Posted in Sermons

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

Solomon’s Request

1 Kings 3:5-28

This summer we are exploring dreams and visions of the bible. Last week we spent some time with Jacob, who had a dream of God’s abundant blessing as he set out on the trip of a lifetime. Today it is Solomon who receives an extraordinary message from God in a dream.

You may remember Solomon as the third king of Israel, the son of the great king David.  Solomon is not David’s oldest son, and yet he receives David’s blessing to succeed him on the throne. David says to Solomon: ‘I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, be courageous, and keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in God’s ways and keeping God’s statutes… so that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn.”  After a brief succession dispute, Solomon takes over David’s reign. Then he makes a thousand burnt offerings to God at the altar at Gideon.

It is at Gideon that God appears to Solomon in a dream, saying, “Ask what I should give you.” God is offering to give Solomon anything!  I wonder what each of us would ask for. Solomon responds very carefully, very diplomatically. He praises God’s steadfast love and proclaims his own humility before finally saying: “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”

It takes a lot to impress God; but Solomon does it. When he could ask for anything, Solomon asks for wisdom! God promises to delivery not only the wisdom Solomon has asked for, but also wealth and honor and a long life.

We could have ended the reading there.  But I could not resist continuing to the next part of the story, where we get to observe Solomon’s newfound wisdom in action. This part of the story has become famous, though I had forgotten some of the details.

Two women come to Solomon with a terrible situation. Both gave birth to a child, and one of the children has died. Now both claim that the living child belongs to them. How could even a wise King decide who is right? All Solomon has to go on is the witness of two people who disagree.

Solomon gets creative. He calls for a sword and declares that they will divide the living child in half to solve the argument. We have to hope, here, that Solomon is bluffing. Thankfully, his threat works. One of the women protests, saying she would rather have the other woman take the child, than see him perish.  That woman who protests, Solomon says, is the true mother of the child: the one who could not bear to see him harmed. And the people stood in awe of Solomon, the scriptures say: “because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice.”

In the past few weeks the attention of our country has turned again to the plight of people seeking refuge within our borders.  Leaders in our government – many of them claiming a Christian faith – have failed to show compassion for those who travel here.  Security is being tightened against people who are desperate for bread or safety. Water is being denied to people who are thirsty in the desert; providing water has even become a crime.  Medical care is being withheld from people in need of it. Children are being separated from their parents. People of all ages are being detained, imprisoned, held in inhumane conditions.

How would an understanding mind govern such a situation?  How would a discerning heart measure the good and evil at work? What might the wisdom of God lead us to, in this instance?

In some cases, it is difficult to find guidance on modern issues in our ancient scriptures. This is not one of those cases.  I have mentioned before the unequivocal biblical witness on this issue: how Moses and Jesus speak with one voice about our responsibility to those who are travelers, strangers, refugees. And these teachings are simply an expansion of the most central guidelines of our faith: to love God, and our neighbor as ourselves.

What’s more, how can we, as a people, as a nation, take any child that is not ours, and then offer them callous disregard; emotional and physical abuse? Children belong where and with whom they will be cherished. Children of God of all ages must have at least their basic needs met, if we desire to honor God and one another.

Most of us have not been promised a special gift of wisdom from the Holy One, as Solomon was. But all of us have the capacity to seek God’s wisdom: from the scriptures, from discernment in faithful community, from searching deep inside ourselves.  Unfortunately, this discernment is not always a top priority.

It is so much easier and more socially acceptable to ask what is expedient, what is pleasurable, what is profitable, what protects us, what brings us power.  And yet, for big decisions: personal and political: perhaps the first question we should always ask is: What would God’s wisdom be about this?  When we ask this question, we may not come up with a clear answer, or with God’s answer; our discernment is imperfect. Still, just asking the question can change everything.

I am deeply grateful for all the faithful and skilled people already doing their very best for those children of God on our borders, and within our facilities. If you feel moved to offer support, there are many avenues for that, including donations for bail money or humanitarian relief, local demonstrations at detainment facilities, volunteering with the Metrowest Immigrant Solidarity Network, or contacting your elected officials.  I have a handout here this morning with some resources and ideas of how we can support and amplify what is already in process.

For now, please pray with me: Holy God, you have shown steadfast love to our ancestors, and to us. In the face of our weighty responsibilities, and our complicated world, we still often feel that we are like small children, uncertain how to go out or come in. Grant us, your servants, the humility to ask in all difficulties what you would desire; what you would do; how you would decide. May a sense of your wisdom guide us, and all your people, that your justice may be done in our nation, and throughout creation. Amen.

Jacob’s Ladder

Genesis 28:10-22

This summer we’re exploring dreams and visions in the Bible. There are a lot of them! Some are so familiar to us that they may no longer seem remarkable, like when an angel comes to Joseph to tell him to go ahead and become Mary’s husband. Others are more unfamiliar, like the story of Balaam and the donkey that many folks heard for the very first time this past Advent. Some are quite fantastic, like the strange visions from the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation.

Of the 21 dreams in the bible, 10 of them happen in the book of Genesis. Joseph, the one with the special coat, has 6 of these dreams, the most on record. Jacob, who we hear about today, has two, along with several other close encounters with God.

In the story today, Jacob has recently cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and their father’s blessing. Now he needs to get out of town for a while, at least until Esau’s anger has cooled.  So, Jacob’s mother Rebecca comes up with a plan to send him off to find a wife. Jacob’s father Isaac agrees, and tells Jacob to trace back the path that Abraham took, and to find a wife from the family of his uncle Laban, in Haran. Isaac says to Jacob: “May God bless you and make you fruitful and numerous; may Laban give the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring.”

