Jesus Rises, Again

  • May 27, 2020

Luke 24:44-53

You may not be familiar with the story of the ascension. Like so many biblical stories, it’s a strange one.

Let’s back up to where this story starts.  Jesus, the child refugee who is also, somehow, God themself, grows up to be a rabbi: a teacher of faith, a teller of truth, a healer. He gathers people around him and proclaims the wonderful disruptive presence of God, here and now: as common and as transformative as yeast or seed or flame. Jesus’ teachings about pervasive and subversive divine love begin to challenge the powers that be: religious powers, social powers, political powers. So Jesus is killed. He goes down to break the gates of hell, and rises on the third day.  Jesus spends 40 days after his resurrection on earth with his disciples, teaching them, eating with them, blessing them. And then, he is carried up into heaven.

The Ascension in art and music and liturgy is often a celebration of Jesus’ supremacy.  In the letter to the Ephesians, the writer proclaims that God seated Jesus “at their right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And God has put all things under Jesus’ feet and has made him the head over all things.”

Now it is wonderful to think of Jesus having so much power, Love having so much power in our world. Unfortunately, the way we imagine that power is often with language and imagery of European kingship: whiteness and maleness and hierarchical dominance. I don’t know about you, but images like this do not really evoke for me a radical and just reordering of the world.

What does it mean to say that Jesus ascends to heaven, anyway? Does his body literally rise? Do the disciples watch his feet hover above them, as some artists imagine? And whether or not Jesus’ body literally rises, what does this story teach us about the nature of God, and how God can influence our lives today?

The ascension reminds us that Jesus goes before us, blazing a trail towards God.  Jesus shows us a way between earth and heaven, a way that we and our loved ones also travel when we die.  Jesus’ ascension may be a kind of coronation, but it is also a coming home, a return to his source.  We too, will find our final homes in the source and ground of our being, in the God who Jesus spoke about.

Jesus’ ascension is also the turning point between the earthly, temporal presence of Jesus and the eternal presence of Christ.  When he returns to God, Jesus is no longer concentrated in one physical body, but suffuses all of creation in a new way, as it says in Ephesians, filling all in all. While he may be enthroned above, we can also imagine Jesus arriving at the center of all things, at the heart of all things, and becoming more readily available to our hearts, here and now.

Let us this lovely good embrace: Jesus, no longer bound by time or space; Jesus, wisdom and sweetness; Jesus, who dwells now with God, and who is therefore as close as breath, or heartbeat, or hope.

Garden Clean-Up

  • May 20, 2020

Thanks so much to all the volunteers who came to help in the garden this past weekend!

Youth & ONA Sunday

Reflections from Joyce DeGreeff on May 3, 2020
Psalm 139
1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Good Morning Dear Friends…what a privilege it is for me to share some thoughts with you on this day when we are celebrating two of the things that are most precious to me in our our church: Our Awesome Youth and our Intentional Commitment to being an Open and Affirming community – one that welcomes and honors diversity and inclusion in all of its forms.

When I first moved to Concord with my family in 2002, we did a fair amount of church shopping. Our hearts quickly found a home when we eventually tried out WCUC. In addition to the music, the sermons, and the youth programs, we noticed right away the warmth of this community and the many ways that it was living the ONA statement that it had voted on three years before our arrival. It was in May of 1999, that this church decided to publicly affirm God’s call to love one another without exception and to recognize that welcoming such diversity enriches us all. This affirmation proclaims out loud that we are, everyone one of us, a beloved child of God – no matter what we look like, who we love, how much money we make, how we move, think, or communicate…we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God’s hands – the One who knit us into being and intimately knows and loves us exactly the way we are.

May of 1999…that was 21 years ago – It was before anyone in our current youth group was even born. Many of you were here at that time and I’ve heard that it was both a joyful and challenging process, but you persisted and followed God’s voice to make it happen. And here we are today seeing the fruits of your labor a generation later. I asked some members of the youth group to reflect on what it means to them that we are an ONA church. Listen to their voices:

“I think churches that are open and affirming are great because they bring people from different communities together as one and make people feel safe and comfortable – like they can express who they are and what they believe without any judgement – which I think is really important. I love WCUC because it’s such a welcoming, wonderful, and accepting community.”

