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:
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.
This morning we met on the beach to share gratefulness for our summer adventures, sadness for the challenges and losses in our lives, and hope for what this new year might bring. We were especially mindful of the loss of our dear friend Rhonney Doll and walked with her family, Jim and Emily, in our hearts. We began with a blessing written by Jan Richardson, in her book The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief :
Blessing for the Brokenhearted
There is no remedy for love but to love more. – Henry David Thoreau
Let us agree
that we will not say the breaking
makes us stronger or that it is better to have this pain than to have done without this love.
Let us promise we will not
tell ourselves time will heal the wound, when every day our waking opens it anew.
Perhaps for now it can be enough to simply marvel at the mystery
of how a heart
can go on beating,
as if it were made for precisely this—
as if it knows
the only cure for love is more of it,
as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy for breaking
is to love still,
as if it trusts that its own persistent pulse is the rhythm of a blessing we cannot begin to fathom but will save us nonetheless.
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.
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.
We’re grateful for the workers replacing the flat portion of our roof and for the generous bequest of Bob Carter, which made this project possible. We’re on schedule to finish the project before our program year begins. Take a look at some early photos provided by David Frink!
My mother and I started coming to this church when I was about twenty-two years old. We had heard West Concord Union Church was starting a group called Sunday Fellowship for adults with disabilities and we came for the very first meeting. I’ve been here ever since! I’m the youngest of four and the spoiledest! But I’m the only Concordian in the family. I was born at Emerson and I‘m also the only one who still lives here. In fact, I live just a few doors away from here in a house that’s part of the “shared living program” at Minute Man Arc. That means my roommate and I live in our own apartment but there’s a caregiver upstairs in case we need anything. I love my apartment because it’s close to my friends and many of my favorite places like church, the library, and Dunkin Donuts. Janice runs on Dunkin! Ha, Ha!
Growing up, I was involved in a lot of activities. I participated in plays through Open Door Theater. I also played tennis and ran track with the Special Olympics. One year, I even went to the International Special Olympics in track and field. The strange thing is that even though I was born and raised in Concord I couldn’t always go to school here. For three years, I was sent to Lincoln schools because there weren’t any programs for me in Concord. Then, they brought me back to Concord for junior high and my first year of high school. But after one year at CCHS they decided I would be happier at Wayland High School.
After high school, I started working and eventually, moved into my own apartment. I had a variety of jobs—some better than others. I worked the longest at Concord Teacakes but it was a very physically demanding job. So I left Teacakes and went to work at Crosby’s Supermarket. Unfortunately, I had to retire from that job too due to a shoulder injury. I don’t have a paying job these days but I keep busy. I’m on the Board for Minute Man Arc and Open Door Theater, I’m a self-advocate for people with disabilities at the Statehouse, I go to Standing Strong with other self-advocates twice a month and I volunteer at Petsmart twice a week. That’s not to mention the time I spend each week helping in the church office! Oh, and I also work in the church nursery on first Sundays. You can see why I need my coffee! Janice runs on Dunkin!
Seriously, though, I know I’m lucky. I’ve always had a full life. If I had been born just a few years earlier, that might not have been true. Special Olympics began when I was five years old and I was twelve by the time schools were required to provide public education for children with disabilities. Even now, more than 75% of people with intellectual disabilities can’t find a job. Did you know it’s legal to pay people with disabilities less than the minimum wage? I’m happy to say Minute Man doesn’t do that and there’s a bill in Congress to change that law.
Many of you were there in June when I retired from Sunday School. The day I said goodbye was one of the biggest, hardest times in my life because Sunday school was a job I could always count on and I loved it. I started teaching twenty years ago with Patty Lynch. Before I started helping Patty, I had no idea God would ever want me to do something like this. It was a big surprise and a new beginning. But I had a niece who had just been born and I felt like something was telling me to go upstairs. Maybe God was calling me just like God called Samuel.
