Posted in Worship

When Pigs Fly by Bryan Given

  • July 17, 2019

Good morning everyone. I’m Bryan. Thanks for allowing me to share my testimony today. I’m excited and a little nervous. I grew up here in Concord but I live in Burlington now. I’ve been part of Sunday Fellowship for about three years. I’m also Catholic. So in addition to West Concord Union Church, I often worship at Holy Family in Concord or St. Bridget’s in Maynard. I’ve wanted to share my journey for a while but it’s been hard for me to find the words. The story we just acted out is been helpful because I think I’m a little like Saul, not that I’ve ever tried to put anyone in jail or anything like that. I’m like him in a way because God usually comes to me through voices or in my dreams. And like Saul, I’ve heard God speak in broad daylight before!

There are a lot of stories about people hearing God’s voice or dreaming about God besides the one we shared today but for some reason, people don’t seem to talk about that stuff very much anymore. I guess it can be risky to say you hear voices depending on who you’re with. What do you think would have happened if Saul had been living in a group home like I do? House staff get worried very quickly when someone refuses to eat or drink. Or what if Saul had to tell his children his eyesight was bad? I don’t think he would have been able to travel so much or taken so many risks to spread the Gospel. Saul probably would have been dependent on other people for rides just like most of us are when we get older or when we live in a group home. [PAUSE]

When I was growing up, my grandmother was very important to me. I called her “Nana” and she was my mom’s mother. Nana was so nice to me. She was fun and caring and she liked to cook a lot of good food especially strawberry soup. It’s cold but it’s a really good! We used to go on the rides at Old Orchard Beach together- the Ferris wheel and the log flume. She took me everywhere I wanted to go.

Nana died when I was in high school but she was sick with dementia and Alzheimer’s for a long time before that. She had to live in a nursing home at the end of her life. I wanted to visit her but things got worse and before that she lived with my sister and everything got worse there too. Nana couldn’t remember things and she didn’t recognize me. I tried bringing pictures of me and her from the lake house to help her remember. I would show her the picture and say, “Nana, do you remember me? And she would say, “No.” That was really hard. I prayed hard that Jesus would heal her but it didn’t happen that way.

I was really upset when Nana passed away. Even though I knew she was in a better place, I’ve never stopped missing her. I wish I could have had more time with her. Have you ever felt like that after someone passed away? It has always bothered me that Jesus didn’t stay with Mary and the disciples after he rose from the dead. I used to wonder how Mary and the disciples felt after the first Easter and Jesus went back up to heaven. Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to be with them after he left never seemed like a very good deal. But at least they had fifty days of little visits with Jesus before they had to say “goodbye” to him all over again. For a long time, I wished Nana could somehow come down for a visit with me like Jesus did or that I could go visit her in heaven. But she’s up there and I’m down here.

Then, one Sunday in June, I was praying in the Sacristy where I sometimes hang out before church and the pastor doesn’t mind. I was praying for Nana and thinking about all of the great times we had together and just feeling kind of sad and lonely. That night, I had an amazing dream! Nana and I were driving in her silver car along the coast of Maine. We were listening to Johnny Cash on the radio just like we used to and talking about where we wanted to go and what we wanted to eat and everything. I dreamed we were going to a famous bakery called When Pigs Fly where we always used to go for good bread. The dream was so real it was like my prayers were answered and I got a real Easter visit with her! I had always thought of her whenever I heard Johnny Cash or tasted her strawberry soup. But this time, I could hear Nana’s voice saying, “Hey, what’s good to do around here anyway?”

My dream reminded me Nana and God are always going to be with me, especially when I feel sad and lonely. It’s normal to want more time when someone dies, but love is stronger than death or sin. I think it’s awesome that God used Nana’s voice to remind me of that. It’s taken a while but I think Nana and God are helping me bounce back when I go through a tough time. For example, I was sad when my mom didn’t make it to our housewarming party but I got over it quickly. Listening to jazz in my room and reading my worship book helped me calm down. I think my dream about Nana has somehow helped me trust God in a deeper way. I can trust in Jesus because he’s special to me and I know he’s in heaven. I can feel close him when I’m with other set grandparents because they like him too. Sometimes we read the scriptures like the one Father Silva talked about from John 16, “I have much more to tell you but you cannot bear it now. When he comes the Spirit of Truth, he will guide you to all the truth.”

Many of you probably know the priest who served at Holy Family for a long time, Father Fleming. He retired from Holy Family in May and now we have two new pastors. But Father Fleming was my parish priest since I was five. He led Nana’s funeral when she died and he came to my house when my mom was wicked sick. It was hard for me to say goodbye to him when he retired but I don’t feel as lonely as I thought I would. I want to end my talk with a great song Father Fleming used to sing called “Give Me Jesus.” He sang it on his last Sunday at Holy Family and it starts like this:

In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise, give me Jesus.
Give me Jesus.
Give me Je-sus.
You can have all this world, but give me Jesus.

Raise your hand if you know this song? This song always gives me a feeling of safety and home. My mom loves listening it too. So maybe the song reminds me of being at home with her. Or maybe it just reminds me that I never have to say goodbye to Jesus if I don’t want to. He can stay with me wherever I go.

My mom is here today and so are a few other family members and some of my staff. I really appreciate you guys coming to hear me speak today and I want you to know that I’ve started to get that homey feeling more often—like on Father’s Day when my family was all together eating goulash and watching the Red Sox. That tells me God is my home and even though God has come to me in unexpected ways over the years, God has always found a way to speak to me in a way I could hear. So don’t worry if God has or hasn’t spoken to you in a particular way. God can come in bright lights and dramatic transformations or in familiar voices and songs that simply remind us of something we already kind of knew: we are all loved. And as Saul of Tarsus who later became known as the Apostle Paul wrote:

“I am sure that nothing now, nothing in the future, no powers, nothing above us or nothing below us—nothing in the whole created world—will ever be able to separate us from the love God has shown us in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

If I had written that I would have added: Nope, not even when pigs fly! Amen! Will you please join me in singing “Give Me Jesus?” The words are printed in the bulletin.

Bryan Given

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.

Celebrating Children’s Ministries Sunday

  • June 6, 2019

Enjoy the wonderful photos capturing our very special Children’s Ministries service last Sunday, featuring our children leading all aspects of worship. An interactive drama (complete with a holy prison escape!), very special songs, and a fun sermon with streamers helped to create an energetic – and adorable – experience for all.

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.

    Easter Celebration!

    Thanks to everyone who came together to make our Easter Celebration possible! Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

    Mother Tree

    Luke 24:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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