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The Messiah We Need

The Messiah We Need

Date Preached: 12-1-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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INTRODUCTION TO GOSPEL READING

“Who do you say that I am?”  This is the question Jesus asks his disciples at the very mid-point of Mark’s Gospel, just as the the sea-hopping ministry between Galilee and Samaria comes to a close in favor of the long, inexorable journey to Jerusalem and Jesus’ destiny. Peter gives a faithful answer to the question – “You are the Messiah” – but Jesus, apparently, doesn’t think Peter and the disciples really understand the kind of messiah Jesus has come to be. He orders them to “tell no one” and then proceeds to instruct them in the true ways of the messiah, the ways of suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection.

This morning, I’d like us to think about Peter’s messianic confession in the light of the passge that comes BEFORE it, the account of the healing of a blind man in Bethsaida. Listen carefully for some of the odd details of this healing story.

GOSPEL READING Mark 8:22-30

Every Thanksgiving morning when we were young, Dad would make the same offer to us five kids: he would pay each of us a quarter if we would watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on T.V. Adjusted for inflation, that’s like a dollar each in today’s terms and significant money to a kid. So we took Dad up on it. The five of us laid down in front of the T.V., chin in hands, and stared up at the marching bands, waving celebrities, and giant balloons of the parade.

It was clear why Dad made this offer. The fact is, without Dad’s financial inducement, we would have spent Thanksigiving Day the same as every other day in our sibling lives: by torturing one another through sarcasm, teasing, and ridicule. So you can’t blame either of my parents for wanting at least a one-morning-break from the howls of protest, jeering laughter, tears of outrage, cries for vengeance, and rising cacophony of conflict that was the kids’ contribution to the Thanksgiving holiday.

But there was a deeper reason why Dad made this investment. He wanted, for at least one morning, to pretend that his kids were normal; that we weren’t the strange creatures we really were.

You understand my Dad’s desire, don’t you?

How many of you have children? And how many of you consider your kids to be strange? How many of you have or had parents? And how many of those parents considered YOU to be strange?

That’s just people, isn’t it? We’re an incredibly complex and confusing array of quirky characteristics. It shouldn’t surprise us to find out that not only is there an autism spectrum, a Kinsey scale of sexual orientation, a rainbow of genders, and a whole catalog of religious, political, and racial configurations. The fact is that we belong to the most confused and confusing race of all – the human race.

We’re all quite strange – friends and neighbors, partners and parents, kids and siblings. That’s why Thanksgiving is often a bit of a gauntlet for us. It’s like the old Johnny Carson observation: “Thanksgiving is an emotional time, People travel thousands of miles to be with people they see only once a year. And then discover once a year is way too often.”

We’re strange people. Is it any wonder, then, that for strange people like us, the messiah we need is equally strange?

Years ago, Albert Schweitzer described our encounter with Jesus in this way: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside.” Jesus comes to us as a stranger not just because he is unknown to us, but because his strange ways make him unknowable to us.

Case in point – the healing of a blind man from our Gospel Reading. First, notice that Jesus pulls the man out of Bethsaida before he will heal him. Why would he do that?

Last Sunday we thought about the healing of the ten lepers, only one of whom returns to give thanks. I said that while the other nine settled for a resumption of their “normal” lives, the one who gave thanks knew that coming into contact with Jesus meant being delivered into something more than a normal life. Jesus seems to be delivering that same message here in our passage by telling the now sighted man to “not go back” to his old village, his old life.

Even stranger is Jesus’ method of healing. Do you remember? He puts saliva on his eyes and then lays his hands on them. We think of spit as being a sign of scorn and rejection. For Jesus, it is a vehicle of healing and transformation. And then he adds his own personal loving, healing touch by laying hands on the man.

A final strange detail – the man isn’t healed all at once. Jesus asks him, “Can you see anything?” The man answers, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.” It’s only after Jesus lays his hands on him again that he can see clearly.

Apparently Jesus is no magician. There is no “abra-cadabra” to our relationship with him, but there is progress, sometimes uneven, and there is further need for further healing.

This is the messiah we need, a strange messiah for a strange and needy humanity.

It’s like the waitress who waited on the very lonely man who came into the nearly empty diner to have Thanksgiving dinner. As she served his meal, she said, “Do you need anything else?” The man looked up at her with big, sad eyes and said, “How about a kind word?” The waitress leaned down and whispered into his ear, “Don’t eat the turkey.”

This is the messiah we need, one who serves us and redirects us, takes us out of our lonely places and bring us along “on the way.”

Now we turn to Jesus’ conversation with his disciples after the healing. Did you notice that the messiah talk with the disciples takes place “on the way?” They are passing by the villages of Caesarea Philippi – one of the royal cities established by the Roman emperor to keep the Judeans in their place and impress them with the majesty of the Roman Empire. But the conversation about the messiah doesn’t take place in the city, near the Roman temples that declare Caesar as Lord, as messiah. It takes place “on the way,” the way of discipleship, the way of Jesus.

In the early part of the previous century, the London Times asked several eminent authors to write articles on the theme, “What’s Wrong with the World?” Christian humorist G. K. Chesterton wrote this brief reply:

   Dear Sirs:

   I am.

   Sincerely yours,

   G.K. Chesterton.

Our strange messiah is calling us to stay strange, to not fit in, to be at least slightly wrong with the world and its attempts to make us normal and compliant citizens of the current empire.

And now comes the strangest thing of all: once the disciples seem to get it right and understand that Jesus is the messiah, Jesus instructs them to “tell no one.”

You know, what really makes Christianity strange is that we’re a religion that’s not ultimately based on another religion, or books, sto­ries, or sayings, or metaphysical, philosophical, scientific, or ethical principles. Ultimately, we’re a religion based on one single human being: Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish, male, carpenter of the lower classes, who apparently never married, who lived nearly two thousand years ago and had a brief three year ministry during his early thirties. That’s our religion. That’s our faith. That’s really it.      

And so that question, “Who do you say that I am?” is one that each of us must ask and to which each of us must discover an answer. That doesn’t mean that we all have to have the same answer, use the same words, stick tto he same iconic images, but it does mean that the question Peter answers is one that each of us needs to answer in our own thoughts and our own heart.

But once we have found that answer or have an answer that we’re ready to live with “on the way” of Christian discipleship, why would Jesus turn around and ask us to “tell no one” about himself?  

In just about every major U.S. city you’ll find a ball team or two, an art or natural history museum, a zoo, an airport, dozens of hotels, a convention center, crime, traffic, pollution, and one other thing: a religious crackpot or two screaming about Jesus to all the innocent passerbys. We’ve certainly experienced them here in the Fox Cities.

The one I’m thinking about spent quite a bit of time down by the library, stopping people as they walked past and handing them a leaflet. He assaulted people, really, with his very abrupt and loud manner, a manner filled with more anger than love, more aggression than gentleness. I remember him. I remem­ber crossing the street to avoid him, just like most everybody else did. But you know what? I wish that I had walked right up to him, put my arm around his should and whispered into his ear, “Tell no one.”  

A friend of mine, an older woman, once told me about a counseling session she had had with her minister. She was being abused physically and emotionally by her husband.  Instead of helping her find a way toward health and safety, the minister said to her that just like Jesus suffered on the cross for all our sakes, she was suffering for her family’s sake. As a good Christian, she should just suffer in silence. That’s what that minister had said. I wished one of us had gotten to that minister first and said to him, “tell no one.”

In my last congregation, there was a young couple who brought their baby into be baptized. These folks were among the most pious souls I have ever met, really walking the talk, really following Jesus “on the way.” One of them came from a conservative religious family that had cut off all communication with her and had instructed the whole extended family to do the same. They did so because this young couple was of the same gender. They did so because they thought Jesus wanted them to.

What would you say to that family shunning that young couple and their newborn baby? Probably the same thing as me: “tell no one.”

It seems clear to me that Jesus told Peter to “tell no one” because Peter didn’t understand what the messiah or christ really was. Maybe Peter was expecting a new Moses, someone to liberate Israel from Roman political rule and become the new King in Jerusalem, rather than the suffering messiah that Jesus was to be. Another, simpler explanation is that Jesus told Peter to tell no one because Jesus wasn’t the messiah yet. He wouldn’t be the messiah until after the cross.  

People try to tell us who the messiah is and some of them may not understand. Others try to tell us before we have discov­ered the messiah for ourselves, before the cross enters our lives. The fact of the matter is, we can only share our faith with others. We can never tell someone else who the messiah is. They have to discover that and understand that for themselves.

As a minister of the Gospel, I have been called to proclaim my faith to others, offering them the hope that I have found. As fellow ministers, you’ve all been called to the same thing. We live in difficult times and the despairing people about us are in desperate need to hear our words of hope, words of faith, to feel the healing touch of love. We can and must share our faith with other people. But make no mistake about it – we can never tell them who Jesus is for them. We can only testify to who Jesus has been for us.

I gave you the beginning of Albert Schweitzer’s famous quote: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside.” Now let me give you the rest of his quote: “He came to those… who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: “Follow me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time… And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

We are a strange people with a strange faith and who need a strange messiah; one who remains a mystery, a living presence to be followed rather than a dead certainty to be imposed on others. That’s the messiah we need.

I hope that if I ever try to tell you the once and for all the definitive answer of who Jesus was and is that you’ll remember the words of scripture and quote them back to me: “tell no one.” Amen.

Counting Our Blessings

Counting Our Blessings

Date Preached: 11-24-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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The Real World and the World to Come

The Real World and the World to Come

Date Preached: 11-17-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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A fourth-grade teacher collected a number of well-known proverbs. She gave each child in her class the first half of a proverb and asked them to come up with the remainder of the proverb. Here are the top ten results:

  1. Better safe than…

            -punch a fifth grader.

  1. You can lead a horse to water but…

            -how?

  1. Don’t bite the hand that…

            -looks dirty.

  1. A miss is as good as…

            -a Mr.

  1. You can’t teach an old dog new…

            -math.

  1. If you lie down with dogs, you’ll…

            -stink in the morning.

  1. The pen is mightier than the…

            -pig.

  1. Two’s company, three’s…

            -the musketeers.

