Being connected to other people isn’t easy, but Jesus has some words of wisdom for us. How can we stay connected with one another and with our purpose in this difficult time?
Sermons preached by Pastor Hannah and guest speakers at West Concord Union Church.
Being connected to other people isn’t easy, but Jesus has some words of wisdom for us. How can we stay connected with one another and with our purpose in this difficult time?
At the end of the sermon, Hannah taught motions to the song, “Like a Rock”. Here’s the composer, Linnea Good, singing it in several languages for you to enjoy!
Preached August 23rd at West Concord Union Church
Pharaoh’s daughter walked down to the river to bathe. I imagine this path was well-trod, that the heat of Egypt made bathing in the river a regular, maybe daily, practice. She would have known the best time of day to go and the way the shadows of the reeds fell first on one another and then played along the water’s edge. She would have known how the water created eddies along the bank as she walked to her usual spot. In today’s reading from Exodus, we hear of one particular day, when she noticed something different, a basket maybe bobbing on the water maybe caught in the reeds. I like to think that it was, in part, her familiarity with this stretch of bank and perhaps how the reeds stood angled to the side and the water stirred differently that drew her attention right to the basket. I like to think that her knowledge of the riverbank is part of what led her to find the baby: this baby who would one day liberate a people. I like to think that our own knowledge of our surroundings and attention, to what’s close and routine, is essential in these times.
Pray with me: Loving God, may the words of my mouth and the mediations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer.
I want to start by reading the most famous line of today’s gospel one more time: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Jesus declares Peter the rock on which the church is built. In Greek, the pun is obvious: Peter, Petra from petros, rock. Usually, I approach this passage thinking about Peter. Peter who is so zealous he tries to walk on water, Peter who wants Jesus to wash not only his feet but his hands and head, Peter who denies Jesus three times. Peter hasn’t ever seemed very rock-like to me.
But what do I know about rock? I haven’t spent much time considering the other half of the metaphor. Rock: it’s solid, stable. It makes a firm foundation. Or at least, that’s what I always assumed. But I’m sure a geologist would have many more answers for me. Or a rock climber. A stone-worker would have more insights or a farmer hauling granite chunks from her field might have another angle.
I had two pieces of help this week pondering rock. They run along a similar vein. First, it was this week that I found my children in the middle of the lawn, pounding bricks together. The bricks had once served as a border to a garden. Over a couple of afternoons, they collected the red dust from the bricks for potions and used it to paint their bodies. They sculpted the bricks by hammering on them with stones. I had been walking by these bricks for years and all this potential had escaped me.
But the second piece of help had been a book that was lying on my desk when I discovered this week’s lectionary texts. It’s Andy Goldsworthy’s Stone. We had it checked out when the library closed in March and have been taking our time reading through it. Andy Goldsworthy is known for his collaborations with nature, he has a new piece right down the road at Decordova in Lincoln. He makes site specific art—never knowing quite what he’ll do before arriving in a place and spending time on the land.
Goldsworthy takes playing with rock to another level. When he first started making art people accused him of being childlike, and at first he didn’t like it. He didn’t like the implication that his work was play. But then he had children of his own and saw the intensity with which children discover through play and acknowledged that this is in his work too. [Stone 6]
To work with stone, Goldsworthy says, “I had to forget my idea of nature and learn again that stone is hard and in so doing found that it is also soft.”
Especially now, when I and maybe so many of us spend so much time in one place, I appreciate the placed-ness of Goldworthy’s work. He spends time in a place—he learns it’s natural history and sees what catches his eye. Then, he’s often curious about what happens over time. He says, “I revisit some stones, as I do places, many times over. Each work teaches me a new aspect of the stone’s character. A stone is one and many stones at the same time—it changes from day to day, season to season.”
Let’s return to the scripture: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter is the rock on which the church is built; what does it mean for the church to be built on a rock?
Let’s see what Goldsworthy has offered us:
My unexamined understanding of rock: as something solid, stable and unshakable seems, at first to be a lot more comforting when applied to the church. And yes, in many ways, rock is solid, it is used in foundations, but it’s also a bit more interesting. Solid doesn’t mean that there’s still not a lot to learn or explore, or that the rock doesn’t have more to offer than we might first assume.
Do we want to use what Goldsworthy offers us about rock in relation to the church? Do we want to think of the church as built upon something hard to pin down? Something we need to return to? A year ago, we might give varied answers. But now? Given the past six months we can see that if the church were rigid and unbending, it would be broken by now.
