Posted in Sermons

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

Singing Our Faith, Part 1

This year I have planned one sermon each month to talk about the music we sing in church. You may be wondering — why?

Pastors are not trained in music in most traditions. All of the musical training I have is completely separate from my pastoral formation. Still, in many congregations, including this one, a pastor is given the honor and responsibility of choosing the hymns the congregation will sing together.  This is a dangerous endeavor, and not only because of our lack of training.

Just consider: folks in our congregation grew up in different denominations, congregations, camps, and families, all of which had their own particular set of beloved holy songs. This means if someone comes to ask me why we’re not singing the traditional songs they know and love, I have to ask: which ones are traditional for you?

To complicate things even further, some folks here grew up in other faith traditions, or without a family faith tradition, or simply without falling in love with any form of Christian hymody. These folks often long for something that feels fresher, whether in language or in musical style.  For these folks, coming to church on a Sunday morning may feel as if you’ve taken a trip back in time, perhaps 50, 100, or even 500 years.

There are all kinds of things that go through my head as I choose the hymns for each Sunday, and recently I began to wonder: why am I not sharing that process with all of you?  Hymns shape our worship experience, they teach us about God, they form our faith. For many of us, music, and singing, reach a place in the heart that mere sermons cannot hope to touch. Shouldn’t everyone get to participate in the discussion about what we sing together?

So we begin, today, at the beginning: with what may be the most ancient songs of our tradition, the Hebrew psalms that we share in common with our Jewish siblings.  There are 150 psalms in our scriptures, and in many times and places, they have been the primary, if not the only, text for Christian music.  If this feels limiting to you, consider how many different ways people have translated and sung them.  You can find the psalms in almost every language in many translations; and in just about every musical style, from Gregorian chant to millennial worship band.  All these many versions of the psalms explore and expand on an already very rich source.  The words of the Psalms contain just about every human emotion towards God, including anger, awe, longing, desperation, gratitude, and dedication.

Our worship is always full of psalms.  Today, there are even more, and I’ve marked them in the bulletin for easy recognition.  But we’ve taken as our particular text for the day, Psalm 121.  This psalm is marked as a psalm of ascent: a song for those on holy pilgrimage to Jerusalem; a song for anyone on a journey. Because all of us are on some sort of a journey, it’s a lovely psalm to keep close to us: a reminder of who is our help and our keeper, as we move through the difficulties and dangers of life.

I want to give you just a tiny taste of the great variety of ways this beautiful text has been set to music. So, we’ll listen to three short selections.

  • First, part of a setting from Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval abbess, mystic, scientist, musician, and all-around genius, from the Rhineland. This version is a chant, sung in Latin. (from the album “Kiss of Peace: Songs from the Dendermonde Manuscript).
  • Moving forward about a thousand years, we’ll hear next a piece of a setting from Sir Walter Davies, an English composer, organist, conductor, to give us a taste of what psalms sound like in the English choral tradition.
  • And last but not least, moving forward a few decades and across the Atlantic, we’ll hear from a setting called “Total Praise,” by Richard Smallwood, a contemporary African-American gospel music composer, music director, and pianist.

Now, I know it is cruel to leave you hanging on any of these. They deserve to be heard in full. And there are lots more I can’t even play at all, from Vivaldi, Dvorak, Bernstein, John Rutter, the band All Sons & Daughters, and many more. This is a teaser, to encourage you to explore settings of the psalms on your own; to learn what they have to teach us not simply from their words, but from the musical expression of so many faithful people who have set them to music.

(You can listen to the three pieces above, and many more songs based on or inspired by Psalm 121, on this playlist. Did I miss some of your favorites? Let me know!)

You may have noticed that none of the songs I just played are for congregational singing; they’re for soloists and choirs. For much of Christian history, most of our music has been for music specialists. But we’ll talk more as the year goes on about how Christians made the shift toward songs made for congregations to sing together. Our final version of Psalm 121 is from the Scottish Psalter of 1909, set to the familiar tune of Amazing Grace; the words are in your bulletin.  Let’s use our own voices to lift up our thanks to God, our help and our keeper.