  1. Laugh and the whole world laughs with you, cry and…

            -you have to blow your nose.

  1. Children should be seen and not…

            -spanked or grounded.

Children have a different perspective on things. Sometimes it can seem funny and sometimes it can seem childish the way they think about things. Sometimes it can be brutally honest. They live in their own world, children do. One of the hardest tasks of parenting is decided when and how to bring children into what we call The Real World.

The Real World was introduced to me when I was four years old and was signified by a row of cans – beans, peas, corned beef hash, tomatoes, and what not – set alongside jugs of water as they lined the cement steps down to the unfinished basement of our home in Waupun. I think many homes had a similar stash of emergency rations in their own basements during that time. Did yours?

They were our provision in case of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. They seem absurd now, much like the schoolroom drills to duck and cover under our desks as the bomb went off overhead. But my parents put them up as a concession to the Real World. They were our constant reminder, as we scrambled down the stairs to get some toys or use the ping-pong table, that a Real World existed alongside our childhood one, a world of danger and terrible destruction.

For Colonel Harry Shoup, his constant reminder of the Real World was the second of two telephones on his desk at the Continental Air Defense Command now known as NORAD. The second phone was a red one. Only a four-star general at the Pentagon and Colonel Shoup himself knew the number. And that phone would ring for only one thing – to let him know that there had been an attack on the United States.

One December day in 1955, the red telephone on Colonel Shoup’s desk rang. You can imagine the wave of emotion that must have washed over Harry Shoup as he answered the phone with a brave, “Yes sir?” From the other end came a small voice that asked, “Is this Santa Claus?”

As Harry Shoup’s children tell the story, their father was annoyed and upset by the call and thought it was a joke — but then the little voice started crying. “And Dad realized that it wasn’t a joke,” his daughter said. “So he talked to him, ho-ho-ho’d and asked if he had been a good boy and, finally asked, ‘May I talk to your mother?’ And the mother got on and explained, ‘There’s a phone number (in the newpaper) to call Santa. It’s in the Sears ad.’

Colonel Shoup looked it up and there it was – but the Sears ad had mixed up two numbers and instead of listing the Santa hotline, they had inadvertently listed one of the most secret and sensitive numbers in the country – the NORAD red phone!

Back at NORAD, they had children calling one after another on the red phone, so Colonel Harry Shoup did the only thing he could think of – he put a couple of airmen on the phones to act like Santa Claus. The airmen probably thought Colonel Shoup had lost his mind, but they were also secretly pleased. At the Command Center they had a big glass board containing a map of the United States and Canada on which they would track the movement of warplanes. But on Christmas Eve of 1955, when Colonel Shoup came in, on the big glass board was a drawing of a sleigh with eight reindeer coming over the North Pole.

His children explain, “Dad said, ‘What is that?’ They say said, ‘Colonel, we’re sorry. We were just making a joke. Do you want us to take that down?’ Dad looked at it for a while, and next thing you know, Dad had called the radio station and had said, ‘This is the commander at the Combat Alert Center, and we have an unidentified flying object. Why, it looks like a sleigh.’ Well, the radio stations would call him like every hour and say, ‘Where’s Santa now?'”

And that’s the true story of how an amazing institution started: It started with a Sears ad which instructed children to call Santa on what turned out to be a secret military hotline. It started with Colonel Shoup’s sense of humor and some airmen who understood the joke wasn’t really a joke at all. And it’s continued to this very day. On Christmas Eve, kids can call 1-877 HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) to talk to NORAD staff about Santa’s exact location. Or you can visit www.noradsanta.org throughout December for games and activities.

I can only imagine that the prophet Isaiah would have been mightily pleased:

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares,” he wrote and would have added, “and turn their Wargame command centers into Santa Trackers.”

And Isaiah might have asked us this – did Colonel Shoup live in the Real World or in the world that God was bringing into being.

There are so many different ways you have and I have been told to fear, to give up our dreams and ideals, to let go of hope and aspiration and become part of the so-called Real World Especially we were told it when we were kids, growing into youth and adulthood.

But those old cynics were lying to us. They told me that I would grow up and lose my ideals and adjust to the world as it is. I didn’t and I haven’t. Thankfully, by the grace of God, I haven’t lost my youthful ideals – I’ve lost my childish faith in the so-called Real World. As William Willimon wrote: “What serious people call ‘reality’ is mostly a fraudulent mix of secular superstition and the platitudinous truisms of old men who stopped thinking scarcely ten years after they graduated from college.”

It’s odd that people with ideals, those of us who still are able to dream of something better than merely present arrangements, should be considered naïve. It’s those who are adjusted to the present, who feel no restless discontent with things as they are who are simple and naïve. Their child-like satisfaction with the present is the true, and sad, naivete.

We heard some Real World rhetoric this past week from former President Obama as he cautioned those now running for the office to be “rooted in reality” and not get so far ahead in their policies that they become “out of step with voters.” Remember the Real World, he might as well have been saying, particularly when it comes to issues like immigration, he added. It made me wonder if the real scandal lies not just in our nation’s present immigration policies but in the ones we have long practiced. I also wonder if President Obama would have advised Isaiah to advocate beating swords into smaller swords.

Get over it,” the Real World Presidential Chief of Staff said recently about mixing political favors with foreign policy. “It happens all the time!” So much for Republican Senator Vandenberg’s childish vision in 1946 of having “politics stop at the water’s edge;” though Vandenberg’s vision led to some very real bipartisan accomplishments, like the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the formation of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The Real World… I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of it. As Albert Einstein said, “Reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.” More recently came these intriguing words from artist Martin Maloney: “If anything is poisoning our lives and weakening our society, it is reality – and not the fabrication of television writers and producers.” What does he mean by this? Well, I believe all this Real World talk makes us far too easily resigned to things being the way they are instead of imagining the way they could and should be.

The adult realist, the determinist, the mechanist, the modern materialist, that nagging cynic who implores us to live in the Real World is in a prison. And they always have a stake in keeping us in that prison, whether it’s a community built on inequality, an oppressive workplace, a bullied classroom, a frightened family, or any kind of abusive relationship. “Live in the Real World” means that we are to live under their rules, under their power, under their thumb.

We’ve had enough of them. Let’s give up on the Real World and, instead, let’s start thinking like children again. Not a bad idea, since Jesus informed us of God’s attitude: “I don’t want adults. In my kingdom I want only children, young, expectant, eager children with five-year-old eyes, old bent-over children with fresh vision, little children and big children, boys, girls, women, men, and all only children.” And like children, let us recapture the capacity to dream, to see something more than what is real, something more real than simply what is.

Emily Dickinson put this attitude best:

To make a prairie it takes clover and one bee

one clover, and a bee,

and reverie

the reverie alone will do,

if bees are few.

In our reading, Isaiah shares God’s reverie, God’s dream in pointing us toward a new heaven and a new earth. This dream is new in the sense that it is not fully our present heaven and earth, yet old in the sense that this is what God has always intended for our world.

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse…The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (vv. 1, 6).

This dream is of a normally war-torn world transformed into one in which there will be only peace; a world in which animals that normally devour one another will love one another. Isaiah says this vision is “a signal to the peoples” in which all the world shall see that God is great, that God is active, and that God intends to have God’s gracious way with the world.

In that way, we leave the Real World behind us when we gather each Sunday in church. We ponder the poetry of Isaiah. We pray that God will give us eyes of children, eyes able to see the advent of God among us and that we shall be part of that incoming kingdom, the world to come.

Colonel Harry Shoup, long after he retired from NORAD, carried around with him a locked briefcase. Even when he was in his nineties, he carried this briefcase that looked to all the world like the “football” containing the nuclear launch codes. What was inside the briefcase really? Letters. Letters from people all over the world, saying, “Thank you, Colonel. Thank you for the Santa Tracker. Thank you for your sense of humor. Thank you for doing this wonderful thing for our children”

Colonel Shoup was an important officer carrying out important military missions throughout his career. But he understood what was most precious, most important about his life – the day on which he left the Real World and took part in a World to Come. And in that world…

“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Amen.

The Conflicted Heart of Divine Love

The Conflicted Heart of Divine Love

Date Preached: 11-10-19
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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The Way to Heaven

The Way to Heaven

Date Preached: 11-3-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Sixty Seconds to Servanthood

Sixty Seconds to Servanthood

Date Preached: 10-27-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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I believe that we are called by God to do great things for this world. I believe that you and I are world-changers, called by God to work tirelessly for the kingdom of heaven here on earth. What we do here in church, in our work, with our families, in our neighborhoods is critically important to the on-going life and work of the Gospel, the good news of God’s love. Through us, God wants love to be triumphant in providing justice, peace, and joy for all God’s children.

That’s what I believe. But such belief can be heady stuff – at least it seemed to turn the heads of the disciples in Mark’s Gospel. So often they seemed so full of themselves, almost painfully self-impressed. Such is the case in our reading for today with James and John being so bold as to ask Jesus for places of privilege and honor when he comes into his “glory.” “Let us sit at your right and left hand…” they ask him.

They have a big calling, they think, this world-changing business. They’re kind of a big deal, they feel, to be in on this messiah stuff. So, of course, their destiny ought to be similarly big and important and glorious.

But Jesus talks them down. First, he cautions them that sharing in his glory means sharing in his “cup,” sharing in his “baptism.” In this passage, both of these images mean sharing in his suffering. There’s an enormous irony hanging over their request to sit at his right and left hand in his glory. Later in the Gospel story, there will be one at Jesus’ right and one at his left in the glory of his suffering. And it’s not James and John. It’s the two thieves who are crucified on either side of Jesus. Can you share in THIS cup? Can you share in THIS baptism?

Second, Jesus talks them down by letting the air out of their pious puffery by reminding them of the real nature of discipleship: “… whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant….”

Not glory, but service. Not self-importance, but service. Not privilege or position or prestige but service.

And for us world-changers, the life of service Jesus was talking about pulls us out of our reveries about the afterlife and puts us into the world of the everyday, into a servant lifestyle that no longer puffs us up but sets us down, that grounds us in real life, in the often small everyday acts that can make all the difference.