“I think many people have associated Christianity with intolerance. If churches want to be accepting of all people as God intended, they should not put some people above others. My best friend wanted to find a religion where she could be herself and explore her spirituality. She immediately ruled out Christianity because she thought we were not welcoming of the LGBTQ community. It means a lot to me that I can bring any of my friends, no exceptions, to youth group and know they will be welcomed and treated as equals.”

“This church is special to me because I know that I can bring every part of me and I will be welcomed, accepted, and celebrated for who I am. I don’t have to hide or pretend to be someone I’m not.”

Our ONA statement clearly sends the message that all are welcome here and that no matter who you are, there’s a place for you – You Belong Here. We want you to “come, live in the light” because we know there is Joy and Freedom to be found when we can be fully who God created us to be.

Our ONA statement also reminds us that we are better together – diversity enriches all of us and we need each other. I like to think of it as “Mirrors and Windows”. We all need to see ourselves reflected in those around us and we all grow when we can look out and see something that’s new – something that is not part of our own experience but something that we can learn about and appreciate.

I remember the first time a child in our church wore noise cancelling headphones to help her body handle the higher volume sounds in worship. A week later, another child wore them and then another. Mirrors say “you are like me in some way” and we can be ourselves together.

I also love and miss the “windows” that I look through when we’re sitting in our sanctuary on a Sunday morning: I see families who are formed in various ways, I see young and old bodies of all shapes and sizes, I witness the gifts of our SF friends and their caregivers, and I appreciate the multiple ways we express joy – ranging anywhere from silent prayer to loud and heartfelt outbursts when the organ starts playing.

In the early Christian church, when the Corinthians were trying to figure out how to live in community, Paul told them this:

“Just as a body has many parts, but all of its parts form one body, so it is with the body of Christ” (this is our church community!) “God put (us) together so that (our) parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, (we all) suffer with it. If one part is honored, we all rejoice with it.”

Let’s keep these words in mind as we read our ONA statement together and remember how blessed we are to be a part of such a warm, welcoming and loving community of faith:

Our Open and Affirming Covenant (May 2, 1999; updated January 2020)
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 sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, age, race, socio-economic status, ethnicity, and physical and 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 Christlike in our love for one another.

WCUC Youth in Action

  • May 4, 2020

In these times of physical distancing, it helps to look back at pictures and remember all of the fun times we’ve had together. Those days will come again! In the meantime, let’s enjoy the memories and stay connected as best we can. God is with us always.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1InU5Y0q5QBO2Mx0NWWDrmLXXqhj-gzHY/view?usp=sharing

Thank You to our Healthcare Heroes

  • April 29, 2020

WCUC families want to show their love and support to the health workers in our congregation who are tirelessly caring for others and keeping us safe during the pandemic. Thank you for your strength and sacrifice!

But We had Hoped…

Luke 24:13-35

It’s the third Sunday of Easter.  Maybe it feels like we should be farther along in the story by now.  Maybe it feels like everyone should have already adjusted to the news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  But on this third Sunday of Easter, we receive a story from the Gospel of Luke in which it’s only hours since the empty tomb was discovered.  We’re still in the very first day of Easter.

Two of Jesus’ followers are walking seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We don’t know why they go.  While they walk, they discuss the troubling events of holy week.  And then, miraculously, Jesus comes to join them. 

For some reason, these apostles can’t recognize Jesus. And when this stranger asks what they are discussing, they hesitate: standing still, looking sad.  But like most of us, they are grateful to find someone who is honestly curious, someone who will wait for an answer, someone who will really listen. So they tell this stranger how Jesus, a prophet mighty in deed and word, was handed over and crucified. “But we had hoped,” they say, “that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

But we had hoped!  All of us know this feeling; the strange sense of disjointed surprise or disbelief that comes upon us after accident, illness, tragedy, pandemic. We had hoped, perhaps, for a miracle; or we had planned for a special event; or we had simply expected that life would go on as usual. But we had hoped, the apostles say, that he was the one to redeem Israel.

