Posted in Worship

Ancient Christian Songs and Canticles

The music listed in this sermon (and more!) can be found in this Spotify Playlist.

John 1:1-5

This year we’re taking one Sunday each month to explore the music we sing together.  The music we share in worship is such a central part of our life together; this is a chance to learn about its history, and consider what we wish to sing today. We started, last month, with the Hebrew psalms, a scriptural book of songs. Today we’ll move to ancient songs, canticles, and hymns from the early era of the church.

Much of the most ancient Christian music we have is part of the liturgy of the mass, music for worship services including communion.  During special music Sundays, we often get to hear a whole mass setting; we will hear another in December. In our worship here, you are more likely to hear a small piece of a mass, such as a gloria, an alleluia, or the sanctus (holy, holy, holy). Like so many ancient songs, we do not know the tunes that were originally used with these pieces of the mass, but settings abound. One familiar hymn that finds its source in a mass is Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (NCH 345). The words, originally in Greek, are ascribed to St. James the Less, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, and were used while bread and cup were brought to the table.

Other ancient Christian music finds it source in other worship services: the liturgy of the hours, short prayer services held throughout the day.  This is where we find the canticles: songs of praise that take their text directly from the Bible, but not from the psalms.  A few of you may remember some of these canticles from the summer series on Songs of the Bible a year and a half ago, such as the victory song of Moses and Miriam in the book of Exodus. The most famous of the canticles, however, are from the birth narrative in the beginning of the gospel of Luke: Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which we sang as our opening hymn; the song of Zechariah, known as the Benedictus; and the Song of Simeon, known as the Nunc Dimittis, which we’ll sing as our closing hymn.

One canticle you may never have heard of is the Canticle of the Three Holy Children, also known by its Latin name: Benedicte omnia opera.  This canticle comes from the book of Daniel, although the passage is not included in most Protestant bibles. It’s a song of praise lifted up by Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego, after they are freed from the fiery furnace. Like all the ancient canticles, you can find many different versions of this to listen to.  I thought it might be interesting to sing it together as it might be traditionally sung in a liturgy of the hours. So, I invite you to imagine that you have just been freed from a fiery furnace and are full of gratitude to God; or that you’re sitting in a monastery, at vespers…

Our scripture reading today was from the beginning of the gospel of John. These are the words of a Greek song of praise to Jesus that precedes the recording of the scriptures. Unfortunately, we don’t know how it was originally sung, but translations and musical settings of this text abound. One of the most famous is a Latin text written by Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, a Spanish monastic, in the 5th century. Most of us know it (if we know it at all) by the title, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” When I saw that the translation in our New Century Hymnal was “Of the Parent’s Heart Begotten,” I assumed this was an attempt of the hymnal editors to be more inclusive in their imagery for God.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the original Latin is Corde natus ex parentis, born from the heart of the parent. Somehow, in the 19th century this was translated from Latin to English variously as “Of the Father sole begotten,” “Born of the Father’s bosom” “Of the Father’s will begotten” “Son eternal of the Father,” and “Yea! From the Almighty mind He sprung.” It’s a fascinating example of patriarchal bias being perhaps stronger in modern times than it was in the early church.  At any rate, our hymnal’s editors chose to commission an entirely new translation from the Latin. Let’s sing it together, Black Hymnal # 118, first and last verses.

Before we leave early Christian music, after an entirely too brief visit, I have to tell you one of the more fascinating stories I learned in my research.  As you may recall, almost all early Christian music is designed for choirs to sing, not congregations. One early exception is O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright, a Latin hymn from the 4th Century.

The story of this hymn begins with Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan.  Ambrose was particularly passionate in defending the church against what eventually became known as the heresy of Arianism. Arianism is the idea that Jesus, while coming from God, is not as great as God, or made of the same stuff as God. If you are inclined to Arianism yourself (I know you’re out there), or if you can’t see what difference it makes either way, trust me: this was a major dispute within the church for centuries. Things got so hot in Milan between the Arians and the non-Arians that the churches led by Ambrose came under siege.  In one telling, Ambrose and his followers locked themselves inside a church for safety, and kept cheerful by writing hymns proclaiming the divinity of Christ.  Ambrose carefully crafted his songs with rhyme and meter so as to be easy for anyone to sing: a great strategy for spreading trinitarianism.