While he is on the road, on the run from his brother, Jacob stops for the night in the middle of nowhere. He is all alone, with only a stone on which to lay his head.  Still, he falls asleep. And then, in that place of desolation, Jacob has an amazing dream. He dreams that there is a ladder stretching next to him from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending upon it. And God themselves stands beside Jacob and speaks words of promise similar to those offered to Abraham: promises of land, and offspring that will fill the earth, and bless it. And God says to Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”

What an incredible dream. What an amazing promise. But Jacob isn’t sure what to do with it. Why would God send angels to him, and come to be by his side? Why would God promise land, descendants, and companionship, to someone like him, who has stolen most of what he has? Why would God offer anything to anyone, for nothing in return?

Jacob is afraid. He blesses the place, and makes a vow: “God, if you will be with me, keep me safe and well until I reach home again, then you will be my God, and this will be your house, and I will give one tenth of all I have to you.”  You made me an offer, God, Jacob says. But surely you forgot to lay out all of the terms.  Here’s what I’ll do, if you follow through.

As it turns out, Jacob’s trip isn’t a short one, as he and his mother hoped. He ends up staying away from home for 20 years, serving his uncle Laban and acquiring wives and children and livestock. It’s a fascinating story; open up your bible at home and take a look. It’s on the way back homewards, twenty years later, that Jacob famously wrestles with an angel. It’s twenty years later that Jacob finally makes peace with his brother Esau.  And, as it turns out, during the incredible length of Jacob’s journey, God keeps their promise to him.

Last week, Louise shared her personal story with us so beautifully: a story of receiving holy messages. Most of us are more hesitant to share stories about our closest encounters with God. My guess is that many of us here have seen visions, dreamed dreams, heard voices from deep within, met one of God’s unexpected messengers, or simply felt overcome by awe or love or joy or comfort. Some powerful experience has compelled us to gather around the word of God, to worship, to join in sacred community, to seek God in and with one another here.

But it’s easy to think that we may be somehow mistaken in what we experienced, as Jacob does.  Surely God wouldn’t come to us in such strange, unexpected ways. Surely God wouldn’t come to us, faulty as we are. Surely God wouldn’t share love so generously with us, without expecting something in return.  Maybe we misunderstood what really happened. Maybe it was all some outlandish delusion.

And yet, this is what our holy texts teach us: God comes to us in all kinds of strange and unexpected ways. God comes to deeply flawed people. God comes with a generosity that we often find hard to fathom. God comes to us, and stays with us, and loves us abundantly. And if we allow it, God’s generosity can change us.

Jacob changed. At least a little. When he finally nears home, fearing his reunion with Esau, Jacob says:

“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number’” (Genesis 32:9-12).

Instead of fear in God, Jacob has moved to humility and gratitude. Instead of bargaining with God, Jacob is trying to trust. Maybe there is hope for the rest of us, too.

O God, who are we, that we should witness your glory, or receive your love? Still you come to us, in dreams and visions, in messages and messengers, in Christ and in one another. Wherever we are in out journey, whatever desolate places we lay our head, may we open our hearts to receive you, and may we be changed by your generous grace. Amen.

Vision of Peace

Revelation 2:10, 22-25

Who will we remember on this Memorial Day weekend?

This holiday, of course, is for the recognition of those who have died while in service in our American armed forces.  It is important to remember them.  Perhaps you have a particular person, or many, in mind. It is too easy for those of us without a personal loss to forget how grave a risk we ask of our fellow citizens and their families.  And so we will remember in our prayers today, those who have died in service, including the names of those written on the plaque in North Hall.

We remember those who have died in service. And, I wonder if we might remember others, too.  There are so many others who die within our country due to violence.  Victims of gun violence who have died in schools and at concerts and in places of worship. Victims of violent prejudice, who are killed because of the color of their skin, the language they speak, the religion they practice, their sexuality or gender expression.  Victims of violent policies who have died crossing our borders or for lack of sufficient healthcare or by capital punishment.  The list is sadly very long; I have not gotten to the end of it. We live in a society that uses violence not only on those outside of our borders, but also against one another.

Our scriptures hold mixed messages when it comes to war and violence.  On one hand, they are honest that violence is often a reality between people and nations.  Within our scriptures, people call out to God for help in time of war, for assistance in victory. At the same time, both our Hebrew and Greek scriptures hold the sanctity of human life as one of their highest values. The ten commandments tell us: you shall not kill. The great commandment tells us: love your neighbor as yourself. Both Moses and Jesus tell us to love the strangers in our midst. Jesus says: love even your enemies.

To add to this witness, we have the gift of the vision from the book of Revelations that we hear today. The book of Revelation is a book full of visions, received by a mysterious figure sometimes called John of Patmos. Folks disagree about whether this amazing book is about the past, the present, or the future. The end of the book, part of which we hear today, describes a new heaven and a new earth: a new reality in which God’s ways are fully realized.

In this vision, there’s no need for a designated place of worship; God herself is the temple.  There’s no need for a sun or a moon; God themselves is the light.  The gate of the city is never shut: there’s an open door policy. In the middle of the city, a river of life flows, and there is a tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. In this place, fruit is plentiful and each person is precious. God’s name is on everyone’s forehead.

What would it be like, to live in a place like that?

Some people live like they’re already in that place; as if they’re already a part of that vision. Maybe you have met someone like that. I thought again about Jean Vanier, who I mentioned when he died a few weeks ago. A little more about him today.

Jean was a man of privilege, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. In 1964, he gave up that prestigious job and bought a small, rundown house without plumbing or electricity in a village north of Paris. Jean invited two men named Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux to share the house with him. Both of these men had been living in an asylum and did not have family support.  Jean believed they needed friendship more than anything else; and so together they shopped, cooked, and washed up. It was the beginning of something much larger, communities for those with intellectual disabilities to live alongside those without them, all around the world.