And West Concord Union Church, you seem far from broken. Who would have imagined a year ago, what church looks like now? To me, it seems like you’ve held onto the essentials: You still gather together. You still pray and sing and hear scripture and sign. You are still you. You are still church, but you had to adapt as all around your stone shifted. I don’t know if it’s fair to say you played with the church and its structure, except if we add Goldsworthy’s caveat: that you’ve focused in on church with an intensity that has allowed you to know it differently. As you looked at the church in the midst of these months, you got to see what was essential and to leave behind some pieces that weren’t. That’s not to say that much isn’t missed. But you have kept church going, you have this rock on which to be in this very challenging time.
It’s been five months since schools closed. The seasons have shifted. Some pieces of this COVID era have become normal. For some of us the grief, the fear, the worry pulses high in our consciousness and for others these threads are more subdued. For some there’s a restlessness growing. So much is being asked of us on all fronts.
But keep heart. The truth that Peter spoke is that Jesus is the Messiah, that God is with us and loves us no matter what and especially when times are the hardest. The church, this community is striving to be God’s hands and feet in the world, striving to do justice and love kindness, the church is built on a rock. And the rock is alive with it’s own energy, both hard and soft as Andy Goldsworthy tells us. We must continue to pay attention to the church and the call on the church today to let it live today. Could it be more alive now than it’s ever been before?
And we must pay attention. I love that Moses isn’t named for the water, but for the fact that he was drawn out. Can we pay enough attention, can we look so deeply that we can draw out, the very precious parts of the church and its tradition that are utterly needed? Can we take what was old and handle it lightly, play even, to make it new? Can we look to the past to be part of a future that is more just, more holy, and with more equity for God’s children?
I wonder how you will continue to be the church in this time not just beyond the four walls of the church, but these four walls?
This is a strange and terrible time and it is a time full of possibilities. I wonder what could be floating down the river towards you. I pray that you will keep your eyes open, even on a circumscribed path. For God is at work. God is with us in the reeds and in the rocks. May we be open to play, open to continue seeing the church with new eyes. Let us be open to the newness of life that God offers, each and every day.
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” May it be so. Amen.
A sermon on 1 Kings 19:9-15.
A sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.
Romans 7:15, 20-25a; Matthew 11:25-30
Growing up, the 4th of July was my favorite holiday. I can’t claim that it had much to do with enthusiasm about our country. I liked dressing up, riding in a bike parade, and eating bratwurst. Plus, because my birthday is on the 3rd, the 4th seemed like an extended celebration of ME, complete with fireworks.
But this holiday is not about my birthday, or bratwurst, or bikes. It commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Continental Congress’s announcement that it would no longer be subject to British Rule. Independence Day has become a day to celebrate our nation more generally, whether that means remembering our highest ideals and most dedicated servants — or eating red, white, and blue cakes at family barbecues — or both.
Perhaps I am not alone in coming to this year’s celebration with more trepidation than usual. While there is a great deal about our country to celebrate, there is also much to repent of. This has always been true, and it is a mark of both my privilege and my ignorance that it has rarely weighed on me as much as it does this weekend.
One of the most famous Independence Day speeches was given by Fredrick Douglass, who spoke in 1852 by the invitation of the Rochester NY Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. If you’ve never heard or read this speech, I commend it to you. If you know it already, I think it bears another hearing. I’ll quote just a tiny portion of it here.
Douglass praises the founders of our nation for their bravery. Then he reminds his audience:
“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your [ancestors], is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? …Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them…
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals … more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which [they are] the constant victim. To [them], your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to [them], mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes … There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour…”
Let’s not miss, either, what Douglass has to say about the church on that day:
“The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in connection with its ability to abolish slavery. The sin of which it is guilty is one of omission as well as of commission…Let the religious press, the pulpit, the Sunday school, the conference meeting, the great ecclesiastical, missionary, Bible and tract associations of the land array their immense powers against slavery and slave-holding; and the whole system of crime and blood would be scattered to the winds; and that they do not do this involves them in the most awful responsibility of which the mind can conceive…”
The United States does not now have the kind of enslavement that was carried out in 1852, when this speech was given. But Douglass’ words ring true today nevertheless. Whose freedom do we celebrate on our Independence Day? What stories do we tell about who we are as a nation? If we fail to tell stories of stealing land from native peoples, of stealing lives from enslaved Africans, how can we claim any honesty in our accounts? And if we have not yet fully acknowledged these, our original sins — and all of our crimes against human freedom in more recent years– how can we build a future in which every person within our national boundaries may truly enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
As Christians, the weight of our moral failure to use our power to abolish slavery and other forms of oppression is heavy. If churches had together upheld the preciousness of all human life at any point in our national history, how might that history have been different?
At the same time, I feel the great gifts that our faith has to offer, in confronting the past and present of our country.