So let’s sing one of the very first congregational hymns of the church, one of the very first protest songs of the church.

I encourage you to take some time exploring Masses and Canticles and early hymns there and beyond.  Let’s give thanks, for those early Jesus-followers who knew that words were not enough, but used music to enrich our worship life together, and to inform our theology. Let’s give thanks, to the God who inspired it all. Amen.

White Fragility

  • October 15, 2019

Luke 17:5-10, Habakkuk 1:2-4, 2:1-4

I will never forget the day I visited the Voortrekker monument in South Africa.  This monument celebrates those of Dutch descent who travelled from the Cape Colony on the tip of the continent to settle further east. Like many monuments, this one is imposing: set on a hill, with a great bank of steps leading up to the door. As I entered the building, I was surrounded by yellow light, and the biggest marble frieze in the world.  It was beautiful — until I got a closer look.  The frieze was full if images of conquest. Some were gruesome in and of themselves. Others were gutting because I knew what they led to: the collapse of the Zulu empire, a nation of Apartheid, and a modern South Africa of unspeakable inequality. This monument marks the beginning of it all. Worse, it celebrates that beginning. It is constructed so that once a year, a beam of light shines directly on the center of the monument, symbolizing God’s blessing on the Voortrekkers and their achievements.

Just being in the room made me nauseous. How could anyone build such a monument? How could anyone leave it standing? I walked out into the sunshine and sat down on the great steps, full of self-righteous disgust for the white peoples of South Africa. Then, suddenly, my world turned upside down.

I thought about the pilgrims and pioneers who we so often celebrate in New England. I thought of the indigenous communities who were systematically cheated and destroyed here. I thought about the African peoples and their descendants who have endured 246 years of enslavement, followed by racial segregation, and continuing disparities in incarceration, health, wealth, and so much more. Of course, I had known about all of this history before; this was just the first time that I realized it had anything to do with me. Witnessing the price of white dominance somewhere else, I began to grasp the cost of my own racial privilege.

You may wonder, what does the bible have to say about race and racism? That’s a complicated question.  It’s important to remember that our scriptures contain passages like the one we heard today from the gospel of Luke, where Jesus equates discipleship with slavery.  By doing so, Jesus implicitly condones the institution of slavery. Now, slavery in Jesus’ time and place was not exclusively based on race.  Still, Jesus’ implicit approval is deeply problematic. Biblical passages accepting or even promoting slavery have been one brutally effective tool in the effort to legitimize slavery and other forms of racism in our country.

At the same time, our scriptures speak strongly against violence and injustice, and champion those who are excluded or vulnerable.  The Prophet Habbakuk, who testified to God’s word in Jerusalem around 600 bce, is so overcome by the injustice of his time and place, that he offers a rare prophetic challenge to God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you do not listen? Or cry to you “Violence” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.  The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgement comes forth perverted.”

Today we begin discussing the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.  DiAngelo invites us to a new level of awareness of racism as “a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors.”  Those of us who are white have been carefully taught to think of racial injustice as somebody else’s problem. It’s the problem of folks who are on the receiving end of discrimination. It’s the problem of folks who speak and act viciously, out of hate.  Yet those of us who consider ourselves both white and well-meaning are integral to this pervasive system of institutionalized bias. We are the ones who benefit from it, and we are the ones who uphold it – consciously or not. 

Put away all your excuses, Robin DiAngelo tells us. Maybe you have a great education, unique personal experiences, or family ties that persuade you that you cannot possibly be party to this vast and often subtle system of racial oppression. Do not believe it. Racism is not the sin of a few scattered extremists. Racism is not even a matter of personal intention.  Racism is a natural consequence of socialization.  None of us can escape the disease. Therefore, to deny the diagnosis, and to refuse treatment, is to doom the whole body of society to graver illness.