One friend wrote, “The extraordinary thing [about Jean] is his capacity for attention, his concentration on whoever is with him… and his ability to draw out their best qualities, to show them that they are valuable and have gifts to give to others … This is the healing quality that makes it possible for people to receive peace from him, and so become peacemakers.” (Frances Young)

In his own words, Jean tells us: “Until we realize that we belong to a common humanity, that we need each other, that we can help each other, we will continue to hide behind feelings of elitism and superiority and behind the walls of prejudice, judgement, and disdain that those feelings engender.  Each human being, however small or weak, has something to bring to humanity. As we start to really get to know others, as we begin to listen to each other’s stories, things begin to change. We no longer judge each other according to concepts of power and knowledge or according to group identity, but according to these personal, heart-to-heart encounters. We begin the movement from exclusion to inclusion, from fear to trust, from closedness to openness, from judgement and prejudice to forgiveness and understanding. It is a movement of the heart. We begin to see each other as brothers and sisters in humanity. We are no longer governed by fear but by the heart …Is this a utopian vision? If it is lived at the grassroots level, in families, communities, and other places of belonging, this vision can gradually permeate our societies and humanize them.”

Who will we remember this Memorial Day weekend? And what would a fitting memorial be for them?

Let us receive the vision from Revelation as a gift this morning, and as an invitation. Perhaps we already live in God’s city; or perhaps, by imagining that we do, we can make it so.  The creation of peace begins small, person-to-person. It begins with simple things like attention, curiosity, vulnerability.  We can all be a part of it.

Please pray with me. Loving God, may no one of your precious children go unknown, unloved, unmourned. Teach us again and again how to practice peace with one another. Grant us patience and perseverance, until we can recognize your name on the foreheads of neighbors, and strangers, and even enemies. Amen.

Taking on Discipleship

  • May 14, 2019
    Image from the Roman catacombs

    John 21:1-19

    In John’s Gospel, the resurrected Jesus just keeps showing up.

    First, Jesus shows up for Mary Magdalene – the first receiver of the good news of the resurrection. Jesus calls Mary by name and tells her: do not hold on to me. Go, tell everyone: I am rising.

    Next, Jesus shows up for ten of the disciples, making his way through a locked door. Jesus shows the disciples his wounds, and says: Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I send you.

    A week later, Jesus is back with the disciples in the locked room again. This time, Thomas is there to see and touch him. And Jesus talks to the disciples all about all the folks who are going to come to believe in him, without having seen him.

    Finally, in today’s text, Jesus shows up catching fish and serving breakfast. Three times, Jesus asks Simon Peter: do you love me? When Simon Peter says yes, Jesus replies: Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

    What is Jesus up to, in these post-resurrection visits? Why does he keep showing up? What is he hoping to achieve?

    Of all these stories, Jesus’ visit to Mary Magdalene is the shortest and most straightforward. He offers her comfort, and then says: Go, tell everyone: I am rising. And she does. Mary Magdalene goes right away to tell the disciples this news, and then begins to tell lots of other folks. Many sources tell us that Mary Magdalene was not only the first evangelist, but one of the greatest, travelling far and wide to speak to the humble and the great about Jesus.

    Jesus’ visits to the disciples, however, don’t seem quite as productive. During his first visit, Jesus says: as God has sent me, so I send you. But the disciples apparently refuse to be sent. A week later, he finds them still in that same locked room.  During this second visit, Jesus talks about all the people who will come to trust in him without ever seeing his wounds. But the disciples aren’t eager to take the hint and go out evangelizing. When Jesus appears for the third time, they’ve gone back to their old profession: fishing.

    So, in this morning’s story, Jesus pulls out all the stops. This carpenter from a landlocked city gets the attention of his disciples by giving them unbelievable fishing advice. They catch so many fish they cannot haul them all in.  Jesus reveals himself as a skilled chef and host, preparing the disciples an amazing breakfast, timed perfectly for their arrival on the beach. Finally, Jesus turns his focus on Simon Peter, perhaps his most enthusiastic follower. This time around, Jesus tries to make himself perfectly clear. Three times, Jesus asks: Do you love me? Three times, Jesus says: If you love me, feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Peter, Jesus says: put down your net, and go out and start taking care of my people.

    The post-resurrection Jesus, it turns out, is quite similar to the pre-resurrection Jesus. Jesus shows up among the people. Jesus shows up with love. And Jesus shows up with an invitation: go out and do something with what you receive from me! Spread the good news about God’s love. Respond to God’s love, by loving one another.

    Somehow, it’s not immediately obvious to the disciples that they’re supposed to do something after the rising of Jesus. This season of Easter is a long, awkward transition for them between following the living Jesus, and getting their act together to begin the church. It may seem clear to us, now, that the disciples were supposed to do something with all they learned from Jesus, and with the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. But most of us struggle with the same things that they did.

    How do we trust and love God deeply enough to do something about it? And what, exactly, are we supposed to be doing? How do we share the good news? How do we love our neighbors as ourselves? How are we personally called to do it today, if we can find the courage to try?

    Jesus shows up from beyond the grave to give advice on this in our scriptures.  And this week, two more of Jesus’ followers passed into the realm of the saints who have an awful lot to offer us as well: wisdom about how to follow Jesus here and now.

    One of them is a young woman named Rachel Held Evans. She was just 37; let’s pray for her family, especially her spouse, Dan, and her two young children. Rachel grew up in an evangelical Christian church. She loved and challenged her tradition, and finally left it to join an Episcopal church. All along the way shared her wisdom, mostly in writing. She leaves behind her several books that we can read. Rachel tells us: “The folks you’re shutting out of the church will be leading it tomorrow. That’s how the spirit works. The future’s on the margins.” Rachel tells us, “I thought God wanted to use me to show gay people how to be straight. Instead, God wanted to use gay people to teach me how to be a Christian.”