Let me show you what I mean. You took a piece of paper out of a basket that the ushers passed out earlier. That piece of paper is going to ask you to do something, something relatively small and not very difficult. In a moment, I’m going to ask you to open up your piece of paper and then stand up to carry out this act of service. I’m going to give you 60 seconds to carry it out. You may have enough time to do it for two or more people. Many of you will want to stand up and move around a bit as you do it. I think you’ll understand once you read what’s on your paper.

Go ahead and open it up now. I hope you agree that this isn’t very hard to do. Okay, now stand up and you have 60 seconds to carry this out – go!      

ACTS OF SERVICE

Look for someone you haven’t met before. Introduce yourself.

Greet someone warmly and tell that person one reason why you’re glad he or she is here today.

Ask someone how you can be in prayer for them. Commit to praying for that person for the next three days.

Thank someone for a kindness they have shown you.

Ask someone to tell you a piece of good advice they got from one of their parents.

Ask someone to tell you their favorite thing about the Fall season.

Thank you – the 60 seconds are up. 60 seconds of service. That’s all the time it took. And what did you do? Small acts of kindness and courtesy. A kind word. A loving gesture. A willingness to listen.

After only 60 seconds of sharing these small, easy acts of service, do you feel how different this place is than it was 60 seconds ago? Do you feel how significantly warmed this place became by loving fellowship, by a spirit of service? It’s a changed world and not because anyone did something enormously heroic, brilliantly conceived, deeply religious and cunningly theological. It was just 60 seconds of everyone here trying to act like a servant, and that’s what made the difference.

When was the last time you got dressed for church thinking, “How can be of service to the folks at church today?” not “I hope the service doesn’t last too long” or “I wonder if the sermon’s going to be any good” or “I hope the choir sings something in a language I understand.”

When was the last time you prepared to go to a party or a social gathering thinking like a servant?

  • I wonder if they need any help getting ready?
  • I have to make sure to check in with the hostess because I know her dad has been ill.
  • I’m going to refrain from drinking tonight and hang with my friend because I know he’s trying to stay sober.

When was the last time you prepared for a day at home thinking like a servant?

  • What would make my partner happy today?
  • What would help my child feel better about herself?
  • What could we do together today instead of staring at our respective screens – tv, computer, video, and cellphone?

60 seconds is all it took to warm this place up when we all tried to act like servants. Imagine the change you can make in your home, your school, your workplace, your circle of friends, your community if you truly tried to be a servant there.

That’s what I’d like you to carry home from our reading and from our worship this morning, the thought that being a servant isn’t terribly difficult but it does ask from us a decision to commit to be a servant, even if we can only do it 60 seconds at a time. Even 60 seconds of service can change the world.

But, if you would, I’d also like to deepen our understanding of what serving truly means. Eilene Hoft-March shared with some of us some thoughts from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen in which she contrasted serving with helping and serving from fixing.

Serving is different from helping,” Dr. Remen writes. “Helping is based on inequality. It is not a relationship between equals. When you help you use your own strength to help those of lesser strength… When we help we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity, and wholeness.”

I would imagine that most if not all of us have received help from someone who took at least a piece of our pride in exchange. You know what that sounds like:

  • How could you be so stupid?
  • You know, money doesn’t grow on trees, young lady.
  • I’m going to help you, but before I do, I want to give you a piece of my mind.

You know what that sounds like and you know what that feels like. Along with their help, a helper allows throws in a bit of shame at additional cost to your pride and self-worth. A servant does not judge but simply serves.

Dr. Remen goes on in describing the difference between serving and helping: “When I help, I am very aware of my own strength. But we don’t serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves. We draw from all our experiences. Our limitations serve, our wounds serve, even our darkness can serve. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals.”

Some of the servants in our congregation that I most admire are our Confirmation mentors. Yet when they are first asked to serve, they almost always have the same reaction: Who, ME? I can’t be a faith mentor. I’m no great example of Christian faith. I have serious doubts and times when my own relationship with God seems on very shaky ground. You don’t want me to mentor our young people.

And, you know what? THAT’S what makes for a great mentor. Not just your faith, but your doubts as well. Not just your strength but your limitations as well. Not just the light of understanding but the darkness of confusion. Do you know how rare it is to hear someone speak the TRUTH about their experience, especially about their faith experience? That’s what makes for a great mentor in faith, in work, in life. And that’s what makes for a real servant.

More from Dr. Remen: Helping incurs debt. When you help someone they owe you one. But serving, like healing, is mutual. There is no debt. I am as served as the person I am serving. When I help, I have a feeling of satisfaction. When I serve, I have a feel of gratitude. These are very different things.”

Years ago, I led a UCC delegation to the Spiritual Council of Churches in Haiti. We were going there to “help” them. Who did I encounter there? Folks who lived amidst a 40% unemployment rate and where more than two-thirds of the population did not have formal jobs; families who suffered under tragically high infant mortality rates and sometimes were forced to give up their children for American adoption because they couldn’t feed them; people who lived under the crushing load of poverty and political oppression.

Yet my most lasting impressions of those faith partners were of their courage and strength. They were Christians who had stood up against the corrupt Duvalier regime in Haiti to the point of imprisonment and attempts on their lives. They shared all that they had with one another in solidarity and hope, just like those early Christians in the book of Acts. They embodied the Spirit of Christ in ways that humbled me and inspired me in my own faith. It was a privilege to serve among them, life-changing for me, for which I am filled with gratitude.

Finally, Dr. Remen contrasts serving from fixing: Serving is also different from fixing… There is a distance between ourselves and whatever or whomever we are fixing. Fixing is a form of judgment. All judgment creates distance, a disconnection, an experience of difference. In fixing there is an inequality of expertise that can easily become a moral distance.”

One member of our little UCC delegation to Haiti was a banker and financial planner in the West Bend area and went thinking he could share his financial expertise with the Haitian pastors and church leaders. The first church we visited was filled with singing, praying, celebrating worshipers of all ages. “What was last month’s total offering?” our financial expert asked. The pastor answered, “Twelve dollars.” These Haitian church leaders had created a vibrant, faithful, servant Church out of twelve dollars a month. Who were the experts here? Who needed to learn from whom?

Here’s how Dr. Remen concludes: We cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch.”

I was particularly struck by Mark Charles last Sunday as this Navajo speaker and prophet talked about people like me – good-hearted, well-intentioned, right-thinking folk who want to be of service. Those who were here last Sunday will remember him talking about the protests at Standing Rock and how thousands of native people resisting the desecration of tribal lands were joined by folk like me, good, religious UCC types who had repudiated the Doctrine of Discover, the church-sanctioned, historic theft of land, pride, life, and heritage from indigenous peoples. Some of the Standing Rock leaders described to Mark how much healing had taken place as they protested and worshiped together with white people of faith. They remarked on how so many mutual tears had been shed, hugs had been shared, reconciliation had been worked through these folks who had repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. “I see,” Mark said. And then he asked a rather trenchant question: “And how much land did they give back?”

In one moment, he identified the key weakness of liberalism – the conviction that right thoughts and good intentions are enough to change the world. In fact, all those thoughts and intentions are nothing if they are not followed by actions that might prove personally costly.

“We cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch.”

Or, as Jesus put it, “… whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to gives his life as ransom for many.”

That’s the life we have been called to lead, a life of service; service without cost, without judgment, that comes with respect and integrity from our whole selves, that comes with an openness to learn and grow; service that can change the world. And sometimes all it takes to change the world is a servant’s heart and 60 seconds.

Amen.

Mark Charles Guest Pastor

Mark Charles Guest Pastor

Date Preached: 10-20-19
Preached by: Mark Charles

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Beginning with an Ending

Beginning with an Ending

Date Preached: 10-13-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Fred Craddock tells about returning to a little church of his childhood in rural Tennessee. He had not been there in years. Walking into the sanctuary, he noted that they had purchased new stained-glass windows since he had been there. Admiring the windows, he noticed that at the bottom of each window was the name of the donor of the window. But he recognized none of the names.

“You must have had many new folks join this church since I was a boy,” said Fred to one of the members. “I don’t recognize a single name.”

“Oh, those people aren’t members here. This town hasn’t grown a bit since you were a child, neither has our church. We bought those windows from a company all the way over in Italy. They were made for a church in St. Louis and, when they arrived, none of them would fit. So the company said they were sorry, they would make new windows, and told the church in St. Louis to sell them wherever they could. We bought the windows from them.”

“But, don’t you want to remove these names?” asked Fred.

“Well, we thought about it. But we’re just a little church. Not many of us here, never any new people. So we like to sit here on Sunday morning surrounded by the names of people other than ourselves.”

You know what it’s like to fail. You know what it’s like when the things and places you love fade away. You know what it’s like when you yearn for something new to arrive, someone new to come along so you can learn a new name, something new and hopeful.

Stacy Wenzel was her name. She was in second grade and always showed up for Sunday School wearing a dress, shiny shoes, and clutching a little purse. This was in the little church in small town Wisconsin I served straight out of seminary. I don’t really know where Stacy came from. Her parents dropped her off but didn’t stay for church themselves. Stacy, apparently, had insisted. Though church wasn’t a part of her parents’ life, she wanted it to be a part of hers.

“Then his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside, they sent to him and called him… He replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”

Yeah, her parents didn’t come, but Stacy not only showed up every week for Sunday School, she WAS our Sunday School in that little church. The church had fallen on hard times with a particularly difficult and conflicted pastorate and all the young families with children had left. But when I went to visit, it felt like the Holy Spirit was there in way that She wasn’t in any of the other churches with whom I interviewed.

And one day the Holy Spirit brought us Stacy Wenzel. And one of our church members volunteered to teach her, every Sunday. A class of one. Six years later, when I was ready to accept my second call to a new community, that little church had more than thirty kids in its Sunday School as well as a budding Youth Group. And I got to confirm Stacy just before I left.