Our Own Hearts

Philemon 1:1-21

I wonder how many of you knew the story of Philemon and Onesimus before hearing it this morning. This is not a very popular text. Unlike most of the letters in our bible, this one doesn’t have any weighty theological arguments for a preacher to dig into. Unlike most of the other letters in our bible, this one is very brief; we heard almost the whole thing. Unlike most of the other letters in our bible, this one feels personal, private, particular. Why was this letter chosen to be a part of our sacred text? What can we learn from this story about the nature of God?

The Apostle Paul writes to a man named Philemon, the host of a house church among the Collosians. Paul is very persuasive. He uses flattery, entreaty, and reminders of his own authority, all on behalf of Onesimus, who used to be a slave in Philemon’s household. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter, but begs Philemon to treat Onesimus differently than he did before. Onesimus has become like a son to Paul during his imprisonment, and Paul asks Philemon to notice Onesimus’ worth, to treat him like a brother, and to return him back to Paul. As a special kind of insurance, Paul addresses the letter not only to Philemon, but also to his fellow churchmembers, so that they might act as local agents of persuasion and accountability.

While this letter may not be very familiar to many of us, it has a significant and deeply problematic history. It is among the texts that were used in this country to support the argument for chattel slavery.  Notice that Paul asks for Onesimus’ return, but he never condemns the institution of slavery.  Indeed, Paul has sent Onesimus back to his former master, which could mean a return to slavery, or even a death sentence.

Modern commentators argue about whether Onesimus was truly a slave, and if so, what kind of slavery he endured. They also disagree about whether Onesimus escaped from Philemon, or whether Onesimus was sent by Philemon to serve Paul. Regardless, many of the problematic parts of this text remain. Paul doesn’t seem at all concerned about Onesimus’ point of view; we don’t know how Onesimus views his relationship with Philemon or with Paul. We don’t know whether he has consented to serve either of them.  And Paul, one of the heroes of the early church, seems to accept a profoundly oppressive social structure, even as he tries to mitigate its impact on someone he loves.

For some this text may be irredeemable. It is certainly a humbling reminder of the sins of the earliest Christians, and the sins of our ancestors here in America, sins which continue to affect us profoundly today. Still, I am caught up by the tiny glimpse we get of Paul’s transformation in this letter. Paul is at least starting to struggle with this system that determines people’s worth by their usefulness. Someone who Paul’s society encouraged him to disregard has become like a part of his own family.  Indeed, Paul says that Onesimus has become his own heart.

This change in Paul, however incomplete, is a change that we need, too.  Slavery does not exist in this country in the same ways that it used to. But our society still openly categorizes people as folks that those with privilege and power, like many of us, should disregard. We call these folks many names, such as illegal, thug, convict, terrorist, addict, I could go on, they only get worse.  There are so many folks who we consider suspicious, dangerous, even useless.

In ancient times and in this time, there is a deep need to recall the humanity of those around us. There is a deep need to move from fear and segregation to neighborliness, and friendship, and love.

What happens to Paul, this is one of the ways that God works on our hearts —  this slow, persistent transformation of our relationships with one another. Consider the strange alchemy that happens in places like this church. Folks arrive here from different towns, and from different faith backgrounds. We vary in wealth, in gifts, in abilities. We vary in so many ways, and we’re here for different reasons. Still, God makes of this strange stew of folks not a collection of strangers, but fellow church members and friends.

I wish that all of you could have witnessed, as I have, how folks have jumped into action, longing to do something – anything – for Jim, who over almost 30 years has become bound closely to the hearts of WCUC folks both near and far.  No longer a stranger imported from Minnesota, for many he is almost like family, even like our own heart.