    The other leader on my heart who died this past week is Jean Vanier, a theologian and philosopher who founded L’Arche. L’Arche is an international network of residences for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. Thanks to Melissa, we’ve built a local relationship with a L’Arche community; we’ve invited them to some of our Sunday Fellowship dances. I’m grateful that Jean got to live a good long life. Jean tells us: “I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.” Jean tells us, “Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.”

    There are so many voices, ancient and new, which have guidance for us about how to go about this mysterious work of discipleship. We are not alone in our discernment. And within this organization of West Concord Union Church, we have another resource to listen to.

    Twenty years ago, in a very different time, but with a few of the same people, this church affirmed an Open and Affirming covenant, expressing our desire to fully welcome a whole variety of people. This covenant includes people of all genders and sexual orientations, which is what the designation “Open and Affirming” is known for within our denomination.  That was controversial enough, at that time. It was a difficult process for this church. And – the statement doesn’t stop there. More than fifteen years before the statement was written, this church had begun explicitly welcoming folks of all abilities, so that is in the statement, too. Also included: age, race, socio-economic status, family configuration, and ethnicity.

    Our Open and Affirming Covenant sets lofty goals. It also expresses the necessity for learning and growth to reach them: and we’re still not there, 20 years later.  We’re still working on becoming more Christ-like in our love for one another. But this is no surprise. The work of love, the work of discipleship, is work we do day by day, imperfectly, and beautifully. The trick is to remember our intention, and to try again.

    Let us rededicate ourselves to this covenant, and to the daily work of discipleship, by affirming these words now together. I invite you to rise, in body and spirit.  Take a deep breath, really let these words enter your heart.

    Our Open and Affirming Covenant (May 2, 1999)

    We, the members of the West Concord Union Church, are called to love one another as God loves us, freely and unconditionally. We further believe that diversity enriches our faith community.

    Therefore, we welcome persons of any age, gender, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, ethnicity and physical or mental ability into full membership and participation in the body of Christ. We celebrate family in all its diverse forms and honor, support, and bless all loving and committed relationships. As we are one in Christ, we are called to accept and respect one another in the face of our differences. We agree that continued dialogue is necessary as we each grow in learning and understanding.

    We commit ourselves to work diligently to end all oppression and discrimination which afflicts God’s people in our society. We seek to explore new ways of affirming our faith in community according to the wisdom of the Gospel. We strive, as individuals, to become more Christ-like in our love for one another.

    Amen.

    Mother Tree

    Luke 24:1-12

    The women get up before dawn on that Sunday morning to carry spices to the tomb. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. Their eyes are swollen. Their step sare slow. Their hearts are heavy.  For Jesus, their friend, so full of holy grace, was tragically killed.  But they get up anyway. His body must be tended to.

    The women get up before dawn to carry on, but their grief is interrupted. When they arrive at the tomb, they see that the stone is rolled away. When they go into the tomb, they find it empty. Then two strange, dazzling figures appear, asking: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Jesus is not here, but has risen.”

    What does this mean: Jesus has risen?  All kinds of wise people have wondered about this. Did Jesus’ body really rise? If so, was he some kind of zombie?  Was it simply Jesus’ spirit that rose? If so, was he some kind of ghost? Is Jesus’ rising a metaphor, or a miracle? Or is it, possibly, a terrible hoax?

    If you have questions about the rising of Jesus: fantastic. Wondering over our sacred stories and interrogating God herself is good and holy work. Asking and doubting will only bring us deeper, and God can take it. I hope you have lots of questions about the rising of Jesus, and let me suggest one in particular: what does it mean? What does this rising that is at the center of our Christian story tell us about God?

    It’s a big question. Maybe it will help if we shift for a moment away from Jesus, and talk about plants instead. We’ve been talking a lot about plants this season. We’ve been nurturing our spirits as if they were thirsty seedlings. We’ve been rooting actual plant cuttings in water. On Thursday some among us planted our cuttings in soil, and helped to make the flower gardens of paper and fabric that are all around us.

    Plants have a lot to teach us about dying and rising. At this time of year in New England, we can see new life poking up out of the ground everywhere. But the story I want to share today has to do, not with that kind of plant, but with trees.

    At the University of British Columbia there is a Professor of Forest Ecology named Suzanne Simard. After growing up in a family of loggers, and going to forestry school, Dr. Simard became fascinated with what happens in forests, underground. So, she devised a series of experiments to try to find out if trees were somehow connected beneath our feet.  Lots of people thought this idea was ridiculous.

    But Dr. Simard did her research, and as it turns out, trees are connected. Not just parent trees and their children; not just trees of the same species; all kinds of different trees. All kinds of different trees are connected, and not just to one or two other trees. One tree might be connected underground to 47 other trees.

    These underground tree connections aren’t composed of roots. Instead, they’re made of mycelium: fungal tubes that infiltrate the soil and the roots. The mycelium network allows trees to pass things to each other. Trees share water. Trees share minerals. Trees share hormones. Resources and information pass from tree to tree to tree to tree, back and forth, around and around.

    Trees share with each other. They form communities and support each other. And each community is anchored by a few individuals who are particularly well connected. These are called “hub trees” or, more affectionately, “mother trees.”

    And here’s the thing that completely blows my mind. When trees near the end of their life, they change the way that they share.  But instead of becoming more isolated, separating themselves; or more dependent, relying on others; they become more generous. Sensing that they will not survive, these trees send their resources out to strengthen the trees around them. While they are dying, they give others life.

    Imagine Jesus as a Mother Tree. In his 33 short years, he has become connected to so many people. His disciples, his followers, everyone who he heals, everyone who is changed by his words.  Jesus is a Mother Tree, deeply and widely connected.