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

You know what it’s like to fail, to be surrounded by a sense of failure. You know what it’s like to face difficulty, defeat, and death. You know how it feels when marriages fail, families split apart, businesses downsize or outsource or just go belly up. You know how it feels when things come to an end. But this place – the church – and this story we live by – the Gospel of Jesus Christ – insists that we always begin with an ending. Hope follows defeat. Joy follows mourning. Resurrection follows crucifixion. Endings hurt but the new beginnings that emerge can heal that hurt and lead us into a future we couldn’t have imagined before.

The best wedding service I ever did was in a little church where two longtime members married each other. This was in a town where everyone knew everyone else’s business, so they knew what unhappy marriages they had had before. The church members were supportive through the respective divorces and, being good Christian folk, worked hard at loving everyone involved, not just picking sides. But when these two, years after their divorces, fell in love with one another, well, that church was just giddy. And they insisted that the wedding service happen right there in the middle of Sunday Service and that the newlyweds co-officiate at the communion service with me and hand out the elements as the congregation came forward one-by-one.

You know what the scripture reading was for that Sunday morning worship/wedding service:

“Where you go, I will go;

Where you will lodge, I will lodge;

Your people shall be my people,

And your God my God.”

And that morning everybody there shared in those vows. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

I can’t explain to you why Naomi could, at one moment, declare that the hand of God had turned against her through the death of her husband and sons while, at the next moment decide to return to her hometown of Bethlehem because she believed that “the Lord had considered God’s people and given them food.” I can’t explain how Naomi could at one moment feel cursed while in the next offer her daughters-in-law God’s blessing. It doesn’t make much sense to me. Does it to you? Maybe Naomi really believed in this ‘beginnings from endings’ business and was ready to stake her life on her faith in God’s ability to create a future out of the past and a way back to life even when surrounded by death.

And Ruth, well… think of all that she had been through. Scholar Wil Gafney tells us that verse four in our reading has a deliberate mistranslation that covers up a dirty little secret. The two sons of Naomi didn’t “take” Moabite wives – they “abducted for themselves Moabite women.” This wasn’t a loving union between consenting adults. This was rape/marriage, according to Gafney. That’s how Ruth was brought into Naomi’s household. It’s an old story that would be retold in this country with how African female slaves or young Native American women were often treated.

One wonders if Ruth took some comfort in her husband’s death, if Orpah felt freed by her husband’s death and enjoyed some measure of restoration of her personal liberty.

All the more understandable then that Orpah leaves Naomi to return to the safety of her own home. All the more mysterious then that Ruth remains and casts her lot with Naomi and the faith Naomi places in her God.

Is such faith really possible? Is it possible to believe that God can overcome abuse and oppression and violence, can take all the bitter endings of our lives and fashion out of them a new beginning? Is that the faith that drew Ruth to Naomi and joined the two of them in courage and love? What would you do if you found such a faith as that? Would you follow it as courageously as Ruth?

William Bausch tells the story of his friend Tony, a youth minister who was preparing for a youth retreat and lock-in. It was two o’clock in the morning when Tony finally had to take a break from his preparations and went down to the all-night diner to get a cup of coffee. While he was sitting at the counter, three gentlemen came in – actually the waiter described them to Tony as “bums.” They were poorly dressed and seemed half-drunk. One of them said to the other two, “Tomorrow’s my birthday!” One of the other guys said, “So what?” And they had a cup of coffee and left.

After they left, Tony said to the waiter, “These guys come in here all the time?” The waiter answered, “Yeah, they come in here every night around two o’clock. They have some kind of crummy watchman’s job at the factory.”

The next night Tony got some decorations and a big birthday cake and brought the kids and chaperones from the retreat. At two o’clock the three guys came in and, lo and behold, the diner was full of people! And they all sang happy birthday to Rob – that’s the name of the guy whose birthday it was.

Rob was overcome when they presented him with the birthday cake. He asked if he could take the cake home instead of eating it there, so he could look at it for a while. No one had ever given him a cake before in his life.

After the party was over, the waiter leaned on his elbow on the diner counter and looked at Tony and said, “I bet you belong to some church.” “You’re right,” he said. “Which church is that?” the waiter asked. Tony replied, “I belong to the church that throws parties for bums at two o’clock in the morning.”

And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”

We’re a strange breed, we Christians, believing that we always begin with an ending. Hope follows defeat. Joy follows mourning. Resurrection follows crucifixion. Life follows death. Endings hurt but the new beginnings that emerge can heal that hurt and lead us into a future we couldn’t have imagined before.

We’re about to come to another ending – the ending of our worship service. And our church will break up again, will scatter once more as we leave this place and go to do our work, as we work our witness in the world. And that’s the way we think God wants it to be. The family of God is always larger than we think it is, certainly larger than we want it to be. And, after we leave this place, that’s what we’ll discover and work for in the week ahead.

And as we end, I want to invite you to join me in saying together this wonderful poem by Ted Kooser, that speaks so deeply about death and life, endings and beginnings, seeds that scatter and come to fruit.  Let it be our Statement of Faith this morning.  Let’s say it together – The Red Wing Church by Ted Kooser:

There’s a tractor in the doorway of a church
in Red Wing, Nebraska, in a coat of mud
and straw that drags the floor. A broken plow
sprawls beggarlike behind it on some planks
that make a sort of roadway up the steps.
The steeple’s gone. A black tar-paper scar
that lightning might have made replaces it.
They’ve taken it down to change the house of God
to Homer Johnson’s barn, but it’s still a church,
with clumps of tiger lilies in the grass
and one of those boxlike, glassed-in signs
that give the sermon’s topic (reading now
a bird’s nest and a little broken glass).
The good works of the Lord are all around:
the steeple top is standing in a garden
just up the alley; it’s a hen house now:
fat leghorns gossip at its crowded door.
Pews stretch on porches up and down the street,
the stained-glass windows style the mayor’s house,
and the bell’s atop the firehouse in the square.
The cross is only God knows where.

Amen.

A User's Guide to the Universe

A User's Guide to the Universe

Date Preached: 10-6-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Before our Old Testament Reading this morning, I want to do a little housekeeping business. Those of you who have been members of the church for a while will remember that every year we renew our User’s Agreement with the church and I’m going to ask the ushers to begin handing those out now.

As I said, it’s just a pro forma thing – we do it every year – so you don’t need to worry about it. I mean, we sign these kind of agreements all the time, especially on-line with software changes like a new upgrade to our phone’s operating system or some such thing.

And not everybody needs to have these – just a representative of each family need to sign these and hand them back through the offering. Remember to both sign and you’re your agreement. Our church lawyers reminded me to say that. And that’s why we have them all on retainer.

I have heard in the past that some folks have expressed some concern about what they’re actually signing, but it’s the kind of stuff you’d expect – you know, an agreement on what to do with your money and your time, how to order your family life, some pretty clear limits on your sex life, and really everything about how to deal with things. So, no biggie.

Just sign and date and we’ll have this legally binding document on file.

Okay, let me ask those of you with really good eyesight – what is it that you’re signing? Could you make any of it out?

Right – it’s the Ten Commandments and next few chapters in Deuteronomy that follow.

Listen – I understand why this exercise awakened your suspicion. We’re Americans and so we don’t like to be told what to do. For us, almost by definition, laws are an unfair restriction of our individual prerogative, a hedge on our God-given right to do as we please. And so that’s how we view the law of the Ten Commandments.

But wait a minute – the Ten Commandments or Decalogue forms the core of Torah in the Old Testament. We usually define Torah as “Law,” and it is that. But for Israel, Torah was not so much the rules that were to be followed as the way that was to be walked. Torah is perhaps better translated as “The Way,” or more literally in Hebrew, “the finger pointing the way.” Torah does not necessarily tell us each and every step in life, but it is a reliable guide from God, pointing us in the right direction.

So now let us ask – should we not steal simply because we are told not to? Or should we not steal because respect for personal property is simply THE WAY that a loving community must be organized?

Should we not kill simply because of what the Ten Command­ments tell us? Or is respect for life THE WAY, in fact the only way, that we can live together?  

The Ten Commandments are not some arbitrary list of dos and don’ts imposed on us by God. They aren’t some small-print legal document trying to entrap us. Instead, they are a straightforward description of THE WAY we can live together as human beings. As G.K. Chesterton is once reported to have said, “If a person comes to the edge of a cliff and keeps on walking, he will not break the law of gravity, he will prove it.”

As we receive our Old Testament Reading this morning, perhaps you could ask with me if, in our country and culture today, when we break the old established code of civilized behavior we are proving how essential it is to our civilization. We are not simply breaking the law – we are straying from THE WAY.

You and I have been dating for six months – six months to the day, in fact, though you think I’ve forgotten that. You’re at work, a little bit grumpy because I told you I was busy tonight, when suddenly I show up at your desk. “Let’s go,” I say, and, surprisingly, your boss says, “Go – it’s all been arranged.”

Where we go is to the airport and it’s only when you board the plane that you find out we’re heading to New Orleans. I won’t say much else about our travel plans but maintain a cryptic smile throughout. We check into our hotel, head down to the French Quarter, are seated at a table in a fancy restaurant. Romantic music is playing. I get up from my chair, go down on one knee and say that I have something I want to ask you.

Do I have your attention?

Or imagine that I’m your father. Tomorrow we’ll be driving to drop you off for your freshman year of college. You’re packing up clothes and linens and books when I ask if you could take a break. “Sure,” you say, and we get into the car. We drive out of town about ten minutes to one of our family’s favorite spots. We got out of the car and start climbing a hill overlooking a river. You glance at me, puffing my way up the hill, and my eyes are glistening. Are those tears?

We arrive at the top and sit down side by side on the old lookout rock. The river valley is spread out before us and we share a moment of silence, drinking in this beauty. I turn to you and say, “I’ve been thinking for two years about what I wanted to say to you today.”

Do I have your attention?

Or imagine that I’m your elderly mother. I’ve been out of the old family house for five years and made the transition to my apartment really well. I’ve always been a cheerful sort, seemingly indestructible. You’ve come over for coffee and, after some small talk, I ask you if we could go for a little trip. Could you take me by our old neighborhood so we can visit the park near our old house? We drive by the house and stop across the street. You take me by the arm as we stroll through the park. It’s a beautiful Fall day, a feast for the senses with the sight of leaves ablaze and the sound of children’s voices as they play nearby.