So what do we do?  If racism is an integral part of our history, a part of our country, a part of our scriptures, and even a part of us – what can we do?

One step is to shift our dominant historical narrative.  This season marks the 400th anniversary of chattel slavery in the United States. There has been some great journalism exploring the impact of that history. The Massachusetts Council of Churches chose to mark the event by celebrating Black Resiliency in our commonwealth. They remembered the writer Phillis Wheatley; and the first woman of African descent allowed to purchase a house in Boston, Zipporah Potter Atkins. They remembered children who rode busses to unfamiliar school districts, and youth who marched to protest police brutality. They remembered Belinda Sutton, who was enslaved in Medford, who petitioned the Massachusetts General Court again and again for her back pay. They remembered Prince Estabrook, who though enslaved, fought with the Lexington Militia in the Revolutionary war. They remembered Lucy Foster of South Church in Andover, who ran a tavern as well as a stop on the Underground Railroad. They celebrated so many folks who have lived with courage and determination through these 400 years.  Why isn’t that part of the story I learned in school, a part of the story we tell ourselves, this legacy that includes both white injustice and black strength?

Another step is to change our monuments. On the cover of your bulletin is a photograph of Kahinde Wiley’s new statue, Rumors of War. Standing 27 feet high and 16 feet wide, it was inspired by equestrian statues of Confederate generals in Richmond, VA. Instead of a Conferederate General, however, it features a young man of African descent, with dreadlocks, a hoodie, and ripped jeans.  At the unveiling, the artist described his experience of seeing the Confederate monuments: “I’m looking up at those things that give me a sense of dread and fear… Today,” he said, “we say yes to something that looks like us. We say yes to inclusivity. We say yes to broader notions of what it means to be an American.” Soon this statue will join the others in Richmond.

There is so much that we can do, so much that we need to do.  We can change our historical narrative, our monuments, our holidays.  We can challenge our scriptures and shift our policies.  All of this, though, will only be possible if we stop lying to ourselves about the pervasive, pernicious nature of white supremacy.  It will only be possible if we develop both deep curiosity and deep humility, about how white supremacy operates in our lives, and in the world around us.

The prophet Habakkuk, surrounded by wrong-doing, does finally receive word from God. She says: there is still a vision for the appointed time. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come. Until then, live by faith; put your trust in God. Later, Habakkuk writes: Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines… yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17a, 18).

We may not always recognize the vision that will transform our troubled time. We may not always find fruits of righteousness in the world around us, or even in ourselves. Still, it is our duty and our joy to rejoice in the God of our salvation. For it is this God who invites us into freedom from every falsehood, and forgiveness for every error.  The One who led the Israelites up out of slavery in Egypt will not abandon us to the injustices around and within us today. Thanks be to God.

Who is my neighbor?

Luke 10:25-37

This is a famous story. A story so famous probably everyone in this room has heard of it. A story so famous that some of us could tell it by heart. When we know a story this well, it’s easy to think that we know exactly what it means. But this story has so many different people to consider, so many different perspectives to wonder about.

We can start with Jesus. I wonder:How does he feel, when he is challenged by the lawyer?  Is he worried that he won’t be able to measure up when debating with someone so well-educated? Why does Jesus decide to respond to his question with a story? Does he make this story up, right on the spot?

There is the lawyer.  Why does he challenge Jesus? Is it possible that he’s asking questions just because he really wants to learn? Is he trying to make Jesus look bad? Does he just want to sound smart? What does he think about the story he is given?

There is the traveler. What was it like, to travel in that time and place? Does he know he might be in danger? How does he feel, when he is attacked? How does he feel, when he is ignored? How does he feel, when he is cared for?

There are the robbers. What makes them decide to take advantage of a vulnerable traveler? How do they live with themselves, after they leave him for dead on the road? Is this their first time robbing someone? Is it their last?

There are the women. What women, you ask? I wonder: why aren’t there any women featured as characters in this story? Graciously, the folks who made this set of images included a few women in the background of the crowd scenes, just to make sure that we knew that that there were, in fact, women in biblical times. Since there were women, I wonder: What did the women think of Jesus, and his story? Could they find themselves inside it, even though they weren’t represented in it?