This example that I witnessed this week of the church in action makes me grateful, again, to be here, to be a part of this body of the faithful.  It takes time to draw close to one another, time and effort and the work of God’s Spirit. Still, when it happens, as it happens, we discover one of the greatest blessings of our faith.

In God’s church, no one is an outcast. No one is a stranger. No one is considered useless. Instead, we are beloved. Instead, we are kin, called to welcome one another as we would welcome our most honored guest; as we would welcome Christ.

So I am glad to be among you here, and I hope I’ll see you often this year. Being present with and for one another is how we begin to change strangers into friends, and to become bound together in closer and closer community. We need each other, in grief, in joy, for the daily and the extraordinary, for our spiritual support and our spiritual accountability.

I give thanks for you, and I give thanks to the God who draws us together day by day, week by week.

Strength for the Journey

  • September 3, 2019

I Kings 19

Elijah has a hard job. The people of God make all kinds of mistakes, and it’s Elijah’s responsibility to let them know what God calls them towards instead. The biggest mistake they’re making in this story is that the people don’t always worship God, but instead, another deity, Baal. If you read the preceding passage in the book of Kings, you can learn more about how Elijah stages a big show to demonstrate that the power of God is greater than the power of Baal. There are some really impressive divine special effects. Unfortunately, Elijah gets carried away after his successful demonstration, and kills all the prophets of Baal. Now he’s in serious trouble with the King.

Elijah gets up and flees for his life. He leaves his servant behind to go alone into the wilderness. Out there by himself, Elijah finds one tiny spot of shade under one lonely broom tree. Then he says, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

Elijah is overcome. He’s tried so hard, for so long, with indifferent results. He’s frustrated. He’s afraid. He’s exhausted. There’s only so long one very human prophet can go on alone, speaking God’s truth in an unfaithful world.

Few of us have been in a situation quite as dramatic as Elijah’s – on the run, after perpetrating a massacre. But some of us may relate to Elijah’s impulse in this story, the impulse to run away from our problems.

During the past few months, the summer season has invited us to cast away our cares. We may have taken a vacation or two away from our jobs. We may have taken a rest from other responsibilities, perhaps turned off the news. We may have savored some of the sweetest pleasures of life: nature, family, friends, fresh local fruit and vegetables.  It’s a brief season, here in New England. Of course, the summer hasn’t been restful or pleasant for everyone. For some it has been wearisome, worrisome, or lonely. But summer gives us permission to at least try to prioritize relaxation.

September, on the other hand, feels like a call back to reality.  Many of us return to school or work. We may return to our routines, healthy or stressful or maybe both. We may feel a sense of accountability to know what’s going on in the world, and maybe also to try to do something about it.

Facing all of this opportunity and challenge, some of us may feel the impulse to make like Elijah, and run, wheel, go out into the wilderness, away from every burden. We are no better than our ancestors, after all.

Did you notice what God does, when Elijah runs away, when Elijah is ready to give up? First, an angel wakes Elijah up and feeds him bread and water – twice. The tells him to eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for him. Then, Elijah journeys 40 days and nights to the holy mountain of Horeb. There, the word comes to Elijah: stand on the mountain before the Lord. Elijah witnesses wind, earthquake, fire: but God is not in any of these. Then, in the silence, the voice tells him: Go back to Damascus. Anoint some better leaders as monarchs to guide the people. And anoint a new prophet, to carry on your work.

God helps Elijah in several ways. With food, water, and sleep: a good prescription for anyone who is exhausted, . Along with the food, water, and sleep, comes an angel: a reminder of God’s love and care.

Then there is this fascinating scene on the mountain, where God is not in the wind, earthquake, or fire, but speaks in silence. God themselves is there, to offer comfort and wisdom, if only Elijah will wait, and listen.

Finally there are God’s words: stunningly practical, after all the drama of this passage. Go back to your work, God says. Go back, and get some help with these unruly people. Find some new kings. Anoint a new prophet to serve after you. Form a team, pass the torch. You’re not doing this alone. It’s not all on you.