We sit together on a park bench. A sudden gust of wind sends leaves swirling around our ankles. I frown as I turn to you and tell you that I saw the doctor last week to go over my test results. I have some news I need to share.

Do I have your attention?

There are moments in life that we know are important. We can feel it in our gut, in the pit of our stomach, with a lump in our throat, a tear in our eye. At those moments we really listen, we really pay attention.

The Bible tells us that God speaks to us. Those who wrote and edited the Bible tell many of the stories as if God speaks to us directly. My experience has been that the voice of God comes indirectly, through the voices of others, especially at those moments when I’m really paying attention. That’s when I can hear God’s voice, right alongside the voice of my mother or father, friend or partner, child or neighbor; even alongside the voice of a teacher or preacher. But, of course, you have to pay attention.

One last scenario to imagine: you and I have been through so much in the last few months and years. We worked side by side for hours without end making bricks. We were whipped and beaten to make sure every last ounce of productivity could be squeezed out of us. We were slaves, treated like dirt. Then came Moses who, through his brother Aaron, told us that we could be free. And after a series of incredible events, Pharaoh let us go. It was God’s doing, Moses told us. Whoever this God is.

Pharaoh let us go but then he relented and sent an army after us – sharp steel and armored horses and chariots of war against ordinary and exhausted flesh and blood. But God saved us – that’s what Moses told us – by drowning the Egyptian soldiers and horses. God saved us by giving us bread and water in the wilderness. God saved us by delivering us from Egypt in order to become God’s people.

And now we’ve been brought to the foot of this mountain – Sinai, they call it. And last night it was like Close Encounters of the Third Kind: lighting and thunder and fire and smoke as a huge and holy presence descended upon the mountain. We’ve never seen anything like it. And here comes Moses, his hair turned white, his face shining red like the permanent reflection of a blazing bonfire, carrying two large tablets of stone. “God has spoken,” Moses says. “And this is what God has said…”

Does God have your attention?

It was at that heart-stopping, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring moment that the Ten Commandments was originally delivered, the Way of God revealed. That’s how the book of Exodus tells the story. And if those freed and former slaves were paying attention, they found out something amazing – that God’s Way is all-encompassing, involving not just our worship but our work life – don’t work seven days a week, take a Sabbath break. It involves us in the public sphere – don’t lie in a court proceeding – and in the private sphere – look after your parents. It involves our sex life – be faithful to your mate – and our innermost thoughts – don’t lust after someone else’s new car or huge house or trophy husband. The Ten Commandments told them that God was to be found and heard and received as a loving guide, everywhere, throughout their lives. It truly was a user’s guide issued from the creator of the universe.

But now, in our passage from Deuteronomy, years and years have passed. As those Hebrews face a transition into the Promised Land, the story of the Ten Commandments is told again. And the way it’s told emphasizes that it is still relevant and contemporary to their new situation: “Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.” Pay attention, the author of Deuteronomy is telling them. It may be an old story but it’s about YOU!

Add another layer: years and years later, the nation of Israel is floundering, and King Josiah doesn’t know why. Then a scroll is discovered, long forgotten in the deep recesses of the temple. This neglected scroll is the book of Deuteronomy, the commandments and ordinances, and, reading it, Josiah sees how far astray the nation has wandered from God’s hopes and intentions. He has the scroll publicly read aloud and moves the whole nation to repent and thereby rescue their collective soul.

One more layer: scholars tell us that these stories were most probably not written down until after the Exile, after the nation of Israel had been conquered, broken, and shattered – the people scattered to the corners of the known world. And when the Exile ended, when the people were called to return to Israel and become a people again, this story is told once more to remind them of their Genesis as a people – the Exodus that freed them and the covenant of the commandments that defined them. Pay attention! This old story is new once more!

And now us. And now the same message: if we pay attention, if we truly pay attention to those around us, to the world around us, we will hear God ‘s voice calling us to the Way that the Ten Commandments revealed, the Way of Love that Jesus will tell us is the real purpose of the commandments. You know what that Way is: a life of worship, of faithfulness, of neighborliness, of peace and joy.

That old message seeks to always reach us anew. Perhaps the only thing that can prevent it is our own inattention. Will we do it? Will we give God our attention?

Many of you will have the same memories that I have: Saturday night we would peel the potatoes for Sunday lunch. Mom would spice the roast and put it in the pan. We often made the dessert ahead of time and even set the dinner table the night before. Sunday morning, Mom would pop the roast in the oven, we would get dressed in our best clothes and go to church. When we came home we would all sit around the dinner table, still dressed up. We would be served a wonderful meal, the oldest would be served first and the youngest last.

The dinner would often last for two hours as we talked and laughed and argued and cried and apologized and laughed some more. After dinner we would change our clothes and play together in our yard, sometimes with friends, sometimes with just our family. Sunday evening we would set out the bowls of left-overs from the days prior and have an informal meal as we played a game or watched T.V. as a family.

This was Sunday. It wasn’t Saturday, it wasn’t Friday, it couldn’t have been mistaken for any other day of the week. It was special. It was Sunday. It was Sabbath. And everything we did paid attention to that fact.

Did you ever wonder where the weekend comes from, the notion of measuring time by weeks? It wasn’t found in other ancient cultures that surrounded Israel.

  • Every culture had the notion of a day: a day represents the time it takes for the earth to rotate on its axis from sunrise to sunset to sunrise again.
  • Every culture had the notion of a month: a month represents the cycle of the moon, from dark to full to dark.
  • And just about everyone had the notion of a year: a year is the length of the earth’s journey around the sun.
  • But what is a week? A week is an invention, something that sets us apart from the other normal processes of time. In our faith tradition, we believe that the notion of a week, six days of work followed by one day of Sabbath, was invented by God and given to us.

Do you still pay attention to Sabbath in your family, in your life? I wonder. I wonder where Sabbath has gone to in our culture.

  • The stores are now all open on Sunday.
  • God knows the bars are open.
  • More and more people, therefore, have to work on Sunday.
  • How many of our youth are not here this morning because they are at work?
  • Overstressed parents often use Sunday to frantically perform household chores or catch up on their Honey Do lists.
  • Families are just as likely to fly apart as stay together on Sunday nowadays. There’s work and soccer and friends and malls and movies and dates and the list goes on and on.
  • It goes without saying that there are many, many families that don’t make church a regular part of their Sabbath observance.

What’s happened to Sabbath?

I know that I’m sounding like an old crank this morning by talking about sabbath in this way, but I’m in good company. In the Bible, we are told that there are three reasons why Sabbath is special:

  • First, it’s a reminder of God freeing us from slavery. God freed us from slavery in Egypt and God frees us from slavery to our jobs today. In ancient days, slavery was a matter of who owns your body. Today the issue is who owns our time. I know you have many claims on your time, but Sabbath forces us, once a week, one day a week, to claim a day for ourselves, to feel free.
  • The second reason given in the Bible for the Sabbath is a more subtle one: God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. So we, too, are told to work for six days and rest on the seventh. One of the phrases used in Biblical Hebrew to describe God resting on that first Sabbath means “He got His soul back.” We are commanded to rest on the seventh day to get our souls back.
  • The third reason we are to stop on the seventh day is so that we can take time to detach ourselves for a day from all of our problems, everything unfinished and unpleasant in our lives. On this day we take Jesus at his word when he tells, “Don’t be anxious about your life…” They will all be waiting for us at Sabbath’s end – the unpaid bills, the family conflicts, the problems at work, the self-improvement goals – but for one day we will have had the liberating experience of not worrying about them.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, traveling through Europe, noted the many beautiful Christian sanctuaries he found there. Christians, he writes, build beautiful sanctuaries. Then he noted that he could find almost no beautiful Jewish temples. The reason? While Christians build their sanctuaries in space, through the Sabbath, Jews build their sanctuaries in time.

Can you take the time to be holy, to celebrate the freedom God has given you, to get your soul back, and to set aside the worries of your life? You don’t have to do it the way we did it Back In the Day, but how will you do it? How will you pay attention?

Sounds pretty important, doesn’t it, this part of the Way that is the Sabbath. It’s worth paying attention to. And that’s only one of the Ten Commandments, just a part of the larger Way that asks us to pay attention throughout our lives, through all the time we spend.

Mark Nepo writes, “… our challenge each day is to unglove ourselves so that the doorknob feels cold, and the car handle feels wet, and the kiss good-bye feels like the lips of another being, soft and unrepeatable.” When the glove comes off, spiritually speaking, we allow God to speak to us in EACH of our everyday encounters, touch us in the touch of EVERY hand we grasp, move us in ALL we do to show and share loving kindness, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential.

When we give life our attention, we offer God the opportunity to speak, touch, and move us.

So as you go about this week, surrounded by the beauty of Fall, engaged in conversation with family, friends and strangers; as you spend your days this week at work and play, labor and leisure, striving and sabbath; as you hear the voices of others, I pray you will also hear the voice of one other: the voice of God whispering under the words, smiling like the sun, causing you to pause amid your busyness and asking you a simple question:

Do I have your attention?

I will send you to Pharaoh

I will send you to Pharaoh

Date Preached: 9-29-19
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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Letters from Kenya

Letters from Kenya

Date Preached: 9-22-19
Preached by:

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If You Hear My Voice

If You Hear My Voice

Date Preached: 9-15-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Dangerous Love

Dangerous Love

Date Preached: 9-8-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Karl Kuhn

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Meditation given by Rev. Dr. Karl Kuhn at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on September 8, 2019 at 9:30 AM.

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How Does One's Faith and Spirituality Grow with Age? Reflections on Faith, Spirit and Aging.

How Does One's Faith and Spirituality Grow with Age? Reflections on Faith, Spirit and Aging.

Date Preached: 9-1-19
Preached by: Rev. Linda Morgan-Clement

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Meditation given by Rev. Linda Morgan-Clement at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on September 1, 2019 at 9:30 AM.

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No. Maybe? Yes.

No. Maybe? Yes.

Date Preached: 8-11-19
Preached by: Dianne Droster

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How Can My Faith Provide Comfort in Death?

How Can My Faith Provide Comfort in Death?