There are so many fascinating characters in and around this story. There are so many characters that we might relate to, or learn from. Still, most of the pieces of art and commentary on this story focus on just three characters: the two supposedly holy men who ignore the traveler who is wounded on the side of the road; and the Samaritan who acts with extraordinary compassion, caring for the traveler.

The holy men, the priest and the Levite, are so fun to despise. How the mighty have fallen!  What hypocrites! These folks claim to be following God, but what do they do when it comes down to it?

Here’s a modern day pastor striding quickly past a traveler in the road. You know he’s a pastor because he’s carrying a bible; it’s just something we do when out for a stroll. There’s snow, so you can imagine the whole storyis happening in New England, although why the traveler is wearing biblical clothes and modern sneakers, I couldn’t tell you.

If the Priest and the Levite are people we love to hate, the Samaritan is someone we love to admire. Our expectations of him are low; as someone who does not worship at the temple in Jerusalem, he’s considered a stranger, an outsider. Still, he shows up for the traveler, tending to his wounds, placing him on his own animal, taking him to shelter. He even pays an innkeeper to keep taking care of him. Talk about going above and beyond. The hospitals and churches and non-profit organizations named “Good Samaritan” are too many to count. We still use the word “Samaritan” to describe someone who offers generous care.

We focus on these three characters, and we wonder: what have I done, what would I do, what will I do, when I am faced with someone who is suffering?  Will I treat that person like a stranger, and walk away? Or will I treat that person as a neighbor, and care for them?

Caring seems to be the right answer, according to Jesus. I don’t know about you, though, but caring for everyone sounds exhausting. We are caught up in so many unjust systems. We read news of suffering around the globe. We can’t possibly treat everyone like a neighbor, even if we decided we wanted to try. Is this story just one big guilt trip, a set-up to make us feel bad about ourselves for not saving the world by ourselves?

Consider how Jesus ends his teaching session. The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus offers this story. Then Jesus offers a question. Jesus is always asking questions. Here is Jesus’ question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”The lawyer answers, “the one who showed mercy.” Jesus says, “Go, and do likewise.”

We could spend a lot of energy trying to decide who our neighbors are – who is in, who is out – who is the most worthy of our love, who is most worthy of our limited time and resources. Jesus invites us instead to ask what it means to be a neighbor. Be a neighbor! Jesus suggests. Ponder the art of neighborliness, and practice it. Each day, as you encounter others along your way, show mercy.  Take it one day at a time. If you don’t get it right, you can try again tomorrow.

It is fascinating to use this story as way of observing the world around us today. We can find people to fit every role. Who are the teachers of wisdom, and who comes to test their wisdom? Who are the vulnerable travelers, and who are the robbers who harm them? Who passes suffering by, without seeming to notice, and who is extraordinarily generous? Who is not even acknowledged as part of the story?

At the end of the day, however, this story is not (or not only) social analysis. It is guidance for faithful living. Jesus’ story, and his question, are offered and recorded as a gift to help us. Do you seek a meaningful life? Do you wish to grow closer to the great love at the heart of the universe? Let’s try being loving towards God, and towards those around us, and towards ourselves.Let’s try being neighborly, and see what comes of it. May it be so.

The Spirit of the Beatitudes

  • October 1, 2019

Offered by Beth Barsotti on September 29, 2019

Matthew 5:1-12

Opening

On a retreat during my senior year of college one of the directors named Cindy Rose was setting up the theme for the day. Cindy Rose was part of the L’Arche community in Tacoma, WA. Cindy Rose walked into the home one day and Eileen, one of the adults with intellectual disabilities, walked up to her and said Cindy Rose, I love you. Cindy graciously thanked Eileen and intended to go about her business. Eileen said it again, “Cindy Rose, I love you.” Cindy Rose stopped, thanked Eileen and began to step away. Again, “Cindy Rose, I love you.” “Cindy Rose, I love you.” Eileen said it again…she said it until Cindy Rose heard the message and tears formed in her eyes–You are loved.