    Jesus is a Mother Tree, and his life is about to end. And his reaction to this is to give of himself even more generously than he has before. Jesus passes on teachings: “love one another.” Jesus passes on practices: the sharing of bread and cup.  Jesus passes on forgiveness, even to the people who condemn and torture him. Jesus passes on promises. Jesus shares so much that the tragedy of his death becomes more than simply a tragedy.

    Jesus rises: his body, his spirit, and his love. Jesus rises within the lives of the people around him. They are so filled up with the love they receive from him that many of them become Mother Trees themselves: reaching out deep and wide. It starts with Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James spreading the good news; and then Peter joins in; and then everyone else who eventually learns to trust the women. They spread the word about Jesus, who he is, what he teaches, and that he is still with us. Jesus is risen, they say, Jesus is rising. The good news passes on from person to person to person to person, across centuries and continents, until it reaches all the people who brought us here, this morning.

    The women rise that morning in grief. We, too, have much to grieve. And we also have the good news of Jesus’ rising, and the electric connection of love that still tingles in the air, more than two thousand years later: a surge that swells in our hearts, a gift from the great network of givers of good news.

    Through the grace and power of God, no life is simply extinguished, forgotten, discarded. No tragedy is left untouched by grace.  Instead, there is life even in the midst of death; hope even in the midst of despair; love, stronger and more persistent than the grave.  We are some of the very great many who have the privilege of receiving this good news, and we have the opportunity also to pass it on. I hope you will.

    Palm Sunday Introduction

    • April 16, 2019

    This day begins with celebration. After years of teaching and healing, of gathering up disciples and traveling around the region, Jesus makes his way towards Jerusalem. His followers and the crowds in Jerusalem are filled with joy and anticipation, praising God.

    Why are these folks celebrating? What do they anticipate? Perhaps they expect that Jesus will transform the religious institutions of Jerusalem, becoming the new high priest, bringing new energy and inspiration to the faith. Perhaps they expect that Jesus will overthrow Roman rule and become the new King of the Jews, bringing justice to the poor and the oppressed. Such an amazing, spirit-filled leader as Jesus must be destined for some kind of greatness, once he enters into a place of power.

    But, as we know, this is not what happens. Just like always, Jesus surprises us. Jesus knows that bringing his witness of the truth of God up against the powers that be isn’t likely to result in any kind of human victory.  Authority resists challenge and change. Supremacy pushes back against revolution, whether spiritual or political. During Holy Week, we watch as person after person, system after system, fails to affirm or protect Jesus.

    We may wish that our faith was centered around a different kind of story. A story in which God wins, without any tragedy along the way. But listen for the beauty in this story, the power in this story.  Because if love survived evil back then, it could survive evil now.  If God was with the humble and the broken then, perhaps she is with us, with them, even now. This is a story of great promise exactly because it deals with the most difficult and painful aspects of human life.

    So let us listen now, to pieces of this sacred story as it is told in the Gospel of Luke. Instead of triumph, we will hear about controversy, conflict, uncertainty, betrayal, injustice, execution, and grief. Breathe deep, and enter in; there is yet good news, before this story ends.

    Having it All

    Genesis 37-47

    Joseph has it all. He’s part of a big family, with plenty of siblings to play with: eleven brothers and one sometimes ignored sister.  Joseph’s family is prosperous, he has plenty to eat, and plenty of everything else he needs. Joseph is also rich in love. He’s precious to his mother, Rachel, and he’s his father Jacob’s favorite child. As a sign of his favor, Jacob gives Joseph a beautiful coat, a special robe.

    How do Joseph’s siblings feel, when they notice how Jacob favors him, and when they see his special robe?  Has anyone here ever been jealous of your siblings, or your friends? What were you jealous of?

    Jacob’s siblings are jealous. They are jealous, because for all they have, they can see that Joseph is getting just a little bit more: a little more love, a little more favor, a little finer clothing. Now you could say that Joseph is innocent in all this. It’s not his fault that he’s been given so much. But eventually, Joseph does do something to make the situation worse.

    You see, Joseph has these dreams. Vivid dreams. Dreams of sheaves of grain. Dreams of a sun, and moon, and stars in the sky. And all his dreams mean one thing: that his whole family is bowing down to him.  Now, we can’t help what we dream. But we can decide what we’re going to say about it. And Joseph seems to delight in telling his family about his dreams. One day, he tells them, you will be bowing down to me.

    No one likes to hear about Joseph’s dreams. Not even Jacob.  And Joseph’s brothers are so angry, they decide to throw him into a pit, and then sell him to some travelers who are passing by.

    That could have been the end of the story. Joseph could have been divided from his family forever, because of that one mistake he made, boasting about his dreams; because of that one mistake his brothers made, trying to get rid of him. That could have been the end of the story. But God has something else in mind. God has an amazing way of bringing something good out of something bad.  God has a special gift for drawing something beautiful out of something painful.

    The story doesn’t end there. Many years later, there is a terrible drought, and Joseph’s family does not have enough to eat. So some of Joseph’s brothers travel to a place where they have heard there is still grain. Where do they go? Down to Egypt.

    We didn’t hear the whole story this morning. That’s because the story of Joseph is more than ten chapters long – you can read more of it at home. We didn’t hear all the things that happened to Joseph in Egypt before his brothers came to see him.  We didn’t hear all the tricks that Joseph plays on his brothers before they find out who he is. Joseph’s still a little angry about that time when they threw him in a pit, and sold him to strangers.

    But in the end, Joseph relents. He tells his brothers who he is. He tells them not to worry about the things they did to him before. He gives his family the grain they need. And then, he tells them that the whole family can come and live in Egypt with him. They’ll have plenty to eat, as the drought continues. When the family arrives, Joseph kisses his brothers, and weeps on them, and welcomes them.