I’m glad I had the courage to answer God’s call that day and I’m grateful to Patty for welcoming me. It was a big blessing because I didn’t know Patty and she didn’t know me. I never took care of kids before and I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into. I didn’t even know what church school was because there weren’t any Sunday school classes for me at the church I went to as a child. Patty became my “Eli”. She got me started with teaching and she was a big role model for me like Eli was for Samuel. That’s why it was very hard for me to see Patty go when she left six years ago. At the time, I wasn’t sure I could keep teaching but I heard Patty and God saying to me, “Don’t leave.” Once again I answered God’s call and I stayed. I continued to teach with Ruth and Jessica and then with Melissa and with my final teammate, Lisa and all the parents that helped out. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of changes. The nursery has changed places three times since I started! The teachers have changed. The kids have changed. Even the ministers have changed. I was the only one who was always there. I hope that was helpful to the kids.
This year, I started to wonder if my call could change too. I had started to feel like God might want me to do more to help with Sunday Fellowship. But I was nervous to tell anyone I was thinking about leaving Sunday School. I didn’t know how they would take it. For months, I struggled with my decision. I tried to compose my thoughts on how I wanted to phrase it and why I felt like this was something I needed to do. Some of my favorite memories at church are being with the kids and all the other teachers and I didn’t want to hurt them. I bet that’s just how Samuel felt when he had to tell Eli what God had said!
Finally, Jessica and I talked and she told me I could still help with Sunday school as a substitute or if there’s a project she needed help with. Telling her was a relief but saying goodbye to Sunday school was still very hard. Patty and I had been texting all week before my last Sunday and then she suddenly stopped answering! I wasn’t sure what was going on! I thought maybe something was wrong! I felt a little like Samuel in the story when he thought Eli was calling him and kept saying to Samuel, “I’m didn’t call you! Go back to bed!” Little did I know she had stopped answering me because she wanted to surprise the heck out of me! When I came into worship on my last day in Sunday School I saw a familiar face in the back. It was Patty! I went right up to her and gave her the biggest hug! It was a wonderful surprise on a day that was kind of sad and a celebration. It became a celebration of two teachers, not just one.
So that’s the story of how I found my calling in Sunday School and how God is helping me realize that calling is changing into something new. I want to say how grateful I am to God for all of the opportunities I’ve had in my life. I am also grateful to Patty and my parents and all the other “Eli’s” God has sent to show me what faithfulness looks like. I guess I never realized that one day I would become an Eli too. Thanks be to God. Amen.
This summer we’ve been exploring dreams and visions of the bible. We started with texts from Genesis and Acts. Last week I spoke about the visions of Ezekiel. Today we hear from the book of Daniel, which, like Ezekiel, is set in the time when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had besieged Jerusalem and sent many of its leaders into exile. Ezekiel, who came from a priestly family, saw visions of God from his vantage point in a refugee camp. Daniel, who comes from the line of David, ends up in the courts of Babylon and Persia, mixed up in royal intrigues. Both books imagine a future beyond the Babylonian captivity, and beyond all time as we know it.
Many folks who grew up in a church have heard of Daniel. We’ve heard the story where he is thrown into a pit of lions because of the suspicion that he worships Yahweh rather than the king. There’s another really popular Sunday School story in this book, about Daniel’s friends, who have acquired the Babylonian names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — they’re the ones who were thrown into a fiery furnace. Given Daniel’s popularity, it pains me to tell you that modern scholars agree that Daniel did not exist. Not only that, but the book of Daniel is a bit of a mess, written at two different times in two different languages, and with three stories that are either included or excluded, depending on which version of the bible you use.
However, none of this precludes our learning something about God from the stories in Daniel. After all, our ancestors in faith though that this text was important enough to record in their holy book. I also could not possibly leave Daniel out of this sermon series, because this book is chock full of dreams and visions.
It all starts with the story we heard David read. King Nebuchadnezzar is losing sleep because of his strange dreams. So, he summons Babylonian wise people, enchanters, magicians, diviners, who he asks not only to interpret his dreams, but also to know what the dreams are, without being told. As it turns out, no one can do this, even under threat of death: no one expect our hero, the Israelite Daniel, with the help of his God.
Nebuchadnezzar has dreamt of a great statue, with a head of gold, a torso of silver, thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. These all, Daniel explains, represent kingdoms that will rise to rule the earth. However, in the end, God will set up a new kingdom that will crush all of these kingdoms. This new kingdom of God will stand forever, like a great mountain, covering the earth.