While this story is unique to Cindy Rose and Eileen, it reveals a lot about the way of life in L’Arche. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, was a man with many gifts. From the outside he appeared to be successful in almost everything he did. He joined the Royal Navy at age 13, he earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy, he taught at a university to full classes of students. Yet, he felt a desire for something different than what society deemed as “success.” He was raised in a Catholic home and was a man of deep faith. He simply desired to be a friend of Jesus. In his searching, his mom introduced him to a priest in France who, at the time (the 1960s), worked in a small institution for people with intellectual disabilities. Jean visited him and saw the deplorable conditions in the institution. Yet, when encountering the men in the institution, he heard something. He heard a cry for relationship. “Do you love me?” “Do you want to be my friend?” This resonated within Jean. It was the cry Jean heard from Jesus in the Gospels–do you love me? Will you be my friend? The men wanted to be seen and loved.

Then, in 1964, he moved from Canada to France and in an irreversible act invited three men from the institution (including Raphael and Philippe) to share life with him in the spirit of the Beatitudes. Jean responded to Jesus’s invitation to a distinct way of life; to live in the spirit of the Beatitudes.

Beatitudes[1]

In our text today from the Gospel of Matthew we hear “when he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain.” Jesus went up the mountain not to get away, but instead the mountain conveys to us something important is going to be revealed like with Moses on Mount Sinai. Jesus sat down (a posture of a teacher), the disciples came to him, and he shared a vision for a world that was different than what they (or you or I) might expect.

Blessed are those who are meek–whose whole drive is not to get ahead of their neighbors. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness–who seek to bring about God’s desires here on earth. Blessed are those who are merciful–who exercise mercy rather than taking advantage of a person in a more vulnerable position. Blessed are the pure of heart–those who live with integrity. Blessed are the peacemakers–those who actively seek unity and celebrate diversity. Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of living a “right way of life.” The Beatitudes are a challenge to our western way of life. More than a list of things to do and not do–they reflect an approach or attitude reflective of the vision of God.

Reality

Yet, we do not need to look far or hardly open the paper or turn on the radio to hear the disparity between the rich and the poor, the treatment of people based on the color of their skin, their abilities, education, or background. We are taught to be in competition with our neighbors, to value production and the bottom line over people, and that weakness and vulnerability are to be avoided at all costs. Underlying so much of this division in our world is our fear of what is different.

A practical question arises–What does it look like to live in the spirit of the Beatitudes in a world punctuated by so much division?

Prior to visiting the institution in France, Jean Vanier experienced fear and walls of separation. He was worried about how he might talk with people who may not speak, what to say, or even how he was going to respond in the new situation. Fear alone is not the problem; it is how we respond to it. Jean’s response was to draw close in friendship.

For Jean, living in the spirit of the Beatitudes means responding to Jesus’s invitation by building a community centered on relationships of mutuality, where “the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor would be brought together in community and find peace.”[2]

Friendship—Growth in Mutuality

The Beatitudes mark for us a different way of living where those who mourn, who exercise mercy, are pure of heart, and are peacemakers are understood to be blessed. This way of life is only possible if the walls of separation between the strong and weak are dismantled.        

The walls do not necessarily come down immediately. Vanier upon his first visit to the institution, would tell us that he believed in love, and yet at the time for him, love was understood to be generosity. However, through sharing life in L’Arche, he gradually grew to understand love quite differently—he began to realize that through vulnerability and in opening his heart to those who were excluded (not just acts of generosity), he was able to experience the giftedness of his housemates and truly begin to reveal to them their belovedness. His witness invites us to live in the spirit of the Beatitudes by entering into relationships of mutuality and building communities with the most vulnerable at the center.

