Fun times with the Miracle League of Massachusetts baseball organization! Spirits were high, smiles were plentiful, and the sun was shining brightly on this fabulous afternoon. Not sure who had more fun…the players or the youth group buddies? We are so thankful for this opportunity which has now become a favorite youth group tradition!
(This is the first of two posts I’ll be sharing about my recent professional development trip.)
Last week, thanks to the support of the Dennis Lin Fund, I had the privilege of attending the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability, an initiative by the Collaborative on Faith and Disability. Now in its tenth year, the Summer Institute is considered one of the premier conferences in the field of disability and faith, drawing religious leaders and scholars from all over the world. I was one of over 150 professionals who spent four days discussing the best ways of ensuring people with disabilities experience a true sense of Belonging whenever we participate in religious practice and community, not just access.
The highlight of the conference for me was the amazing people I met. At the Institute, people with disabilities are not just a topic of discussion, we are also the planners, the presenters, and the attendees. That’s not to say ableism was absent. I saw plenty of instances when ableism reared its head. No doubt there were others I missed due to my unconscious bias. But the level of awareness and the number of accommodations put in place to serve a wide variety of abilities made it clear that the desire for full inclusion was also present.
I could go on and on about the myriad of resources I have returned with but I won’t do that here. Suffice it to say that my suitcase was five pounds heavier than when I left (see photo evidence). I look forward to sharing them with you in the days and months ahead and God-willing some of my new friends will visit us at WCUC.
“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
With these words in mind, the youth recently ventured into the woods to listen for God’s wisdom in nature and to ponder the questions on our hearts. Witness what WCUC Youth are thinking about these days…
“What does it mean to be a Christian?”
“Why did God create people who are homophobic or racist?”
“What is the difference between God and Jesus?”
“What does God have control over?”
“What happens to us when we die?”
“What is heaven like?”
“Is there only one right religion?”
“Does God love people who don’t believe in him/her?”
“If Jesus is still with us, why doesn’t he preach like he used to?”
“Why do people believe in that which isn’t supported by scientific evidence?”
“Why do bad things sometimes happen to good people?”
“Does anyone deserve bad things?”
“When did life begin?”
“How can we help educate Christians who don’t believe in science?”
“How can God be real if his so-called ‘followers’ go against his teachings?”
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.
While moms and teachers were attending the women’s retreat last weekend, the dads combined forces to lead the Multiage and Middler classes in a lesson with lots of action and energy. Beginning with an interactive drama (that we will perform on Children’s Sunday!) featuring some disciples, a jail, chains, and an earthquake, the kids (and dads) jumped right into the fun. Upon reflection after the drama, the children thought about what binds them (worries, nervous thoughts, insecurities) and how God helps to free them while the dads wrapped up groups of kids with crepe paper. God’s love then shook them up like an earthquake and the kids wriggled free of the bindings! Lots of laughter – lots of mess – so much fun! Creating prop chains, making disciple signs, and building Lego scenes of the drama rounded out the day with the dads. Many thanks to Josh Torgerson, Jeff Tustin, and Carlin Andrus for leading the day while the moms were away!
Interested in how the Spirit was moving among us at the women’s retreat? Check out some of the scripture passages, poems, reflection questions, and other resources that expanded our minds, deepened our faith, and inspired our souls.
Thirty one women from our congregation traveled to the Craigville Retreat Center on Cape Cod for a weekend of rest, play, worship, prayer, and friendship. Our theme this year was Women’s Wisdom: Inspiring Stories of the Sacred, Secular, and Self. Enlightened by the strength, resiliency, gifts, and courage of women in the Bible, writers, poets, artists and activists, as well as some legendary women from WCUC, we then moved on to consider our own journey’s to wisdom as we shared our stories, our struggles, and our celebrations with one another.
“This weekend has provided space and time for thought about the specific contributions of women, both present and past.”
“I feel like I have been raised up by the wisdom of women of the Bible, secular world, and most importantly the women gathered here. I am leaving with so much to reflect upon.”
“This weekend has given me peace, gratitude, and faith in the power of other women and myself.”
“I have been raised up this weekend by my sisters, my tribe. I am renewed by the wisdom, compassion, love and humor of these amazing women of God.”
A Weekend for…
“I realized that I felt crippled by my burdens. This weekend I was reminded of my strength and power and that if I pause and listen to God speaking, I can tap into that and move forward.”
“I am rejuvenated and refreshed by sunshine, moonshine, inspirational women, and retreat from regular life.”
“I proved to myself that I have grown mentally by being able to learn to knit much more easily than it was in high school.”
“I gained insight from the reading “My Journey to Wisdom” that ‘clouds of insecurity’ are natural and sometimes protective.”
“I was given the gift of solace and reflection.”
“I have been encouraged to listen carefully to the Spirit and then step out with boldness and courage.”
“I have been enveloped in a blanket of warmth and caring.”
“I learned it’s ok to not conform to the conventional picture of femininity, so you can enjoy being a woman.”
“I was reminded to focus and be grateful for my strengths, when I only see weakness.”
“This is my new life. I can be who I am.”
Finding Strength in Community:
“Being a part of this community made me feel stronger and welcome. I learned from every woman I met.”
“Seeing the ways in which the generations are sensitive to each other has been a high point for me this weekend. I really appreciated the acceptance of the younger women here with us.”
“I was empowered by a conversation with another woman whom I did not know well. We discovered we have a common history that is not easy to talk about with many people.”
“The company of women with such a diversity of experiences has given me renewed hope for the power of the ‘Holy’ in our broken world.”
“Sharing stories with others has helped me to appreciate everyone better.”
“Many people have shared their struggles and uncertainties about coming. I have been inspired by everyone here and this weekend turned out to be a blessing.”
“I felt raised up by a conversation I had in which I shared something that I haven’t before.”
“Enjoying a conversation I had with someone I don’t know well and feeling more comfortable with her now.”
And Feeling the Power of Nature and Laughter:
“I enjoyed walking to the ocean…seeking an expanse beyond indoor enclosures.”
“I loved the beach walk and I laughed a lot with the women.”
“The inspiration of nature and the changing views of the beach: stormy and windy; calm and soothing in the sun; water view at night below the moon and stars.”
“It felt good to integrate nature with our daily lives.”
“An objective measure of trust in a space or group of people is the count of the number of belly laughs a person has had. The count for me this weekend is near
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.
Thanks to everyone who helped clean up the church and parsonage grounds on May 4th!