    Something changes in Joseph during this story. At the beginning, he seems to really treasure his gifts, and how special they make him feel. He looks forward to getting even more, and being more powerful than anyone else in his family.  Joseph makes sure that everyone knows just how extraordinary he is. At the end of the story, Joseph sees all that he has, and he decides to share it. He realizes that taking care of the people he loves, and being close to them, is more important than anything else.

    Sometimes we have a lot of something, whether it’s love, favor, money, special gadgets, social status, a special striped robe. When we have a lot of something, we have an important choice to make. We can try to make ourselves safe and special, by keeping what we have all to ourselves, and protecting ourselves from other people who might want or need it. Or, we can decide to be close to other people, sharing what we have, seeing what all that bounty can do in community.

    Deciding whether to hoard, or whether to share – that’s a choice we have to make it over and over and over again. It can be really hard sometimes, to decide to share. Here’s the good news. No matter who we are, what we own, what we keep, or what we share, we always have a lot of one thing: the love of God. We are all God’s children, and God has so much love, and favor, that she gives all of us more than we could possibly need. Imagine that each person in this room, and everyone we ever meet, is travelling through life with the most fabulous coat imaginable, because we are a beloved child of God.

    Being rich in love, opening our hearts to that gift, can make it easier to share everything else.  And the love itself begs to be shared: to flow through us, and connect us to one another.

    One More Year

    Psalm 32, Luke 13:1-9

    Jesus is teaching a crowd of thousands. Through speech and story he is tackling tough topics: worry, money, conflict, responsibility. Then someone interrupts Jesus’ sermon to bring the crowd the latest breaking news: the Roman Governor, Pilate, has massacred Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem.

    You can imagine how the crowd reacted. All the shock, and the grief. All the many murmured conversations.  All the questions: Why this? Why now? Why them? Why?

    Then Jesus breaks in.  You may be wondering why, Jesus says; let me tell you what’s not the reason. Tragedy and accident are not a punishment for individual sin. The people who died are no worse than any of us. In fact, all of us need forgiveness.

    Then Jesus tells a parable. Someone plants a fig tree in their vineyard. But the fig tree does not produce figs; and this person is enraged. “See here!” they shout at the gardener. “For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

    In the face of this tirade, the gardener replies graciously. “Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

    When terrible things happen, like the massacre of the Galilean pilgrims, it’s natural to ask why. Sometimes there are clear answers. More often, there aren’t.  In the absence of clear answers, and even sometimes in their presence, we often settle on this answer: It must be their own fault. It must be, somehow, the fault of the victims.

    How could it be the fault of the victims? What could they have done to deserve their fate? Don’t worry – we’ll find something. Our human minds are endlessly inventive in finding flaws in other people.  We judge one another based on how we look, and how we talk. We judge one another for being too rich, or not rich enough. We judge one another for being too powerful, or not powerful enough to be independent. We judge one another for making different choices, and for simply being different, than we are. Out of fear and insecurity, we judge all the time.

    Imagine Jesus standing in front of this crowd of folks who have just heard about a tragedy. Desperate to make sense of things, they try to imagine what grievous sins these other folks might have committed to earn them a death sentence. But Jesus has no interest in helping the crowd along this path of judging others. Instead, he turns their attention to their own behavior.  Think a little less about everyone else’s sins, he says, and a little more about your own.  Remove the log from your own eye, before worrying about the log in anyone else’s. Remember you live in a glass house, before you throw stones.

    It’s good advice. We can’t possibly truly know anyone else’s sins. We definitely can’t fix them. It’s more fruitful to examine ourselves, to work on ourselves. Unfortunately, when we turn our attention towards ourselves, we don’t always make much spiritual progress either. We judge ourselves on things that aren’t so important, like how we look, or how much money we have.  We mull over negative messages we received long ago.  We dwell on some deep and surely fatal flaw that we imagine is unique to us and must be hidden from everyone else at all costs. We get stuck reliving the things we’re most ashamed of. When it comes to judging, we’re at least as brutal towards ourselves as we are towards others.

    A lot of us don’t really appreciate it when scripture encourages us to repent. We imagine that God, or the church, or the pastor, is telling us that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, and trying to make us feel bad about it. This feels counterproductive, because most of us are quite skilled at feeling bad about ourselves already. No need to revisit that. No need to amplify it.

    But Jesus’ call to repentance is not an exercise in harsh self-criticism, guilt, or shame. It’s  an invitation to be freed. What is making you miserable, Jesus asks? What is separating you from love?  What lies have you learned to believe? What habits are harming you? There’s no need to keep carrying that burden, Jesus says. Consider laying it down on my lap, and allowing our good Gardener to help you find another way.

    Vincent Van Gogh, In the Orchard

    Imagine, Jesus says, that your soul is a fig tree. It’s in a beautiful vineyard, being looked over by a competent gardener. Still, it has not born fruit on the schedule that you expected. Enraged, you decide to give up the project of cultivating figs, or caring for your spirit, altogether.  “Cut it down!” you demand, rudely. But God, the gardener, resists your tantrum.  Give me more time, God says.  At least one more year. Let me lay down some more nutrients. Let’s see what could happen, with a little more love.

    Let’s take just a moment to try to welcome God’s grace and care into our hearts. I invite you, as you are moved, to settle your body into a comfortable position; to close or lower your eyes; to gently rest a hand or two on yourself, on your heart, on your stomach, on your lap. Just breathe.

    God, help us not worry too much about other people, whether they’re doing it exactly right, we can leave that up to them.

    God, help us not to worry too much about ourselves, whether we’re doing it exactly right. We’ll never do it exactly right, and the things we’re so worried about messing up may not be the most important things anyway.