It’s painful to realize that you’re on an entirely different journey than the one you had hoped for, or planned for, or expected.  Still, as one of my colleagues wrote this week, we have to travel the road we’re on, and not the one we wish we were on.  We have to travel the road in front of us, not that other imagined, anticipated journey.

What would you tell Jesus – or anyone else who asked, and waited, and listened,– about the road you’re on today? If you had seven miles of slow travel, field and open sky around you, space and time and a compassionate ear?  What would you say?

Some images of this story make me laugh. They may be beautiful, as this one certainly is.  But it seems unbelievable that Cleopas and his companion do not recognize Jesus. The artists can’t help themselves; they make Jesus obvious to us. So it seems strange that the folks in the picture don’t get it. I want to say, Hey! He’s right there! Look at the halo! Check out the distinctive white robe!

But although many artists make Jesus beautifully obvious to us, I think many of us miss the holy encounters that we are a part of, at least in the moment when they are happening.  Out of grief, or self-involvement, or practicality, we miss that there’s holy presence RIGHT THERE, beside us, in our most difficult moments, or in our everyday.

The two disciples do eventually recognize Jesus. It happens after that long walk, when he listens to them. It happens after he interprets the prophets and the scriptures for them, explaining the larger story that they’re living in. It happens when he blesses and breaks the bread at dinner that night; they know him in the breaking of the bread.  Maybe there’s a reason that flour and yeast are hard to come by right now: something to touch, to taste; something that is real, and nourishing, like the presence of Christ.

Please pray with me: God, thank you for travelling with us, when things are not going as we had hoped, planned or expected; when we find ourselves on strange new roads. Thank you for listening to us, for as long as it takes, when our hearts are full of grief. Thank you for feeding us, with prophecy and presence, with bread and blessings. Amen.

With Us

  • April 19, 2020

John 20:1-18

Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone on that first Easter morning, according to the Gospel of John.  She comes alone, and she finds that even the body of Jesus is not there to keep her company. So she runs to tell Simon Peter and another disciple: “they have taken the Lord.”

Simon Peter and the other disciple come, and they go, and Mary is alone again. She weeps. Then she looks into the tomb, and there are two angels there. But like many people in grief, Mary is not very conscious of her surroundings. She doesn’t seem to realize who these figures are.  All she can say to them is the same thing she said to Simon Peter, the same thing that is filling her heart: “they have taken away my Lord.”

Finally, Mary turns around and she sees another figure. Her eyes full of tears, hear heart full of sorrow, Mary imagines it might be the gardener.  She tells him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

But the stranger who Mary imagines to be a gardener is, in fact, Jesus. He calls her name, “Mary.”  Finally, Mary knows him. Filled with surprise and awe, Mary can finally see and hear and understand what is happening. When she greets the disciples again, Mary’s message is transformed. She tells them, “I have seen the Lord!”

There’s a lot we don’t know about the resurrection of Jesus. I wonder if this is, in part, because the stories that we have all come from people who are grieving.  Grief makes it hard to be aware of what is going on around us.  Grief makes it hard to piece things together, to remember what has happened, and when.

One of the things left unclear, even within the Gospel of John itself, is what Jesus’ physical presence is like after his resurrection.  Jesus comes to be with Mary, but tells her not to hold onto him.  Jesus offers Thomas the chance to touch his wounds, as if he was solid; but also transports himself in and out of a room through a locked door, as if he was a ghost. Jesus cooks breakfast for some disciples on a beach; but it’s unclear whether he can eat it.

What does it mean to trust that someone is really with us when we can’t hold them, be with them, eat with them, in the ways that we’re used to?  This is an important question right now. How do we know that our friends, lovers, family, are really with us, meaningfully connected with us, without all the ways of being together we are used to? Hugs, shared meals, the clasp of a hand at the bedside: physical presence is denied us. 

Grief is a natural and necessary response to all of these losses. And, our holy story suggests that in physical separation, and even in the separation of death – all is not lost.  Our grief, our loss, is one part of a larger story.  