Date Preached: 8-4-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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We begin this morning with a word from those who have come before us. The Heidelberg Catechism, a teaching confession of the Reformed Church, was divided up into 52 sections or “days,” each to be taught on the subsequent Sundays of the year. Our excerpt this morning is from Day 1 and serves as a summary of the whole confession.

Perhaps those in our congregation who come from the Evangelical and Reformed tradition of the United Church of Christ will find these words very familiar. For the rest of us, it may use language and images that seem outmoded, even uncomfortable to us. Each generation must find the language that sparks the spirit afresh to express an ancient faith in Christ that can vibrate with newness in the here and now. So as you say these words, celebrate that ancient faith and think of what words we might use to express that faith.

READING FROM CHURCH HISTORY – Day One, Heidelberg Confession 

Leader: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

All: That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

“How can my faith provide comfort in Death?” That’s the question of faith we are asked to reflect upon this morning. I wanted to begin with the remarkable faith declaration of our Reformed Christian forbearers who boldly confessed Jesus Christ as the ONLY comfort in life and in death.

In his remarkable work, The Courage to Be, theologian Paul Tillich sought to understand the big picture of death’s influence on us. For Tillich, the human being is subject to three central fears: the Fear of Fate and Death, the Fear of Guilt and Condemnation and the Fear of Emptiness and Meaninglessness. Death, Condemnation, and Meaninglessness – those are the three big anxieties of human existence and each is connected to the experience of our own mortality.

I’d like to divide up my reflections this morning into three parts, sparked by three readings, to think about how our Christian faith addresses these three big fears.

First, the fear of death and those beautiful words from the Apostle Paul in the 15th chapter of First Corinthians:

THE FEAR OF DEATH

EPISTLE READING 1 Corinthians 15:51-55

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ 
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
‘Where, O death, is your sting?’
        

In George Seaton’s 1956 film, The Proud and the Profane, we follow a young nurse to Iwo Jima where her husband had been killed in World War II. She goes to the cemetery where her husband is buried and turns to the caretaker, a shell-shocked soldier, who had seen her husband die. “How did he die?” she asked. “Like an amateur,” he replied. “They teach you how to hurl a grenade and how to fire a mortar, but nobody teaches you how to die. There are no professionals in dying.”

The weeks following my mother’s death, I had a strange feeling stalking me. I felt strangely disembodied, like my feet weren’t really touching the ground. I felt rootless, unbalanced, a bit dizzy on my feet. It took me a lot of prayer and reflection and conversation, especially with my siblings, until I recognized that my grief had attached itself to the feeling that I had become untethered from the earth, from my own life. Because my mother was no longer in this world, the body that brought me into this life was gone. Through her death, somehow my connection with the earth, even with my own life, was at risk.

An absurd thought, I know. But that’s the unsettling power of death at work in us, in such irrational thoughts and feelings. We’re all amateurs when it comes to dying, even if only experiencing it second-hand. Maybe you have had similar kinds of thoughts or experiences – not the same as mine, but equally unsettling. You live your life as if there are some things that are constant, that can never change, but death snatches that way from us. Rather than having everything in our own control, we feel buffeted by the fates, by times and tides out of our grasp.

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” So said British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in an interview a few years ago.

For those of us yearning for comfort as we experience the unsettling power of death, such a statement from such an admirable source can send a chill down the spine. Certainly, Stephen Hawking could never be accused of being short on courage having lived with a crippling disease since he was 21 years old. Nor could we accuse him of being short on imagination. He was able to imagine a collapsing sun producing such an incredible gravitational force that not even light photons can escape its dark grasp.

But, of course, I must point out that, just like you and I, Dr. Hawking is no expert on the afterlife. Paul reminds us in Romans that “ear has not heard nor eye seen nor human imagination envisioned what God has prepared for those who love God…” The afterlife, in fact, is beyond human imagination, no matter whose imagination it is. You might be able to imagine a black hole but that still doesn’t mean you can imagine life after death. We’re all amateurs when it comes to that as well.      

Like Paul in our reading from First Corinthians 15 this morning, what we know about the afterlife and the actual physical mechanics of resurrection is not much; so our reflections on it call for open-minded listening, earnest testimony, and heartfelt poetry.

A clergy colleague tells the story of asking a liberal bishop if he actually believed in the resurrection. “Believe it?” he answered incredulously. “I’ve seen it too many times not to!”       

I don’t know what exact shape it takes, but we can all testify to the fact that there IS life after death because we’ve all experienced it again and again.

We have seen medical miracles, even experienced them ourselves.

We have heard the testimony of those who have glimpsed another side, a farther shore, another world.

We have felt the presence of those long gone back among us, offering us guidance, comfort, loving presence.

We have seen people who have been left for dead, seemingly beyond all hope of redemption, have their lives turned around and transformed.

We have felt so heartbroken by disappointment and grief that death seemed like a permanent shroud of despair gathered around us. But day followed day, step followed step, we put one foot in front of another, lifted food to our lips, began interacting with the faces of concern all around us, and a month, six months, a year later we realize that we had come to life again.

What happens after death? Life! Life happens. That’s the miraculous power of the resurrection that has been set loose among us right now, right here on earth, right in the midst of our day-to-day deaths and struggles. “Listen, I shall tell you a mystery…”!

And this is how Paul ends this long 15th chapter of First Corinthians talking about life after death: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Don’t give up, Paul is telling them, don’t give up on life even and especially when things seem like they are falling apart and dying. The present power of the resurrection will hold you up, will hold us together, will continue to build something marvelous out of us.

THE FEAR OF CONDEMNATION

GOSPEL READING Mark 12:18-27

Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, saying, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.’

As Paul Tillich reflects on the three great anxieties of human existence: fear of death, fear of condemnation, and fear of meaninglessness, he believes that an emphasis on each roughly corresponds to the history of the western world. At the end of era of ancient civilizations, in the time of Jesus, the central fear of human existence was a fear of death. Perhaps that is why it was such fertile ground for the seeds of the resurrection. At the end of the Middle Ages, the primary concern of human existence was the fear of condemnation. Will I be saved or damned? That was the preoccupation of the culture and the church with this focus on heaven and hell, sin and damnation, indulgences and churchly rites of absolution. And, for Tillich, it was the Reformation that countered this preoccupation with its emphasis not on judgment but on grace, free grace, freely given by God to deliver us from the fear of damnation.          

Perhaps you know the story of the lawyer who died and was sent to Saint Peter and the Pearly Gates. Peter greeted the lawyer with the good news that the admission policy for heaven had gotten very liberal over the years, and now they weren’t looking for perfection to be let into heaven but just any kind of good deed that showed a good heart and worthy intentions. “What would be some of the good deeds you did in your life?” Saint Peter asked the lawyer. The lawyer had to think about it. In fact he thought long and hard for two whole days until, on the third day, he was finally able to say to Saint Peter, “Well, there was this one time when a homeless guy was bothering me so I gave him fifty cents to knock it off.”

Now it was Saint Peter’s turn to think. He conferred with the other saints for two whole days until on the third day he returned to the lawyer and said, “I’ve got good news and bad news.”

“What’s the good news?” asked the lawyer.

Saint Peter said, “You’re gonna get your fifty cents back.”    

The Christian Church spent so much time consolidating its power through guilt and condemnation that it’s not surprising that humans should have such acute anxiety about death and judgment. Even now, it’s interesting to ask, at the funeral services you attend, how many of those clergy seem to think the central question they must answer is whether or not the deceased has been saved? More than a bit arrogant, don’t you think? We seem to think that whatever the resurrection might bring, it will surely be based on our human criteria. What a different thought Jesus brings in our Gospel reading when he is posed a hypothetical about a childless woman who is widowed five times, each time with another brother marrying her before dying and giving way to the next brother. This ridiculous scenario concludes with a question for Jesus: to which one of the five brothers is this woman married in the hereafter? “None of them,” Jesus says. There is no marriage in heaven.

No couple has ever asked me to include this scripture passage in their wedding service, though the traditional vows allude to it with the words, “’Til death do you part.”

Jesus’ answer may feel a bit chilly to you, reminding you that none of our earthly institutions – marriage, church, family, nation – are worthy of eternal status. But behind it all is the liberating thought the resurrection will not memorialize what has gone before but will transform us into a new community, the Kingdom of Heaven, the New Jerusalem, not judged but changed, not condemned but remade. In this way there is no condemnation for us in Jesus Christ – we need not fear death’s judgment – but we will indeed be changed, all of us, into the community God has always created us to be.

What’s shocking about Jesus, is that he is convinced that we can begin to do it right now, right here on earth, as we are still living this side of the resurrection. 

Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his best seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, tells about a Chinese mother whose son dies. She goes to a holy man and asks him for a magic potion to bring her son back to life so she can get beyond her paralyzing grief. The holy man says that for such a potion he needs her to bring him a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow and loss.

So she sets out to find such a seed. She goes from house to house asking if the home has known sorrow and loss. Regardless of where she goes, whether the house is a mansion or a hovel, every home has known some sorrow and loss. As she hears people tell her of their losses, she thinks to herself: “Who better to help these grieving people than I who have lost my son?” So she spends time in each home listening and helping those who have loved and lost. She never finds the mustard seed, but soon it no longer matters. Her loss has transformed her in a way that enables her to help others to be transformed as well.

FEAR OF MEANINGLESSNESS

OLD TESTAMENT READING Deuteronomy 34:1-11

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants”; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’ Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land,

Two women were meeting at their Fiftieth High School Reunion, seeing each for the first time since graduating. One asked the other, “You were always so ambitious in school. Did you manage to live a successful life?”

“Oh, yes,” said her friend. “My first marriage was to a millionaire; my second marriage was to an actor; my third marriage was to a preacher; and now I’m married to an undertaker.”

 Her friend asked, “What do those marriages have to do with a successful life?”

“Well, you know what they say: one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go.”       

We like things nice and neat. We like a clear beginning, middle and end. We like to set goals and meet them. But in real life, it doesn’t often work out that way.