Over a year into my own life in L’Arche, Walton (one of the core members—in L’Arche language we say core because the people with intellectual disabilities are at the heart of the community) and I had an errand to run. We journeyed to the downtown DMV (one step of many to get a handicapped parking permit). Through a series of frustrating events, we left without what we needed and I was dismayed and on the verge of tears. We got to the parking garage and we were 3 minutes into the next hour and had to pay extra. I started to cry. Waltico, sitting in the passenger seat in the van rummaging through his bag of pens looked over at me and said, “Qué pasa?” (Spanish is his native language.) His simple question wondering what was wrong, startled me.

While I loved Walton, on some level I remained in the role of a “generous care-giver” and had not truly entered into a relationship of mutuality. With a simple “¿Qué pasa?” Walton invited me to be a friend, to break down the walls that remained. In the words of Jean Vanier, “[w]hen I become your friend, I become vulnerable to you…In some mysterious way, friendship is the beginning of a covenant whereby we are all tied to each other. You have to know that once you become the friend of someone with disabilities, much of your life begins to change.”[3]

A theology professor once told me that God’s hand is always outstretched offering friendship. And, when we are ready, we can meet that outstretched hand with our “yes” to the offer of friendship. Walton embodied that outstretched hand, whether it was his actual hand or whether it was the gentleness in which he invited me into relationship.

Mutual relationships enable us to gradually take down the walls that separate the “strong” from the “weak” and allow us to truly see the giftedness and value of each person. It is in saying “yes” to mutual relationships with the vulnerable people in the community that one’s heart is opened, and the spirit of the Beatitudes take shape. In opening one’s heart…

  • to Eileen who insists you hear the message, “I love you”;
  • to the men in the institution who communicated the same question of Jesus, “Do you love me?” “Will you be my friend?”
  • to Walton who says, “¿Qué pasa?”

How do we live the spirit of the Beatitudes in a world marked by so much division? We enter into relationships of mutuality with the people who are pushed aside in society, who are deemed weak, vulnerable, meek, poor in spirit because in fact, they are the very people who will lead the community to live in the spirit of the Beatitudes.


[1] Brendan Byrne, SJ, “Matthew,” in The Paulist Biblical Commentary, ed. editor José Enrique Aguilar Chiu contributor et al. (Paulist Press, 2018), 900–971.

[2] Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, Resources for Reconciliation (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2008), 25–26.

[3] Vanier, We Need Each Other, 53-54.

A Part of the Body

  • September 25, 2019

I Corinthians 12: 12-31

A sermon preached by Rev. Wendy Vander Hart, Assoc. Conference Minister, on September 22, 2019

Grace and peace be to you from Jesus Christ the head of the church.  I bring you greetings, blessings and all manner of good wishes from the 70 churches of the Metropolitan Boston Association of MA Conference, UCC. 

I want to thank Pastor Hannah and church leaders for the invitation to be here, preach and be present with you today.  It is a blessing to be in this space to worship God and lift up our covenant connections as the body of Christ.  Bless you Pastor Hannah as you engage in ministry for this season. Bless you Church in the ministries you fulfill and for the ways you live the love and justice of Jesus in this community and beyond.  

I celebrate who you are in the present and I am praying for your future.  Before we move to the scripture text would you help me celebrate who you are in the present by thanking someone next to you for being part of this ministry?  Reach out to someone and say “thanks for being part of this ministry!”

The topic for this sermon is “What is Your Part?” If you are a visitor today or a long-standing participant I hope you will find this a provocative sermon for your personal life.  But overall these words are posed to the whole of you, church. 

So tell me how you got here today?  Did you walk, take public transportation, drive, Uber? I drove here but I figure there are at least one hundred people involved in my arriving here safely this morning. There is the public works staff who keep MWRA water flowing into my home that allowed me to take a shower.  And then the Eversource workers that keep the lights on and the cool flowing in my house.  Then there are all the hands that brought Tejava unsweetened iced tea, Josephs Wheat Pita bread, Whole Foods Peanut Butter and peaches, to my table.  Somebody wrote articles in the Globe that keep me informed.  Others devised programs and algorithms that connected me to friends, family near and far as I checked on Facebook this morning.  Still others stayed to the right so the bicycles had room to whiz by me on the left on the bike path for my 5K daily morning walk. When I crossed the street, a half dozen cars obeyed the red light and did not run me over. Then there are the folks in Jordan who made the clothes I am wearing that kept me sheltered on the way here and well… you get my point.  