I hope you are never in Elijah’s position. But if the prospect of this coming year, or the challenges within it, manage to overwhelm you, remember: God is with you. God is ready to help, when things get difficult; watch for the angels who show up, offering something you need. Take some time for silence, time away from the drama, and listen to what God may have to say. And don’t forget that you are not meant to save the world, or even yourself, alone.  All of us need a team.

Please pray with me. O God, our souls long for you; we need you every day, and especially when things get hard. Thank you for finding us, wherever we go. Thank you for sending your messengers to care for us. Thank you for speaking to our hearts in silence, in prayer. Grant us humility, that we might not try to face our struggles alone. Give us courage to put our hope in you: today, and the next day, and the next. O God, your power is great; by day you pour forth your steadfast love; at night, your song is with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Rise & Fall of Kingdoms

Daniel 2

This summer we’ve been exploring dreams and visions of the bible. We started with texts from Genesis and Acts. Last week I spoke about the visions of Ezekiel. Today we hear from the book of Daniel, which, like Ezekiel, is set in the time when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had besieged Jerusalem and sent many of its leaders into exile. Ezekiel, who came from a priestly family, saw visions of God from his vantage point in a refugee camp. Daniel, who comes from the line of David, ends up in the courts of Babylon and Persia, mixed up in royal intrigues. Both books imagine a future beyond the Babylonian captivity, and beyond all time as we know it.

Many folks who grew up in a church have heard of Daniel. We’ve heard the story where he is thrown into a pit of lions because of the suspicion that he worships Yahweh rather than the king. There’s another really popular Sunday School story in this book, about Daniel’s friends, who have acquired the Babylonian names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — they’re the ones who were thrown into a fiery furnace. Given Daniel’s popularity, it pains me to tell you that modern scholars agree that Daniel did not exist. Not only that, but the book of Daniel is a bit of a mess, written at two different times in two different languages, and with three stories that are either included or excluded, depending on which version of the bible you use.

However, none of this precludes our learning something about God from the stories in Daniel. After all, our ancestors in faith though that this text was important enough to record in their holy book. I also could not possibly leave Daniel out of this sermon series, because this book is chock full of dreams and visions.

It all starts with the story we heard David read. King Nebuchadnezzar is losing sleep because of his strange dreams. So, he summons Babylonian wise people, enchanters, magicians, diviners, who he asks not only to interpret his dreams, but also to know what the dreams are, without being told. As it turns out, no one can do this, even under threat of death: no one expect our hero, the Israelite Daniel, with the help of his God.

Nebuchadnezzar has dreamt of a great statue, with a head of gold, a torso of silver, thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. These all, Daniel explains, represent kingdoms that will rise to rule the earth. However, in the end, God will set up a new kingdom that will crush all of these kingdoms. This new kingdom of God will stand forever, like a great mountain, covering the earth.

Daniel takes a big risk in coming forward and offering this interpretation to the King. However, his risk pays off.  The King is impressed by Daniel, worshipping and promoting him, and praising Daniel’s God.

Unfortunately, the King’s awe of Daniel’s God does not entirely protect him. In subsequent chapters, both Daniel and his three friends are threatened because of their loyalty to this same God. However, these four Israelites hold fast again and again to their faith, and are rewarded for it, both by God, and, oddly enough, by King Nebuchadnezzar.

As the book goes on, we hear more dreams and visions from both Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel. All of these dreams and visions point to the same meanings as the first. There will be many violent human empires to rule the world, with rulers who fail to humble themselves before God. However, in the end, God’s kingdom of justice and peace will overcome them all. The only question that remains is: when? When will God’s kingdom, God’s reign, God’s way, finally come to pass on the earth?