The Old Testament reading this morning brings us a story from real life. “His eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated,” the writer of Deuteronomy tells us about Moses’ condition when he died. “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face …” These might be the most beautiful words said at a death this side of “Good night sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”

And just as Moses began with God on a mountain, so Moses’ life ends on a mountain with God. On Mount Sinai, Moses was given the 10 Commandments. Now, in our Old Testament Reading for the day, Moses is given a breathtaking look at the Prom­ised Land from the top of Pisgah. It seems complete, doesn’t it? Moses’ life was successful, wasn’t it? It was meaningful.

But you and I are not Moses. And for Moses there was only one goal: to reach the Promised Land. But a glimpse is all he is given. The fact of the matter is that Moses is not granted fulfillment of his life’s goal. Do you think his life felt empty to him?

If we could, we would write a different ending to this story. But we cannot.

Death comes and closes the book before we’ve had a chance to write a final chapter. There is much that is unfulfilled in life. Sometimes it threat­ens to overwhelm us and choke our lives with regret. All of us, like Moses, have to come to terms with the incompleteness of our lives.  

How fitting of Martin Luther King, Jr. to evoke this story in his last sermon. “I’ve been to the mountain. I’ve seen the Promised Land. Even if I don’t get there with you. I’ve been to the mountaintop.” King died outside the Promised Land of racial justice. He could see the Promised Land, but he never got there himself.

If we could, we would write a different ending to that story, too.

Does that make his life meaningless? This is, for Paul Tillich, the great anxiety of modernity, the fear that our lives ultimately hold no meaning because death exposes all that we were unable to accomplish, to learn, to love, to be.

Well, thank God for Jesus who, when asked what made our lives truly fulfilled, did not instruct us to be rich by the time we’re thirty, famous by the time we’re forty, powerful by the time we’re fifty, and venerated by the time we’re sixty. Instead, he gave us a very simple instruction, an instruction of one word, really – love. Love. Love God, love yourself, and love your neighbor, meaning “everybody else.”

That was the instruction Jesus gave us, a lifestyle of love that can carry us through to our life’s ending without sorrow and regret.

Here’s my new favorite quote about dying: “When it comes time to die, make sure that all you have to do is die. The only way to make sure of that is to live every day as though it were your last.” Those words were spoken by Jim Elliot, a missionary who lived a life based on love and died at the age of 28. Was his life a success?

Maybe accepting the fact that there is no happily ever after, no arriving at the Promised Land in our lives, maybe that can be a step toward wisdom. So let me suggest that the word to you today from this ending of Moses’ life and the Book of Deuteronomy is… relax. Or, as Aaron Rodgers might put it, “R-E-L-A-X…” God’s purposes for this world are not utterly dependent on your getting it right.

When your life’s meaning is about love and not about success, then you can go ahead and live it and let go of things like goals and success. You can venture out even if you don’t arrive where you planned. Moses could tell us: Sometimes, the trip itself is more interesting than its destination. Go ahead and love, bet your life on someone, even with second thoughts, have children, even when the ones you get aren’t the ones you thought you wanted.  

Moses could tell us that only God knows where it all leads, what it finally means. We are the story God writes. God only knows how it ends. So whether you achieve all your goals, make progress, or arrive at your planned destinations, when you live a life based on love, here is the promise: as with Moses, God goes with you all the way to your final days. And, at the last, God will write the ending.  Amen.

 

How Do We Keep Faith Across a Bitter Political Divide?

How Do We Keep Faith Across a Bitter Political Divide?

Date Preached: 7-28-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. John Helt

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Old Testament Professor Walter Brueggemann taught us wannabe ministers at Eden Seminary that the most important date in the Bible was … (any guesses?) 587 BCE.

Yes, six hundred years before Jesus!  587 was the turning point for the people of God. 587 marked the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the deportation of the holy city’s leading citizens to Babylon, the end of monarchy in ancient Israel, and the beginning of three generations of exile. 587 signaled the end of an exclusive connection between the land and Yahweh, the God who promised this land to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. In exile the people of God learned that they could indeed sing the songs of Zion in a faraway land. 587 marked the beginning of the end of one way for the people of God to be the people of God. It also marked the beginning of a new way. Instead of being the Establishment, the people of God were now a deported minority, without a homeland, living in exile in the foreign land of Babylon.

In his 2018 book, Faith for This Moment: Navigating a Polarized World as the People of God, evangelical pastor and author Rick McKinley says that today, many Christians in America feel like exiles within their own country, and there is growing disagreement about how to live faithfully in this complex cultural moment. Some desire to conquer Babylon and return to a type of Christendom they believe existed in an idealized past. Others seek to assimilate the values of this culture into the church. And in between are those who are uncomfortable with either extreme, who feel spiritually homeless. These exiles are looking for a new way of understanding what faith looks like in a polarized… culture. They want to know: What does it mean to be the people of God now? McKinley shows exiled Christians how people of faith from other times and places lived faithfully, prophetically, and imaginatively, neither compromising their principles nor their compassion, and never giving in to despair. He writes, “The way in which the people of God navigated their faithfulness to God in exile was not to burn Babylon or to baptize Babylon but to find distinct ways to bless and resist Babylon.”

How do we navigate our polarized world as people of God?

The letter to the Hebrews says that our ancestors navigated their world “by faith.”  Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses… all lived their lives by faith. Faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. By faith they understood that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from invisible things. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth…seeking a homeland. They sought a better country….

How do we live by faith as the people of God in this exile? McKinley may be right that God does not call us to burn or baptize Babylon. But sometimes we have to bless or resist Babylon. So much of our contemporary world is built on falsehoods masked as truth. Extremes of left and right depend on conjured notions of a golden age in the past or a utopian dream of the future.

The evangelical right is keen to say that America’s founders had it right, that we were a kind of Promised Land, and that we have been betraying and squandering our heritage in recent generations. The political left sees Babylon in and throughout the history of our American experiment with democracy. But, as Michael Harrington used to say, many want to build on a past that never was as the basis for a future that cannot be. The letter to the Hebrew counters that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses from our past, and for our future we look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  Turning back the clock is not an option, even if we really understood what the past was all about. Living by faith into the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen is our mission.

As followers of Jesus, we live in the world but we are not of the world. We are citizens of a world beyond what we see. Babylon is not the holy land, God’s chosen people, or a nation of light set on a hill. Wasn’t. Isn’t. Never will be. The year 587 is important because it marked the end of a long history of tribalism, nationalism and militarism in ancient Israel. Perhaps we are living in a post-587 world in these times when everything seems to be coming unglued. Many of us, right, and left and center, feel like we are in exile now.

How do we live by faith in this polarized Babylon? Perhaps 587 signals a reset. Living by faith in exile must avoid exaggeration, extremes and easy answers: not only left and right, winners and losers, us and them, but also the ethical extremes of doing nothing or trying to do it all. One pole would have us circle the wagons, turn off the news and huddle in prayer as we shut out the world. The other would have us join a crusade, equate faith with good deeds, and take on the world. 

It is tempting for some of us to retreat into our quiet sacred places, put on spiritual and ethical blinders, and try to forget about the world and its problems.  It is tempting to others of us to arm ourselves with righteousness, driven by the idea that God has no hands but our own, and try to do whatever we can to make the world a better place. Mostly, we in the UCC belong to the activist camp.  Our recent General Synod in Milwaukee underscored this understatement.

We aspire to action and deed, and pay little heed to prayer and creed, except for the verse from the letter of James: “Faith without works is dead.” We are heirs of a social gospel that takes moral engagement with this world seriously and even for granted. But we have also inherited a prayer that pleads:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

We are a people out to change the things that should be changed. That is in our DNA. We aren’t going to sit back and let the planet burn. We won’t stand for hate and racism. We will not give up on democracy and human rights. But there are times when we need the grace to accept things that can’t be changed. We are not called to storm the gates like Braveheart or joust at windmills like Don Quixote– without any hope of making a difference. Our prayer begins, after all, with a plea for the grace to accept with serenity, and then seeks courage to change, and then–perhaps most importantly for our times—concludes with an acknowledgment that we don’t have all the answers; we are in desperate need of the wisdom to tell the difference between the calls for action and retreat.

Our polarized world needs this grace, and it needs the wisdom of the prayer’s author, Reinhold Niebuhr, who taught that all of us, both in the church and in the political sphere, need a little less zealous certainty and a little more humility. Niebuhr taught that living by faith means confessing our sin, especially the sin of false pride that prevents us from seeing ourselves and others as we really are and seeing the world as it really is. False pride (hubris) in individual, nation, party and church leads to destruction. One of Niebuhr’s early sermons, “Beyond Tragedy,” posits the Tower of Babel as the biblical metaphor tailor-made for progressive zealots. False pride infects our highest and most noble efforts and blinds us to our own self-interest and the law of unintended consequences. False pride is a self-righteousness that converts halos to horns.

So, maybe the first step toward living by faith in our polarized world is to try on some humility and to demand it of our leaders… in Washington, D.C., here in Appleton, in Madison and even in Cleveland.

The church at its best creates safe havens of listening, acceptance and common ground where opposing sides meet and commit themselves, in humility, to a little mutual understanding. What if we open ourselves to the possibility that we could be wrong, especially in those things about which we are most certain and fired up? What if we offer the resources of our faith to bless the political art of compromise that is treated these days as a curse?

A positive illustration about which you may be more familiar than I. I am encouraged by your 8th district congressman, Mike Gallagher, who is a Republican member of the House of Representatives’ Climate Solutions Caucus. This is a good news/common ground story that needs more attention than the tweets, bloviations and rallies that dominate the news. This bi-partisan climate solutions effort in Congress began in 2016 as a Noah’s Ark caucus: Members could join only in bi-partisan pairs, two by two, one Democrat with one Republican. By November 2018, there were 90 members, 45 elephants and 45 donkeys, including your own Mike Gallagher. As a creation care activist myself, I have to say that the House Climate Solutions Caucus is no Green New Deal. It is a very modest compromise, which will not gain support from the right or left. But it is something. It is an acknowledgment that climate change is happening, it threatens all life on planet Earth, and humans bear responsibility both for its cause and its cure. Congressman Gallagher is to be congratulated for agreeing to board the ark, along with colleagues, not enemies, from the other side of the aisle. I challenge you to contact him and thank him for this effort on behalf of God’s creation. (He may need to hear from constituents about other things he has done recently, too. He criticized one of Trump’s nasty tweets before he backed away.)