Daniel takes a big risk in coming forward and offering this interpretation to the King. However, his risk pays off. The King is impressed by Daniel, worshipping and promoting him, and praising Daniel’s God.
Unfortunately, the King’s awe of Daniel’s God does not entirely protect him. In subsequent chapters, both Daniel and his three friends are threatened because of their loyalty to this same God. However, these four Israelites hold fast again and again to their faith, and are rewarded for it, both by God, and, oddly enough, by King Nebuchadnezzar.
As the book goes on, we hear more dreams and visions from both Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel. All of these dreams and visions point to the same meanings as the first. There will be many violent human empires to rule the world, with rulers who fail to humble themselves before God. However, in the end, God’s kingdom of justice and peace will overcome them all. The only question that remains is: when? When will God’s kingdom, God’s reign, God’s way, finally come to pass on the earth?
How long, O Lord? This question was important to the Israelites under Babylonian rule. It was important to their descendants, still facing foreign powers, who included the stories of Daniel in the bible. Even today, we wonder how long it will be before God’s kingdom, God’s reign, God’s way will come, when peace and justice will fill the earth.
Unfortunately, the book of Daniel can’t tell us how long we have to wait. Neither can anyone else. And there’s another puzzle to trying to apply this story to our modern day life. It’s often hard to write off human kingdoms as solely good or evil, the way they are in this book of the bible.
For example: in the past week or so debate flared again around our immigration policies. The current administration is making a change, so that it explicitly measures the wealth of immigrants when determining who may enter the country. Those who are not rich enough do not merit entry. In response, many quoted the lines inscribed by our Statue of liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” We are defined as a nation, these folks said, by the way we offer welcome and freedom to all. The new immigration policy is a betrayal of our most basic values.
Is this really true? History tells us that the American ideal of welcome and freedom has always co-existed with a much more complicated reality. This reality includes slavery – which, this coming week, will have existed in these lands for 400 years. It includes broken treaties with Native American tribes, Jim Crow and racist land policies and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Who is America, really? Who were we, at our founding, and who are we today? When I look at our nation, I see both beautiful aspiration and terrible oppression, both good and evil, in our past, and in our present.
How long, O Lord? How long until our nation, any nation, every nation, is filled with peace and justice? No one can tell us. But as people of faith, our highest patriotism is to try to bring the power systems we live in at least a little bit closer to God’s ways. To live like Daniel did: faithful to God in all circumstances, even under pressure of great empires.
Please pray with me. Holy God, it is hard to witness the cruelty and injustice in our world. So many seek to dominate, without concern for their neighbors, equally, infinitely beloved children of God. We, too, are often tempted to seek our own advantage, ignoring who pays the price for our wealth, privilege, and comfort. Inspire in us a fervent commitment to your ways; grant us the courage of those who face down lions, and walk through fire; help us to give our hearts and lives to you, again and again, in humility, hope, and determination. Amen.
This summer at West Concord Union Church we have been exploring dreams and visions in the bible. We started with the book of Genesis and then moved to the book of Acts. Today we hear from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel.
The Prophet Ezekiel was one of those Israelites who was forced into exile, when King Nebuchadnezzar and a Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem, about 600 years before the birth of Jesus. Being in exile was difficult for everyone, but perhaps even more difficult for Ezekiel than most, because he was from a priestly family. Away from Jerusalem, Ezekiel is deprived not only of his home, but also of his vocation: to serve God in God’s holy temple.
Ezekiel could have lived and died in obscurity, separated from all that he cared for. But as the scripture we hear today describes, something amazing happens instead. It is Ezekiel’s thirtieth year – the year when he would have become a priest, if he was living in Jerusalem. He is sitting by the river Chebar, by his refugee camp. Then, suddenly, the heavens open, the hand of the Lord comes upon him, and he sees an amazing vision.
There are four creatures of human form, each with four wings and four faces. There is a wheel by each of them, and a wheel within each wheel. Above the creatures and the wheels is a throne. On the throne is something almost indescribable: bright, loud, with splendor all around. It is the likeness of the glory of God.