It takes interdependence to get through life on a regular basis.  If that is a true statement, why would church be any different?

The words from I Corinthians 12 were written to a new church start founded by Paul.  As he went off to other places to plant new churches, word got back to him that the church folk in Corinth were squabbling with each other about where people were sitting at the communion table and who was eating more than their fair share.  In responding to what has trickled back to him, Paul uses an image of the body to address these issues and provide us 2000 years later with a beautiful image of the church – the body of Christ.

If ever there was an image of interdependence it is this one of all the parts of the body working together for the good of the whole.  It was not a new image for that time and place, but Paul twisted the use of the body for a different purpose.  Where in the Roman world, (especially among politicians) the image of the body had been used to reinforce who was the head and that the other members served that head to strengthen hierarchy, Paul wrote of the body with an emphasis on the unity of all parts as essential for the wholeness of the body.

“The end result of the body metaphor in Paul’s hands is not the same old hierarchy, or even the inverse of that culturally-expected pattern of domination with new people placed on the top, but a deep unity of the whole body, with each part cared for by the others.”[1]

Pauls’ words to the church at Corinth meant that contrary to accepted opinion of the times, the head could not lord it over any other part of the body – all had equal and important parts to play for a body to exist at all.  In other words – this is the first text that asserts congregational governance!  Our United Church of Christ forebears believed that the body of Christ was constituted not when the pastor was in place preaching and teaching but when the body was gathered discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Even Jesus did not act alone. He gathered disciples, he was funded by widows, he slept in other people’s homes and said whenever two or three of you are gathered, there I will be in the midst of you. To be the body of Christ is not a solo proposition.  The only body Jesus has in the world is the church.  And how wacky is it on God’s part to entrust something so precious to not just one human being but to put many human beings together and expect that what we do and who we are will give the world a glimpse of Jesus still alive and living in this world.  The church exists because God wants it to- through us and many times despite us.  My colleague Kelly Gallagher says – “no one can kill the church, many have tried but because it is God’s, it will never die.” That does not mean the church is not a fragile thing, most bodies are.  But I can tell you this – there are not many churches that can do the deep discernment work of envisioning their purpose and then agree to remove their pews, reconfigure generations old worship space and still pass the peace of Christ genuinely amongst each other. So I bear witness to the resilience of this body among the bodies that make of us the United Church of Christ.  

A number of years ago I just happened to be present in worship when the former Lead Pastor of First Church in Somerville, Molly Baskette, preached on this text.  She proclaimed that in her role as Lead Pastor she had finally figured out which part of the body she was – the placenta!  She went on to describe her understanding of being part of the birthing process for new ways of being church.

  In many congregations we too often act as if the Pastor is the head, the brains, the one who directs everything and without whom the church could not exist.  And that is understandable – some of us pastors might even believe that about our place in the body!  But the apostle Paul would knock those pastors down a peg or two for introducing hierarchy of form and function into the body metaphor.  No one part is greater than another and at the same time every part of the body is needed to be a body.

Ten years ago you installed Hannah to the role of Pastor.  She joined this body to preach and teach, commune, baptize and faithfully serve. When I asked Hannah what part she identifies for herself in this body, she named the circulatory system. Much like the circulatory system functions to bring blood and nutrients where they serve the whole of the body, Hannah described routing things where they need to go, seeing the big picture and calling out resources here and attention there- looking at the needs of the whole. We celebrate the circulatory function that Hannah contributes to this body and for the ways she contributes to your health and vitality as a church.

Even while we celebrate your Pastor’s contributions to the whole we also recognize the bodily function each and every one contributes to being church.  What matters most in these days is to keep being the church.  What matters most in this time is to keep embodying Jesus in the unique ways you know how to practice our precious faith.  What matters most is to play your left hand role, your spleen role, your liver role, your eye role, your right foot role, your nose hair role, your appendix role, your hearing, tasting, touching, feeding, laughing, testifying roles for all the world to experience.  Because where our world is right now, we cannot afford to lose a body like yours.  This body is a gift to the United Church of Christ and it is a treasure to the world, not because of who your pastor is or is not, but because of who you collectively are.  Thisbody only exists because God wants it to and has called each one of you exquisite beings to contribute to the whole of it. You got here together and together is how you will carry on.