In our scriptures today, Jesus describes God’s wisdom as best understood by those who are like children. The apostle Paul confesses the power of evil that threatens to overcome him from within, even when he desires to do good. Both speak to the importance of immense humility in our ability to grow: humility, and a reliance on a power greater than ourselves.
Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We, the people of this country, have a choice. We could continue to carry the weight of our ignorance and sin around, refusing to admit it even exists, while it continues to cause destruction. Or, we could acknowledge it, and seek the help of a power greater than ourselves, in getting ourselves free. We could accept the shared work of discovering how to escape the roles of oppressor and oppressed, for the common cause of mutual liberation.
Please pray with me.Holy God, with great aspirations, willful ignorance, stunning greed, and terrible suffering, we have strayed so far from your dream for us. Thank you for meeting our guilt and our grief with compassion. Help us to bring humility, curiosity, and determination to the work of freedom in this land: a freedom we must achieve together. Amen.
Romans 6:12-13 and Matthew 10:40-42
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gathers his disciples, and then he sends them out. Jesus sends the disciples out to share the good news that “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” He sends the disciples out to heal many forms of illness. Jesus sends the disciples out with no supplies whatsoever, and he forbids them from accepting any form of payment. Instead, they must simply offer themselves to whoever will accept them in each place that they go.
This kind of traveling and teaching and healing will not be easy, Jesus warns. In fact, the disciples will be as sheep in the midst of wolves. They will experience hatred and betrayal, family strife and persecution. They will need to be as wise as serpents to survive it, shaking the dust off their feet as they leave any unwelcoming place.
Still, Jesus tells them, “whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”
Hearing what Jesus asks his first disciples to do, I find myself feeling oddly grateful that I am not one of them. But the selection of text that we hear today invites us to consider not what it would be like to be one of those disciples, but instead to wonder about those who encounter them in their tavels.
Would we have welcomed one of these folks, if they arrived in our town, or at our door? Would the risk of inviting in a poor stranger be worth the great rewards of which Jesus speaks? I’m not sure how I would feel about welcoming someone who arrived with no introduction, no social standing, no luggage — nothing. I’m even less sure that I would be ready to welcome that person if they were a prophet.
In biblical tradition, prophets are trouble! They don’t so much predict the future as tell us deep truths about the present: truths that we have tried very hard not to acknowledge. Prophets speak with passion; they don’t hold back. Prophets cause conflict, within our hearts and within our societies. And just like the disciples, they generally arrive without warning, without introduction, without power, without privilege — and they are audacious enough to share their truths anyway.
Last week, after listening to The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III preach about the tragedies of racialized oppression and white supremacy in our country, a group of us talked about what we about what we have been taught, and what we have not been taught. There was general agreement that our education is not what it should have been – though many of us received what is generally considered to be excellent schooling. When it comes to American history and politics and economics, we have been lied to. We have been audaciously and systematically lied to. Maybe you have been lied to, as well.
But as I listened to our conversation it kept coming forcefully to my heart that we can yet be saved from this terrible conspiracy of miseducation. Here is the good news: we have never wanted for good teachers. Our school systems, our curriculums, and the powers that controlled them, may have failed us in many regards. But teachers of truth have always shown up anyway. Without invitation, without permission, teachers have shown up with Holy Spirit fire and truth for us, if we will only receive their teachings.
Who are these teachers? Today, perhaps we can remember those truth tellers who showed up at the Stonewall Inn, starting early in the morning on this day, June 28th, in 1969. At that time, LGBTQ folks in America were being openly and systemically persecuted: tracked by the FBI, criminalized by local governments, and labelled as having mental disorders. To be honest about who you were at any time, in any place, was to risk your employment, your freedom, and even your life. Tragically, this is all still true to some extent today.
In the early morning hours of that June 28th, there were a lot of folks at the Stonewall Inn, a gathering space for those whose gender identities and expressions, as well as their sexual orientations, race, and class, made them particularly vulnerable in our society. These folks had come to the only gay bar in NYC that allowed dancing. And then the raid started. Police raids on gay bars were common, but this raid was particularly violent. In addition to the regular practices of demanding ID, verifying biological sex, and placing people under arrest, this raid included sexual assault and beatings. It was, witnesses and participants said, the last straw. A riot began.
Who led the way in the days that followed, a critical turning point in the emergence of a Gay rights movement? It was people like Marsha P. Johnson, a Black self-identified Drag Queen. And Stonewall was only the beginning of their activism. Johnson became a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front. A leader in Greenwich village, Johnson was known as the “Mayor of Christopher Street.” Along with friend Sylvia Rivera, Johnson founded an organization called Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, providing shelter and food to homeless queer youth and fighting for transgender rights. Later, Johnson became an AIDS activist with ACT UP. Not always accepted even within gay rights efforts, Marsha P. Johnson’s presence and work taught the world a truth that was radical then and continues to be all too radical now. I have value, they insisted, people like me have value, and are entitled to the same rights as anyone else.