The imagery in Ezekiel’s vision may seem strange to us. It was at least somewhat less strange to his contemporary listeners. The winged beings he describes are a little bit like the cherubim that flanked the doorways in the holy temple in Jerusalem. The flame and cloud he describes are similar to how God showed up on Mt. Sinai, and over the Arc of the Covenant. Still, Ezekiel’s vision is extravagant and overwhelming. There are burning coals, flashes of lightening, gleaming gemstones, moving spirits, and the sound of mighty waters. Even more amazing, this vision does not appear in the temple in Jerusalem, or on Mt. Sinai, or over the Arc of the Covenant. It does not appear in any great or holy place. The likeness of the glory of God arrives on the banks of a river, by a refugee camp, in Babylon.
After this incredible vision, Ezekiel receives a call from God to become a prophet. He speaks to his people about the coming destruction and purification of Jerusalem and the nations. He speaks to his people of the coming renewal of their hearts. He speaks to his people about the coming return of God and God’s people to a new and even more spectacular temple. Somehow, Ezekiel tells us, amidst all the evil within and around us, God’s glory will shine forth again.
When I consider Ezekiel’s vision, I will admit to feeling just a little bit jealous. The vision sounds terrifying, it’s true – and Ezekiel’s call was terrifying, too. But how amazing to have God show up, right before you, with the kind of astonishing spectacle we usually associate with rock concerts, or blockbuster movies.
The God Ezekiel encounters isn’t a still, small voice; or a quiet leading of the heart. This God isn’t like the domesticated images of Jesus that are so popular, either: mild-mannered, pale skinned, holding a sheep. This God burns and flashes and gleams with startling splendor. This God inspires awe and humility.
Folks in the bible, and in Christian tradition, and we ourselves, encounter God in many ways, most of them much more subtle than this. But how amazing to be utterly stunned and carried away by God’s wildness, by God’s otherness, by God’s fierce beauty, by God’s incredible power.
Perhaps just as amazing as the way God shows up to Ezekiel, though, is where God shows up. Ezekiel is stunned to realize that God has come to Babylon. The Israelites know that God led them up out of Egypt. They know that their ancestors made a glorious home for God in Jerusalem. But it seems that God does not limit Godself to that one holy, majestic location, even though it still exists. No, She goes into exile with her people, meeting the faithful where they are; even in a refugee camp.
God is where the people are. God is everywhere. This message that Ezekiel receives is repeated towards the end of the book. Ezekiel sees in another vision that an even more glorious temple will be built one day, and that God’s glory will go there. But not only there. In this new temple, water flows out from the sanctuary to form a mighty river. The river flows east, spreading fresh water in the desert. Wherever this river goes, living creatures swarm with life. Wherever this river goes, trees grow along the banks, bearing fruit to eat, and leaves for healing. Earth and its plants and its creatures are remade, refreshed, and sustained by the nurture of the river of God, reaching out from the temple into the world.
Please pray with me. Holy unimaginable one, help us to open our minds and hearts to the gleaming of your faithfulness, the burning of your mercy, the flashes and thunder of your justice; Your mighty, marvelous love. Help us not to fear your glory, but to seek it, and to celebrate it, with praise, with awe, and with the dedication of our lives. For your love was not meant to stay only in one place, or even with one people: it reaches and roars like a mighty river. Help us to put our trust in your promise that Your glory will shine forth again, even in people like us. even in a time like this. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Acts 16 & 18
This summer we have been sharing stories of biblical dreams and visions. We started with dreams from the book of Genesis: dreams of Jacob and Solomon. This month we have focused on visions from the book of Acts. We started with Peter’s strange vision of inclusion (Acts 10), and continued with Paul’s vision of conversion (Acts 9). Today we hear more about Paul, from a little later in his story.
You may remember that Paul begins his life as Saul of Tarsus, a man of Jewish faith. Saul spends a lot of energy persecuting Jewish followers of Jesus until the resurrected Jesus himself appears to Paul in a vision. Paul goes on to become one of the most zealous evangelists of the early church, travelling far and wide to share the good news of the gospel.
But Paul’s conversion experience is not his only close encounter with God. As he undertakes the difficult work of evangelism, he continues to receive guidance and encouragement from God through visions. I was fascinated to realize that neither of the visions we hear today are part of our lectionary, the three-year schedule of readings many churches follow. So if these stories sound new to you: you’re probably not alone.