There is another dimension to the Apostle Paul’s words worth mentioning here.  The churches he founded were not solitary communities unto themselves.  Each one contributed to, prayed for and supported the far flung bodies gathered in Jesus name from Philippi to Galatia, from Rome to Jerusalem.  When a need was known in another community, prayers ascended and offerings were taken to contribute to those needs.  The church at Corinth was a body with other bodies much like our United Church of Christ is today. The church of Jesus Christ is not a self-contained movement – networks of churches contribute together to being good news in their locales. I praise God for the unique gifts and ministries you offer to our collective UCC self- you are a blessing to the whole of us!

 This sermon is going to end with powerful words written in a song by Hezekiah Walker and I offer them to you as a prayer for your ministry.

I need you
You need me
We’re all a part of God’s body
Stand with me
Agree with me
We’re all a part of God’s body
It is God’s will that every need be supplied
You are important to me
I need you to survive.

May it be so.  Amen.


[1]Brian Peterson, Preach This Week, Luther Seminary

Thank You!

  • September 24, 2019

Words from Pastor Hannah on the 10th anniversary of her installation at WCUC.

When I was searching for a new call in 2009, I had lots of wonderful education, mentoring, and support; two years of ordained ministry experience; and a heart hungry to take on God’s work in a new setting.  West Concord Union Church was the first congregation to catch my attention, and I hope you know that you have had my heart from the beginning.

This congregation has an extraordinary story. It was founded by reformatory guards and their spouses, on what was then the “wrong” side of town. It was built on the extraordinary generosity of folks who didn’t have a whole lot of money, but who did have a determination to serve those who society discounts.  In time, this fundamental identity found a new expression as you recognized as beloved neighbors and fellow church members those of all abilities.  The church I first encountered ten years ago was marked by remarkable inclusion, warm friendliness, a scrappy can-do attitude, extraordinary music, and stalwart leaders with so many gifts.

I have always felt it to be a part of my call that God planned to change me through the work of ministry; and indeed, this work is a refining fire, dangerous to the ego.  I thank you for putting up with me: a pastor who arrived a good 50 years younger than some of you, and with limited experience offering care, or leading change (both delicate and difficult tasks).  Ten years later, I am older, with more experience. Still, as I often say, all pastors would benefit from having an extraordinarily broad number of gifts and areas of expertise, and each one of us only has some of them.  I am limited, in what I can offer. I have made a great many mistakes, in what I have done, and what I have failed to do, in my work alongside you. I ask for your forgiveness, and welcome your honest conversation; long-term relationships only work if you talk it out. I will continue to work on seeking out and supporting all of your gifts; for (as Wendy says) it is what we can do, all together, that really matters. I can’t tell you how often I have learned from your example, and how deeply I have appreciated your kindness and your dedication to our shared ministry. It has been a profound privilege to be part of precious moments in your lives, and in our life together, over the last ten years.

If you look at the list of pastors in the back hallway, most of the recent folks have not stayed more than 8, 9, or  10 years.  So, it has occurred to me to wonder if you have been expecting me to leave.  I have been trying to listen hard to the needs of this congregation, and to the call of God.  So far, it feels like we are still growing well together, exploring new opportunities to serve all ages and abilities; to worship in ways that honor the past, the present, and dreams of the future; and to dig deeper into loving God and one another. I feel incredibly blessed to be still traveling with you, continuing to grow together in faith and service.

Thank you so much for the great honor of serving as your pastor. I look forward to whatever God has in mind for us next.

Remembering Rhonney

  • September 17, 2019

We are so grateful for all who came together to serve and witness at the memorial for Rhonda Doll. For those who had to miss it, you can view the whole service here:

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.