How long, O Lord? This question was important to the Israelites under Babylonian rule. It was important to their descendants, still facing foreign powers, who included the stories of Daniel in the bible. Even today, we wonder how long it will be before God’s kingdom, God’s reign, God’s way will come, when peace and justice will fill the earth.

Unfortunately, the book of Daniel can’t tell us how long we have to wait. Neither  can anyone else. And there’s another puzzle to trying to apply this story to our modern day life. It’s often hard to write off human kingdoms as solely good or evil, the way they are in this book of the bible.

For example: in the past week or so debate flared again around our immigration policies. The current administration is making a change, so that it explicitly measures the wealth of immigrants when determining who may enter the country.  Those who are not rich enough do not merit entry. In response, many quoted the lines inscribed by our Statue of liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”  We are defined as a nation, these folks said, by the way we offer welcome and freedom to all.  The new immigration policy is a betrayal of our most basic values.

Is this really true?  History tells us that the American ideal of welcome and freedom has always co-existed with a much more complicated reality. This reality includes slavery – which, this coming week, will have existed in these lands for 400 years. It includes broken treaties with Native American tribes, Jim Crow and racist land policies and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Who is America, really? Who were we, at our founding, and who are we today? When I look at our nation, I see both beautiful aspiration and terrible oppression, both good and evil, in our past, and in our present.

How long, O Lord? How long until our nation, any nation, every nation, is filled with peace and justice? No one can tell us. But as people of faith, our highest patriotism is to try to bring the power systems we live in at least a little bit closer to God’s ways.  To live like Daniel did: faithful to God in all circumstances, even under pressure of great empires.

Please pray with me. Holy God, it is hard to witness the cruelty and injustice in our world. So many seek to dominate, without concern for their neighbors, equally, infinitely beloved children of God. We, too, are often tempted to seek our own advantage, ignoring who pays the price for our wealth, privilege, and comfort. Inspire in us a fervent commitment to your ways; grant us the courage of those who face down lions, and walk through fire; help us to give our hearts and lives to you, again and again, in humility, hope, and determination. Amen.

Close & Strange

This summer at West Concord Union Church we have been exploring dreams and visions in the bible. We started with the book of Genesis and then moved to the book of Acts. Today we hear from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel.

The Prophet Ezekiel was one of those Israelites who was forced into exile, when King Nebuchadnezzar and a Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem, about 600 years before the birth of Jesus. Being in exile was difficult for everyone, but perhaps even more difficult for Ezekiel than most, because he was from a priestly family. Away from Jerusalem, Ezekiel is deprived not only of his home, but also of his vocation: to serve God in God’s holy temple.

Ezekiel could have lived and died in obscurity, separated from all that he cared for. But as the scripture we hear today describes, something amazing happens instead. It is Ezekiel’s thirtieth year – the year when he would have become a priest, if he was living in Jerusalem. He is sitting by the river Chebar, by his refugee camp. Then, suddenly, the heavens open, the hand of the Lord comes upon him, and he sees an amazing vision.

There are four creatures of human form, each with four wings and four faces. There is a wheel by each of them, and a wheel within each wheel. Above the creatures and the wheels is a throne. On the throne is something almost indescribable: bright, loud, with splendor all around. It is the likeness of the glory of God.

The imagery in Ezekiel’s vision may seem strange to us. It was at least somewhat less strange to his contemporary listeners. The winged beings he describes are a little bit like the cherubim that flanked the doorways in the holy temple in Jerusalem. The flame and cloud he describes are similar to how God showed up on Mt. Sinai, and over the Arc of the Covenant. Still, Ezekiel’s vision is extravagant and overwhelming. There are burning coals, flashes of lightening, gleaming gemstones, moving spirits, and the sound of mighty waters. Even more amazing, this vision does not appear in the temple in Jerusalem, or on Mt. Sinai, or over the Arc of the Covenant. It does not appear in any great or holy place. The likeness of the glory of God arrives on the banks of a river, by a refugee camp, in Babylon.