Paul is travelling with Silas and Timothy, trying to find a new place to preach and teach, when he has a vision. A person from Macedonia pleads with him, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul does not hesitate: he immediately gets on a boat and heads to Philippi. His stay there is quite eventful. A woman named Lydia is converted and becomes Paul’s host. Paul performs a healing that leads to an arrest, a midnight hymn sing, a divine earthquake, a prison break, and the subsequent conversion of the jailer and his household. I’m really surprised that no one has made a movie about this text.
The second story we hear a portion of this morning is a little less Hollywood-worthy but still quite dramatic. Paul arrives in yet another town. He finds yet another place to stay. And folks are not eager to listen to him, they oppose and revile him. In a fit of temper, Paul declares, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent.” He’s ready to give up convincing the folks of this synagogue, maybe all of his Jewish siblings, to follow Jesus. But God provides encouragement, appearing in a vision and saying: “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you.”
Don’t worry if you can’t keep straight the details of these two adventures. Those who are curious, I hope you will read through these chapters in Acts when you get home. For now, let’s just notice what it’s like for Paul to be a follower of Jesus, and to proclaim the risen Christ in the ancient world.
Paul’s vocation leads him into a profoundly precarious existence. He’s always on the move, never sure of having a place to stay, or enough to eat. And everywhere he goes, Paul causes trouble with his words. He offends people of all kinds: Jews and Gentiles, Roman officials and religious authorities. If you read Paul’s whole story in our scriptures, you’ll notice that he often leaves a place because it has gotten too hot for him. Over the course of his travels, Paul is stoned and he is shipwrecked and he spends a lot of time in prison – maybe one of the reasons why he had the time to write so many famous letters.
Paul is risking it all in pursuit of the gospel. He does what he does imperfectly. From our modern perspective we could offer plenty of critiques of his theology, his views of women, his approach to evangelism. But Paul is all in on this very risky endeavor of sharing the good news of Jesus, and he is probably the reason why we have all heard of Jesus here today. While Paul continues this dangerous work, God sends visions. These visions tell Paul: Serve still more people. Try yet more places. Speak and do not be silent.
We often think of God’s presence in our lives as calming, comforting, centering. Sometimes, God shows up like that. But it wasn’t like that for Paul. God’s grace shows up in Paul’s life as an interruption. God interrupts Paul’s life again and again and again. God interrupts Paul, and They encourage Paul to be an interrupter as well: to show up again and again with bold, loud, unapologetic good news.
Maybe you can think of someone who’s a bit like Paul in our world today: someone whose work of love could be described as bold, loud, and unapologetic. I think of women of color in congress, workers at Planned Parenthood, legal advocates for immigrants and those in prison. I think of all those whose very presence in our country is controversial, whose very personhood is disputed: people of color, of a non-Christian faith, LGBTQ+ identifying people, immigrants, those in poverty. There are so many among us who are opposed and reviled, run out of town, threatened with violence, imprisoned, and even killed, for the work they do, or for simply existing.
Paul makes me consider these folks; the price that they pay; and what kind of amazing divine power makes it possible for them to get up in the morning.
What is there in these texts, in Paul’s story, for us?
If you are busy with some challenging work of love; or if simply living as who you are is a challenging work of love; I hope you receive some encouragement. You are in great company, with Paul, Silas, Timothy, Lydia, Aquila and Priscila; with saints and heroes from the early church and from every age. Be ready for a message of divine encouragement: God is close to you.
If you have not recently noticed God calling you towards something uncomfortable, something audacious, something that interrupts or even threatens your way of life; I hope you will open the door of your heart to this possibility. There is such a thing as good trouble. Indeed, most beautiful things, most holy things, have not happened without it.
God, from of old you have called your imperfect people to strange ventures. You send us out on long journeys, involve us in arduous struggles. You invite us into challenging relationships. You encourage us to voice unpopular truths. Thank you for daring us to be reborn again and again in your love. Thank you for encouraging and challenging us, and being our companion in this world in which your justice is so often only realized because of the bold. Amen.