance of the shifts in sacred musical development that these three communities and their artists represent.  I find in this music, and the theology of worship that undergirds it, a weaving together of head and heart, of ancient and new, of high and low liturgical styles, with a profound emphasis on accessibility and participation.  This is music whose DNA and whose goal is a unification of Christians with one another, with our common history, with our common faith, and with God herself. I give thanks for this music, and all those who have made and shared it with us, and to the God who inspired it.

Let’s sing, then, a piece from Marty Haugen. This is a version of the O Antiphons, the calling of many names of Jesus, to come among us, in this season of Advent.