After this incredible vision, Ezekiel receives a call from God to become a prophet.  He speaks to his people about the coming destruction and purification of Jerusalem and the nations. He speaks to his people of the coming renewal of their hearts. He speaks to his people about the coming return of God and God’s people to a new and even more spectacular temple.  Somehow, Ezekiel tells us, amidst all the evil within and around us, God’s glory will shine forth again.

When I consider Ezekiel’s vision, I will admit to feeling just a little bit jealous. The vision sounds terrifying, it’s true – and Ezekiel’s call was terrifying, too.  But how amazing to have God show up, right before you, with the kind of astonishing spectacle we usually associate with rock concerts, or blockbuster movies.

The God Ezekiel encounters isn’t a still, small voice; or a quiet leading of the heart. This God isn’t like the domesticated images of Jesus that are so popular, either: mild-mannered, pale skinned, holding a sheep. This God burns and flashes and gleams with startling splendor. This God inspires awe and humility.

Folks in the bible, and in Christian tradition, and we ourselves, encounter God in many ways, most of them much more subtle than this. But how amazing to be utterly stunned and carried away by God’s wildness, by God’s otherness, by God’s fierce beauty, by God’s incredible power.

Perhaps just as amazing as the way God shows up to Ezekiel, though, is where God shows up. Ezekiel is stunned to realize that God has come to Babylon.  The Israelites know that God led them up out of Egypt. They know that their ancestors made a glorious home for God in Jerusalem.  But it seems that God does not limit Godself to that one holy, majestic location, even though it still exists. No, She goes into exile with her people, meeting the faithful where they are; even in a refugee camp.

God is where the people are. God is everywhere. This message that Ezekiel receives is repeated towards the end of the book. Ezekiel sees in another vision that an even more glorious temple will be built one day, and that God’s glory will go there. But not only there. In this new temple, water flows out from the sanctuary to form a mighty river. The river flows east, spreading fresh water in the desert. Wherever this river goes, living creatures swarm with life. Wherever this river goes, trees grow along the banks, bearing fruit to eat, and leaves for healing.  Earth and its plants and its creatures are remade, refreshed, and sustained by the nurture of the river of God, reaching out from the temple into the world.

Please pray with me. Holy unimaginable one, help us to open our minds and hearts to the gleaming of your faithfulness, the burning of your mercy, the flashes and thunder of your justice; Your mighty, marvelous love. Help us not to fear your glory, but to seek it, and to celebrate it, with praise, with awe, and with the dedication of our lives. For your love was not meant to stay only in one place, or even with one people: it reaches and roars like a mighty river. Help us to put our trust in your promise that Your glory will shine forth again, even in people like us. even in a time like this. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Be Daring

Acts 16 & 18

This summer we have been sharing stories of biblical dreams and visions. We started with dreams from the book of Genesis: dreams of Jacob and Solomon. This month we have focused on visions from the book of Acts. We started with Peter’s strange vision of inclusion (Acts 10), and continued with Paul’s vision of conversion (Acts 9). Today we hear more about Paul, from a little later in his story.

You may remember that Paul begins his life as Saul of Tarsus, a man of Jewish faith. Saul spends a lot of energy persecuting Jewish followers of Jesus until the resurrected Jesus himself appears to Paul in a vision. Paul goes on to become one of the most zealous evangelists of the early church, travelling far and wide to share the good news of the gospel. 

But Paul’s conversion experience is not his only close encounter with God.  As he undertakes the difficult work of evangelism, he continues to receive guidance and encouragement from God through visions.  I was fascinated to realize that neither of the visions we hear today are part of our lectionary, the three-year schedule of readings many churches follow. So if these stories sound new to you: you’re probably not alone.