    Help us to breathe in, and breathe out, in this moment, in these bodies, in this life that is a gift from you.

    Give us courage to notice, with honesty and kindness, what is harming us most, what is holding us back, what is making it harder to love ourselves and to love other people and to love you.

    Help us to let go of any lies we have believed. Help us to let go of any guilt or anger that is weighing us down.

    Guide us towards trust in you: Your skill in enriching the soil, Your faithfulness in returning, year after year, to give us another year to flourish, even when we haven’t made much progress.

    In good time, may our souls grow, and bloom, and bear good fruit: sweet to the taste. Amen.

    Unsatisfied

    Desert’s Hand by Mario Irarrazabal

    Isaiah 55:1-9

    Most of you know I have two small children. As a parent, I have found it’s important to set expectations, create good habits, and make common sense rules. Many of you have parented, or taught, or taken care of small children. Consider what rules you have set for them. Perhaps these include guidelines about sleep, eating, screen time, exercise, time outdoors, kind behavior, or how to save and use money.

    We all have ideas about how to create a safe, healthy, and fulfilling life, and we try to cultivate that kind of life for people who are in our care. Unfortunately, I have found that having great parenting ideals is not enough to make everything go smoothly. When I’m actually with my children, somehow instead of focusing on the really important stuff, I find myself spending a lot of time saying things like: “we can’t eat until you put your clothes back on,” or “please just go to your room until you can stop crying.” 

    Even more alarming than the contrast between parenting ideals and parenting reality, however, is the contrast between the rules I set for my children and the things I decide to do for myself. After limiting their sugar and their screen time, and sending them to bed at a reasonable time, I find myself up hours later, after consuming significant amounts of cookie dough, binge-watching a TV show, and impulse-buying things I definitely don’t need on the internet.

    The prophet Isaiah speaks to this disconnect between what we truly need, and what we often choose instead. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good… listen, so that you may live.”

    Isaiah was speaking to a people Israel who were just at the end of their exile in Babylon, or who had just returned from it. These are people both physically and spiritually hungry, and the prophet speaks to both hungers.  Pay attention to your deepest needs, the prophet encourages: seek good physical and spiritual nutrition. Be good stewards of your time, your resources, yourselves.  

    What the prophet Isaiah describes sounds a little bit like what we might today call self-care. When we are worn out by work, by life, we are told: take care of yourself; you deserve it! In our culture, self-care often consists of movie marathons, bottomless tubs of ice cream, and baths with an improbable amount of bubbles. Self-care is wine glasses large enough to serve soup in. Self-care is luxury items with which to delight our senses, decorate our persons, and astound our neighbors. 

    Self-care, according to today’s wisdom and advertising, is pleasure. Superficial, momentary pleasure. Pleasure isn’t necessarily bad. It can be delightful and harmless, especially in moderation.  But choosing pleasure to excess, or choosing pleasure as our only form of self-care, is like choosing a bag of cheese puffs, or a pouch of sour-patch kids, when our bodies are longing for dark green leafy vegetables.

    Last week, a clergy colleague of mine commented on social media that about 30% of her pastoral care consists of one thing: encouraging people to get some sleep. Which is to say, the deepest needs of our bodies and souls aren’t usually terribly complicated. It’s not so much that we don’t know what to do to take care of ourselves. We’re not that complex to care for. Many of us simply need more rest, more movement, more dark green leafy vegetables. And then, to round it out, we need a little safe space in which to feel our feelings, and a little affirmation that we’re loveable and loved.

    Our needs aren’t so complicated. But these simple, deep needs: these kale salads for our soul are somehow hard to choose. It’s easier to reach for the cheese puffs, the sour-patch kids, and the soup-bowl size glass of wine. What is the harm?  We’re adults, after all!  No one is the boss of us. No one can scold us and make us go to bed early.

    But what if, when our pleasures don’t truly satisfy us, we just keep masking our deepest hungers with more pleasures, until our bank accounts and our bodies and our spirits are depleted? What if we spend our whole lives going hungry, when a feast is within easy reach?

    There’s also another reason to try something different. The prophet Isaiah proclaims: “See, I have made you witness to the peoples.”  Whatever we do, other folks will notice: our children, our friends, our loved ones. As God’s people, we have a responsibility to live a full and deep and beautiful life, not only for our own deep satisfaction, but to show others that it can be done: to help other folks choose abundant life

    So here is my question. If you really cared about someone – a child, an adult, anyone – if someone was precious to you, what are the suggestions that you would make, to help them live a happy, healthy, fulfilling life? What are the most important rules, habits, expectations, or reminders, would you offer them?

    You have some wonderful wisdom, I know, about how to live well: deeply, generously, abundantly. So, please: consider taking your own advice.  Write your suggestions down, post them on your bathroom mirror, keep them somewhere where you’ll see them often. Be your own loving parent, and send yourself to bed early, and well-nourished.

    Please pray with me.

    God, your thoughts are not our thoughts; your ways are not our ways. Your thoughts and ways are so far above ours. Again and again, we choose what does not satisfy us; what cannot help us live well, love God, or serve our neighbors, but only depletes us, and wastes our time and money. Help us to care for ourselves and what is ours in a better way; as well as we would advise others to do. Draw us towards healthy food for body and spirit, a liberating word for our hearts and our lives, for you are always offering us what is good. Thanks be to God. Amen.

    Bargaining with God

    Genesis 15:1-18

    When Abram and Sarai are in their 70s, they get amazing news from God. This aging, childless couple is going to become the source of a great nation, in a land that God will show them. Through them, God will bless all the families of the earth.