I want to talk for a minute about the presence of the risen Christ. Now, let me be clear, I know that in our community we have agnostics and Unitarians, a few atheists, folks of all kinds of beliefs and questions. Stay with me.

by Hildegard of Bingen

In Christian tradition, Jesus is the most person-like part of God. I love this image from Hildegaard of Bingen, an image of the Trinity. God, creator is the big circle, shimmering in the background. God, the Holy Spirit is the circle vibrating within it. Then, there in the middle, hands outstretched, is the God we come to know as Jesus.

When Jesus dies, rises, and returns to God, there is still this person-like aspect to the unfathomable holy. Jesus, who knows human birth and life and suffering and death; Jesus, who is fully human as well as fully divine; Jesus, who has been to hell and also to heaven: Jesus is a part of the eternal. Out of this understanding we get so much art and music expressing a longing for Jesus as a companion in our lives. In the morning, when I rise, give me Jesus. I want Jesus to walk with me.  Jesus is available, to be with us, to go alongside us, when we need him.

from the Taize Community

If all that is too much for you, perhaps this will work instead. Maya Angelou has described how when she has something difficult to do, she brings everyone who has ever been kind to her, along with her. They may be people who have died.  They may be people who are still living, but physically far away.  She says, “come with me, I need you now.”

When things get difficult for you in these days, I hope you will grieve. Grieve those who have died. Grieve all that has been taken away. Name your losses. Write them down, cry them aloud, share them with someone.  They are real, and ignoring or minimizing them will not help. Name your losses, and weep.

I hope you will grieve. And then I hope, like Mary Magdalene, you will open your heart to what remains, what abides, what is newly perceivable around you: the larger story, the bigger picture. Remember that you are never truly alone. Call on those you need to be present with you. Anyone who has been kind to you. Anyone whose strength or wisdom you require.  Living or dead, holy or utterly human, call on those you need.  Breathe, and feel their presence.  Hear them call your name. Let them make you strong. 

God, and God’s people, do not leave us alone in our grief. Thanks be to God.

Unexpected

Mark 16:1-8

The women come to the tomb, early in the morning, with their grief and their spices, to anoint the body of their beloved Rabbi, Jesus.

But nothing is as they expect. Nothing is what they have prepared for. At the tomb, the heavy stone is already moved away. In the tomb, there is no dead body. Instead, they find  an unfamiliar young man. He says:

“Do not be alarmed: you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here… but go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

All around the world, this Easter morning is different than we expected it would be. So many traditions cannot be carried out. So many gatherings cannot be held. And the churches are empty. Hundreds of thousands of sanctuaries, full of memories, full of prayers, full of beauty, are still empty in the absence of their congregations. They are silent, without the glad greetings of friends and strangers, the singing and ringing and organ playing, the solemn pronouncement of scripture, the patter of small feet.

These empty sanctuaries are signs of loss: the loss of our rituals of celebration, and more tragically, great loss of human life. And yet, like the tomb, our sanctuaries’ emptiness holds the promise of life.  In this case, life conserved; life protected; life cherished.

Nothing is as the women expect it to be on that first Easter morning. And Mary Magdalene, and Mary the Mother of James, and Salome are given a task perhaps even harder than embalming the body of their teacher. They are asked, instead, to trust the fantastic news that Jesus has been raised.  To trust this news, and to share it.

The weight of this awesome task is most obvious in the version of this story we receive in the Gospel of Mark. The last verse of the whole gospel reads: “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

If you find that you have no Alleluias ready today, or not much holiday cheer: take heart. We are keeping Easter in a more biblical fashion than usual. This Easter Sunday, the tragedy of Good Friday is so close, that the idea of love triumphing over death may be too amazing, or even too terrifying, to believe.

This past Lenten season, I had planned for a caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly theme. I was hoping we would get live caterpillars, too, to accompany the ones on clothespins in the hallway. We would watch them grow, and then release them on Easter. 

But, as it happened, I spent most of the past few weeks learning new technologies, and dealing with the flu, and homeschooling. I did not get any caterpillars.

So, we’re going to have Easter season caterpillars instead.  Let me tell you, when they arrived on Monday the caterpillars were not very impressive: tiny, unattractive, and entirely still: appearing almost certainly dead.  But within a day or two, they started moving.  Now they are almost three times as large, eating and shedding their skins at an alarming rate. I’m starting to think that they really might make something of themselves, with time.