Those of us who read the book White Fragility last year received this teaching through author Robin DiAngelo. She shared the response of a man of color when asked what it would be like for white people to be open to feedback, to be willing to learn. He replied, “It would be revolutionary.”
Beloved, most of us, white or not, have been badly taught: in school, and in society. But what we were never told, we can still learn, as long as we are willing to welcome those teachers, those prophets, who have always been trying to teach us. Not all prophets have fancy degrees, or work in fancy schools. Not all prophets look like someone you’d expect to show up in your town, or at your door. But countless prophets have offered the world the gift of their truth with astounding bravery; have insisted on the preciousness and dignity of human and natural life.
We have been badly taught. But we can learn, even those of us who are white. And we can use whatever power and privilege we have – many of us have a lot of it – to amplify and to fund the work of prophets and activists and change-makers of all kinds today. God, in her wisdom, invites us not into shame for what we have thought, and who we have been, but into the freedom of a greater love. God invites us into a new life, in which, as the Apostle Paul writes, we can offer every part of ourselves to God as an instrument of righteousness. May it be so.
We were privileged on Sunday to receive the gift of the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III’s gift, The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Requiem for Ahmaud Arbery. Watch it here!
by Jessica Torgerson
I met with Hannah earlier this spring to talk about Children’s Sunday and to plan out how, exactly, we were going to do this. To be honest, March and April were a blur of anxiety and stress and uncertainty for me and it was hard to wrap my head around planning a brand new medium for Children’s Sunday. I felt pretty lost at times, without a map, but doing my best to navigate this new normal. So this is my headspace when Hannah suggests adapting pretty much the entire book of Exodus into a drama for Children’s Sunday, but focusing mainly on the Israelites in the wilderness – wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. Can you imagine the fear, the uncertainty, the frustration the Israelites must have felt? Well, yeah. Yeah I kind of can, and our children can, and I bet you can too. This pandemic uprooted our lives just about as fast as the Israelites were uprooted when they fled Egypt. In the span of four days in March we went from pretty much business as usual to shut down, shuttered at home. No map. We were all wandering in fear, uncertainty and frustration.
Once freed from slavery, the Israelites were not too happy about their new nomad lifestyle. “When are we gonna be there? There’s nothing to eat! Do you even have a plan?” These were complaints that Moses and Aaron and Miriam had to address with God’s help. I’ve heard those same type of questions in my house recently. When are we going back to school? When can I see my friends? Do we have to wear these masks everywhere? When will this be over and we can go back to normal? Why is there no flour at the grocery store?! It is hard to wander without a map, without many answers. God heard the complaints of hunger from the Israelites and answered with a shower of sweet, flaky starch every morning. God heard the frustration and anger and confusion and gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments – a roadmap of how to live together as a community. And God heard the desperation and fear of the wandering mass and promised to lead them with a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, never leaving them.
When we talked about this story in Sunday school, we noticed the similarities between the wandering Israelites and all the uncertainty in our own lives right now. But is God helping us and leading us right now, just as in the Exodus story? We compared God to a lighthouse, leading boats through a storm, providing comfort and safety, like a beacon home to those who may be lost. I asked the children, “What is your lighthouse right now? Who is helping you to find comfort and safety?”
My lighthouse is my teacher sending me school work to do every day because I really like school and I was really sad when I couldn’t go anymore
My lighthouse is doing a Zoom with my friends
I do crafts with my neighborhood and we share the crafts. We all do a different one and we share it on the computer.
I can FaceTime my friends and that makes me happy
We do more movie nights with my family and I like that. It’s fun.
And all the children mentioned some combination of hikes, walks, bike rides, and being out in the sun. Sunshine seems to help everything.
This is a scary and uncertain time for all of us, but particularly so for our children. Schools (and churches) are closed, routines have been upended, nothing fun is open, they are forbidden from being together with friends or even grandparents, and the grown-ups don’t have many answers. They are wandering – sometimes literally – in a very new wilderness. But children are resilient, and they are excellent at looking for that pillar of cloud or fire, for that lighthouse in the distance. I wonder, what is your lighthouse right now? Who or what helps you find comfort and safety and protection as you wander in this wilderness? Do you see God at work around you, leading us through the unknown? I see God through our leaders keeping us safe with new rules and guidelines, through our healthcare workers healing and protecting us, through neighbors who drop off a few cups of flour on our porch, through friends and family who strive to connect in new and creative ways. And through our children, who teach us every day that God’s lighthouse is burning bright, helping to guide us through this stormy wilderness.
Thanks be to God.