Paul is travelling with Silas and Timothy, trying to find a new place to preach and teach, when he has a vision. A person from Macedonia pleads with him, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul does not hesitate: he immediately gets on a boat and heads to Philippi. His stay there is quite eventful. A woman named Lydia is converted and becomes Paul’s host.  Paul performs a healing that leads to an arrest, a midnight hymn sing, a divine earthquake, a prison break, and the subsequent conversion of the jailer and his household. I’m really surprised that no one has made a movie about this text.

The second story we hear a portion of this morning is a little less Hollywood-worthy but still quite dramatic. Paul arrives in yet another town. He finds yet another place to stay. And folks are not eager to listen to him, they oppose and revile him. In a fit of temper, Paul declares, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent.”  He’s ready to give up convincing the folks of this synagogue, maybe all of his Jewish siblings, to follow Jesus. But God provides encouragement, appearing in a vision and saying: “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you.”

Don’t worry if you can’t keep straight the details of these two adventures. Those who are curious, I hope you will read through these chapters in Acts when you get home.  For now, let’s just notice what it’s like for Paul to be a follower of Jesus, and to proclaim the risen Christ in the ancient world.

Paul’s vocation leads him into a profoundly precarious existence. He’s always on the move, never sure of having a place to stay, or enough to eat. And everywhere he goes, Paul causes trouble with his words. He offends people of all kinds: Jews and Gentiles, Roman officials and religious authorities. If you read Paul’s whole story in our scriptures, you’ll notice that he often leaves a place because it has gotten too hot for him. Over the course of his travels, Paul is stoned and he is shipwrecked and he spends a lot of time in prison – maybe one of the reasons why he had the time to write so many famous letters. 

Paul is risking it all in pursuit of the gospel.  He does what he does imperfectly. From our modern perspective we could offer plenty of critiques of his theology, his views of women, his approach to evangelism. But Paul is all in on this very risky endeavor of sharing the good news of Jesus, and he is probably the reason why we have all heard of Jesus here today. While Paul continues this dangerous work, God sends visions.  These visions tell Paul: Serve still more people. Try yet more places. Speak and do not be silent.  

We often think of God’s presence in our lives as calming, comforting, centering.  Sometimes, God shows up like that. But it wasn’t like that for Paul. God’s grace shows up in Paul’s life as an interruption. God interrupts Paul’s life again and again and again. God interrupts Paul, and They encourage Paul to be an interrupter as well: to show up again and again with bold, loud, unapologetic good news. 

Maybe you can think of someone who’s a bit like Paul in our world today: someone whose work of love could be described as bold, loud, and unapologetic. I think of women of color in congress, workers at Planned Parenthood, legal advocates for immigrants and those in prison. I think of all those whose very presence in our country is controversial, whose very personhood is disputed: people of color, of a non-Christian faith, LGBTQ+ identifying people, immigrants, those in poverty. There are so many among us who are opposed and reviled, run out of town, threatened with violence, imprisoned, and even killed, for the work they do, or for simply existing.

Paul makes me consider these folks; the price that they pay; and what kind of amazing divine power makes it possible for them to get up in the morning. 

What is there in these texts, in Paul’s story, for us?

If you are busy with some challenging work of love; or if simply living as who you are is a challenging work of love; I hope you receive some encouragement. You are in great company, with Paul, Silas, Timothy, Lydia, Aquila and Priscila; with saints and heroes from the early church and from every age.  Be ready for a message of divine encouragement: God is close to you.

If you have not recently noticed God calling you towards something uncomfortable, something audacious, something that interrupts or even threatens  your way of life; I hope you will open the door of your heart to this possibility. There is such a thing as good trouble. Indeed, most beautiful things, most holy things, have not happened without it.

God, from of old you have called your imperfect people to strange ventures. You send us out on long journeys, involve us in arduous struggles. You invite us into challenging relationships. You encourage us to voice unpopular truths. Thank you for daring us to be reborn again and again in your love. Thank you for encouraging and challenging us, and being our companion in this world in which your justice is so often only realized because of the bold. Amen.

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.