Easter is strange and surprising this year, hard to accept. But really, it’s always been that way.  The church season of Eastertide is 50 days long because it took Jesus’ disciples 50 days to come out of hiding.  It took the folks closest to Jesus 50 days to mourn and pray together, locked behind closed doors, before they could then trust in and act on the good news they had received.

So let’s take it slow, this year. We’ll have butterflies a little later in the Easter season. At our house, I’m planning to do Easter crafts for weeks.  Meanwhile Spring is coming to New England; the tulips will be here, soon, and the peach tree outside the church just started to show some pink buds.  Instead of finding Easter in our beloved church buildings, we’ll need to seek it out in the world. News of great generosity and surprising hope and amazing collaboration emerges every day, even in the midst of a pandemic. All of us will need to be paying close attention to the signs of Easter we can find: and sharing them with one another, for encouragement.

Here is some good news: we can’t do Easter wrong. That’s because Easter is not something that we do. It’s not dependent on us.  Easter is something that God does, and God is still doing it. God took a tragic death and turned it into an opportunity: going down to dwell with the dead, breaking the gates of hell, bringing hope to the people, birthing the church, and rising all the way up into heaven.  We’re just the witnesses, scared and awe-struck. Even the most faithful among us may feel the urge to run away.

Please pray with me. O God, your love, stronger than death is hard for us to fathom; terrifying in its beauty and power. Stay with us, as we try each day to put our trust in you; as we witness you, each day, bewilderingly alive, all around us. Amen.

Palm Procession

Thanks to all who helped make up our virtual Palm Procession! It’s good to be together to shout, “Hosanna!” and sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” even if we can’t be together in person…

Palm Sunday Reflection

During this holy week, Jesus directly challenges the powers that be. He challenges the colonial government, riding into the holy city of Jerusalem as if he were the star of a Roman military procession. Jesus challenges merchants and commerce,  driving moneychangers out of the temple. Jesus challenges religious authorities, calling them hypocrites, and predicting the destruction of the temple.

But that’s not all.  Jesus goes on to challenge his own followers. He defies their expectations of social and political change, telling them that he will soon be crucified. He defies their values around money, accepting an extravagant gift of ointment. He defies their self-image, predicting that they will betray him.

Jesus challenges everyone. And most folks don’t react well. Some are angry. Some are troubled. Some lose their enthusiasm for Jesus’ movement, and drift away. A few are so upset by Jesus’ actions that they begin to plan for his destruction.

Reading the story again this year, I was struck by how much determination it must have taken for Jesus to do what he does. Everyone – literally everyone except for God – wishes he was acting differently.  But Jesus still choses, again and again, to speak and act in a way that is true to who he is, and how he is called.  He points out the dangers and limitations of all the structures around him.  He even questions the expectations and character of those who follow him. Jesus offers his community his truth: a strange gift that is difficult to accept. 

In this time, we are also dealing with some hard truths.  A global pandemic has arrived, and it has challenged everything. It has brought into stark relief the weaknesses and failures of our governments, our economic systems, our religious authorities; our societies.  It also brings out many revealing reactions in individuals: in you, in me, in all those around us.

Like the disciples in Jesus’ time, we cannot control how this all ends. We can’t control how the structures around us respond, how the people around us react.  We can’t control those things; we can’t even predict them. The only thing we can decide is the same decision that faced the disciples: What will I do? Who will I be?

A few among us may be called to truly heroic acts in this time. Bless you. For most of us, the faithful living of these days will mean something else. Each day, we will need to discern: how we can be true to ourselves, true to our callings?  How might we practice patience, kindness, generosity, and honesty, to impact the good of the whole?

Don’t forget that in this difficult work we have the comforts that Jesus left us.  He does not only offer challenge to the world during this week.  He also gives us a meal in which to remember and experience him.  He gives us a new commandment, to love one another. He gives us his presence beside us in prayer.

Please pray with me: Jesus, challenger and comforter: may your story, and the crucible of these days, inspire us to find within ourselves a deeper truth, a greater strength, a more bountiful sense of grace to accept and share. Amen.