    Abram and Sarai carry this incredible promise with them as they follow God’s call on a big adventure, travelling from their homeland to Bethel, and from Bethel to Egypt, and from Egypt back to Bethel. They hold onto this promise as they establish a home in Bethel, building their wealth, and waiting. They treasure this promise year after year after year after year, and still: no baby. No nation. No blessings.

    Then the word of God comes to Abram in a vision, as we heard in the reading this morning. God says: “Do not be afraid, Abram; I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  But by this time, Abram has a question. “God, what will you give me, for I continue childless… You have given me no offspring.”  God reassures Abram that he will have a child, and tells him: “Look towards heaven and count the stars… so shall your descendants be.” Apparently, looking up at all the stars God created is persuasive, for the scriptures tell us that Abram believes God; and that God reckons it to him as righteousness.

    As the story continues, God goes on to reassure Abram about the second part of the original promise: the land Abram’s people will live in. God says, “I am the one who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”  But again, Abram has a question. “O God,” Abram asks, “How am I to know that I shall possess it?”  God explains that Abram’s offspring will be slaves in a foreign land for four hundred years, but later come to claim the land. Then God establishes a covenant with Abram, that his ancestors will inherit the land.

    I wonder how Abram feels, after this second encounter with God, about the bargain he has made. 

    Abram does not seem to hesitate at all, if you go back to chapter 12, when God first makes grand promises and asks great things of him.  But by the time God checks back in, in the scriptures today, many years later, things have changed. Abram’s simple trust and absolute faithfulness to God’s call have been strained. It has been so long. So, Abram dares to ask questions. “What will you give me, for I remain childless?”  “How am I to know that I shall possess it?”

    God reassures Abram that the promises She gave him are true. And, according to our biblical text, those promises ARE true. And yet, the promises are not true in quite the way that Abram probably assumed. Abram and Sarai will bear a child – but only after years of uncertainty, conflict, and grief. Their descendants will inhabit a great land – but only after hundreds of years of slavery. 

    Abram and Sarai receive great promises, they embark on a journey with God. But God’s point of view, God’s sense of time, are so much grander than Abram’s.  Abram has an awful lot of waiting to do, before the promises are fulfilled.

    Have you ever felt that something was owed to you? Something promised, and not yet fulfilled? Something delayed, perhaps beyond your lifetime? 

    This week the news broke about a college admissions scandal. Extremely wealthy parents have been paying to cheat the system, so that their children might enter elite institutions. Of course, as many folks point out, this is only part of a much larger problem. Wealthy parents have always used money to gain access for their children in schools and beyond.  Most of the ways we do it are even legal: extensive and expensive preparation, massive donations, and personal connections.  What’s more, most of the kids who receive this kind of boost already have other unfair advantages, like white privilege.

    It’s easy to look at this admissions scandal and wonder: what could these parents have been thinking? I can’t imagine bribing my kid into college (maybe I’ll change my mind about that in 10 years or so). But if I’m honest, I’m familiar with the very seductive feeling of wanting my kid to have the best. I want my children to have every good thing. I am thrilled by the quality of daycare and public education available here in Concord, even as my conscience struggles with the imbalance between opportunities here, and elsewhere.  I don’t really know what I’d be capable of, if they had a need I couldn’t meet legally, and ethically.

    There are some things we want so much that logic, and even ethics, do not always have the final call in our reasoning. The things we want may be good things, or bad things, or somewhere in between.  They may be things we want for ourselves, or things we want for those we love. Regardless, sometimes our desire is so fierce that we are overcome by a sense of personal entitlement.  It seems like the world owes this thing to us in particular, or even, that God owes it to us. This conviction leads, sometimes, to crime; sometimes, to perfectly legal manipulations of the system; and sometimes simply to a corrosive conviction that we are being cheated out of something we deserve.

    Most of us know this experience on some level: unfulfilled desire, ambition, longing. It’s a more complicated question, though, to ask what we really deserve, or what we’ve really been promised, by God or by anyone else. That requires teasing apart layers of harmful privilege and entitlement or personal desire from more admirable longings that are often tied up in the same issues: longings to be loved, to be valued, to be treated with justice, and to protect ourselves and those we care for.

    I’m not sure it’s wise to make bargains with God. If I do this, then you’ll do that. If you’ll do that, then I’ll do this. God’s so much bigger than us, so hard for us to understand.  Would we really get what we expected out of the deal? I’m not even sure that God does make bargains; maybe we just sometimes think that we’ve made them with her.

    Putting our trust in God, as Abram did, is not so much about striking a bargain. It’s more like participating in a relationship. When we’re in a relationship, we sometimes need to clarify expectations, and renegotiate responsibilities. Sometimes we even get really mad, or need to take a time-out. The important thing is staying in conversation, as long as we can be safe doing so. Most of the adult people of faith I know have had to have some serious talks with God, somewhere along the way.

    Abram, who we come to know as Abraham, is a hero in at least four faith traditions. He’s an example of what it means to trust God.  He keeps following God, even though he’s not really sure what God’s promises will mean for him or his descendants. There’s room in his relationship with God for disappointment and pain, wonder and awe, trust and doubt. Abram just stays in the conversation with God, no matter what happens.  He sticks with God, as God sticks with him.  Abram teaches us that faith in God can bless a life, and that God’s blessing can passed along, again and again, generation after generation, even amidst the great injustices and uncertainties of life.

    Please pray with me.

    Holy God, help me sift through the longings of my heart, the desires of my mind, to better distinguish what yearnings lead me towards you, towards justice, peace, and healing for all of your creation. Where beautiful longings cannot be met, grant me comfort. Where good yearnings must wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, stay with me. Where my desires can prompt actions towards positive change, empower me. Where my desires are instead graspings for power, privilege, security, only for me and mine: teach me to let go, and put my trust in you instead. Amen.