If we live by faith, we will confess our sin, humble ourselves, reach out to others, especially to those with whom we disagree, and seek common ground. A polarized world always tempts us to hunker down, go to our corners, flock together with birds of a feather like ours and denounce the dark side. Yet Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, leads us in another direction, toward the center, where we may embrace “the other” and learn together how to compromise and win the ultimate prize of the cross of grace, which is reconciliation. Katherine Hayhoe is a climate scientist in Texas whose husband is an evangelical pastor. She is a leader in the “moral re-framing” which takes seriously the convictions of climate change deniers. We can’t expect that the same arguments that convinced us of the truth will be convincing to those on the other side of moral issues.

An instructive debate happened at General Synod in Milwaukee last month. A resolution from the floor proposed that we exclude a group from the Synod exhibit area that poses as a conservative alternative to ONA (Open and Affirming) designations for our congregations. Passionate voices of inclusive UCC folk made the case for excluding these other UCC voices. One brave LGBTQ voice spoke up during the debate in a kind of first amendment way to say that an Open and Affirming church ought not be in the business of excluding those with whom we differ. How do we say, “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. No exceptions,” and then start making exceptions?

Living by faith in our polarized world means finding ways to reach beyond clan, tribe and nation, and seeking conversation with the other side.  As exiles we are “other” already. We ought to be sensitive to otherness! What center-left “progressives” like us have in common with people on the right is that we both feel like exiles.

Can we not have conversations with one another, agreeing to disagree without being disagreeable? Can we not transcend the pole positions of left and right, winner and loser, us and them and dare in faith to cross the lines of our comfort zones?  We need not be purple or neutral in our search for common ground, but we must look for openings for conversation in places where now there is only conflict or avoidance.

Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. The gospel and the cross of this Jesus point to reconciliation. Reconciliation to God, to one another, and breaking down all walls that diminish and divide.  Following this Jesus demands that we humble ourselves, reach out to one another and look for common ground.  In this way we may bless and resist the Babylon in which we find ourselves.

 

Does God Have a College Degree?

Does God Have a College Degree?

Date Preached: 7-21-19
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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So, the short answer is no, but for those of you who have been in a college classroom – can you just imagine? I mean, I had plenty of classmates who THOUGHT they were God. I remember one particular smarty-pants kid at the end of a semester, when the professor was trying to orchestrate an evaluation of how things had gone. By the way, my undergraduate degree is in Interdisciplinary Studies so there was a lot of verbal assessing and re-evaluating that went on there. Anyway, this kid who thought he was so smart actually admitted he’d never done any of the assigned readings. “I found it rather easy to pass this class nonetheless,” he boldly disclosed. The look on the professor’s face reminded us she was definitely still in charge of our ultimate destiny at least for that class (in other words, the grades hadn’t been turned in just yet) so the rest of us stayed quiet. It turns out you can be smart as aces in terms of academics but significantly less smart in other arenas in life.

I think God would really be a challenging student. Jesus was, even at a very young age. Remember when he was 12 and Mary and Joseph thought he was lost? He turned up in the Temple, arguing it out with the Rabbis. Surely he got that quality from his heavenly parent. It’s tough to argue with the One who made everything, and presumably knows everything there is to know. I’ll bet those Rabbis had their hands full with Jesus. God would be no less of a challenge. God says it most clearly, I think, in Isaiah 55. My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Imagine being a professor and grading THAT answer on a final.

No, God doesn’t have a college degree. But I wonder if, for the person who submitted this question to us pastors – maybe a youth, or a child – whether that’s their measuring stick for smartness. Whether having a college degree is code language for being pretty darn smart – intelligent, even – and how God’s knowledge measures up against that. I have to be careful how I answer this question. Not only is this a congregation with a deep connection and commitment to higher education – many of us have degrees, many of our youth choose that path after high school. I chose that path, too – it was right for me – and I also live with a professor, so I don’t want to say anything that devalues having a college degree. But no, God doesn’t have one as far as I can tell, and while that’s a common mark of academic success for humanity, it’s not for everyone – and I don’t know, in the end, how much it matters to God.

If I myself were smarter in the academic sense of the word, I would now launch into an extensive monologue on epistemology – the study of knowledge itself – beginning with Plato’s assertion that knowledge is “justified true belief”, and the generations of philosophers and researchers following who have contested, stretched and reframed that conversation taking into account how our context, our humanity, our gender, our race, our privilege, our physicality, our mental well-being and capacity – all affect what we know and how and what we learn. I have vague memories of reading such things in the past, but little inclination to spend my time doing so in the present.

On this, the 50th anniversary weekend of the Apollo 11 space mission, we could spend time extolling the achievements of science. How many of you remember where you were, when the moon landing was broadcast – BROADCAST – on television? Not to brag, but I missed it by a few months, which means I’m among the millions who have grown up not recalling a world where such achievements were just dreams and untested hypotheses. Human knowledge has come so far – what we know now that we didn’t know then, thanks to study, and research, and risk-taking – and smarts.

Of course we know now, too, that there are so many ways to be intelligent. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences rocketed onto the scene in 1983, changing the way – or at least challenging the way – we think about how we learn. He said it’s possible to be nature smart, to be sound smart or musically oriented, to be number smart or good with numbers, to be life smart, to be people smart – to have interpersonal skills, to be body smart or very physical or movement oriented in how we engage the world, to be word smart, to be self smart, or to be picture smart or visual – and none of these ways of being smart is necessarily of greater value than another.

Not necessarily of greater value.

But I’m conscious that this question – Does God have a college degree – is coming from someone who maybe holds that as a standard, who is growing up in a world where different ways of knowing are well-accepted in theory – but the ability to value all ways of knowing equally – maybe we’re not there yet.

Because if we can put men on the moon – why can’t we figure out how to pay women an equal and fair wage, whether they play soccer, teach at a university, run a company or research the cosmos?

If we can launch satellites and space stations into orbit, why can’t we figure out how to distribute food and resources fairly, so everyone has enough to eat?

If we’ve made all of these advances in science and in medicine, why can’t we find a way to make such advancements affordable and accessible to all – not just the privileged few?

And if we’re “so smart” in so many ways, how come people who should be smart enough to know better, keep spewing their hate-filled, racist, misogynistic rhetoric into our national conversation and pretending it’s something else – when even a kindergartner could name it for what it is.

I’m conscious that this question – Does God have a college degree – might just be coming from someone who, like many of us from time to time, might be looking around this crazy, mixed up world of ours and saying, “Just how smart IS God anyway,” when for all the beauty and intricacy of the created world, we not only have to deal with gnats and mosquitoes, but also the more critical design flaws evident when our bodies fail us, our minds betray us, or worse – when there seems no end to the ways other people use their bodies, their minds, their wealth, their privilege, their words – to wreak havoc on God’s beautiful, colorful world.

Just how smart IS God?

Scripture tells us that the wisdom of God is foolishness as far as this world’s concerned. The cross becomes the symbol of how God intends to win us over, not with the kinds of credentials held in such high esteem by humanity, but with a sacrificial choice made for the sake of love for all. And in a move that really ought to make us question God’s sanity, that work of love has been entrusted not only to those with diplomas covering their walls and even cash lining their pockets, but to ruddy-faced shepherds fresh in from the fields and fisher-folk more at home with scaling fish and mending nets than conversing with people. In a move almost none like us can comprehend, you and I, no matter who we are or how old we are or our family name or our race or anything we’ve accomplished or achieved or earned or succeeded at – or failed at – and no matter what anyone else might be doing out there – it’s up to us – you and me – to know that God is inviting us to do our part.

And to do our part, knowing all the while it won’t earn us a certificate or a diploma or a trophy or even any accolade any “other” might recognize.

 

And to do our part, knowing whatever we do might only be recognized by the one other person to whom we express our kindness, our acceptance, our forgiveness to in that one particular moment. And even that is enough. And though no one else might see it or recognize it – God will be beaming, as proud as any parent, teacher or mentor – because God has that kind of patience, to celebrate each success, each victory of love over hate and life over death as it comes, and to wait for it, and wait for it, and wait for it with a patience we can’t seem to learn ourselves.

 

A little more than 20 years ago, I was invited to go on a retreat with other young clergy from around the country. We talked about theology I think, and what makes ministry successful (I think), but what I remember most are the conversations at the end of the day about relationships and friendships and hopes for the future. A few maybe had children at this point but many were thinking about taking that step with partners or spouses, and I remember we talked about what we wanted for our children, for the next generation. And one man who had an Ivy League degree and clearly came from means kind of surprised me, I remember, by saying he hoped his own kids didn’t turn out too smart. “Oh, I hope they’re smart enough to not to struggle too hard, but I think there’s too much pressure for them to know so much. I’d rather they be a little less smart, and a lot more kind.”

I’ve often wondered if he was right. And then again, I’ve wondered why it seems so hard to hope for both.

God may not have a college degree, and while I have nothing against them, I’m not sure how much God values mine or yours in the end, but in closing here’s a poem by Cynthia Rylant who suspects maybe God’s been inclined toward beauty school instead…

 

God Went to Beauty School (by Cynthia Rylant)

 

He went there to learn how

to give a good perm

and ended up just crazy about nails

so He opened up His own shop.

“Nails By Jim” He called it.

He was afraid to call it

Nails by God.

He was sure people would think

He was being disrespectful and using His own name in vain

and nobody would tip.

He got into nails, of course,

Because He’d always loved hands –

hands were some of the best things He’d ever done

and this way He could just

hold one in His

and admire those delicate

bones just above the knuckles,

delicate as birds’ wings,

and after He’d done that awhile,

He could paint all the nails

any color He wanted,

then say, “Beautiful,”

and mean it.

Question of Faith: Is Gender God-Given?

Question of Faith: Is Gender God-Given?

Date Preached: 7-14-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Yes.  Yes.  I fully and faithfully believe that our gender, meaning our bodies and our sexuality, are gifts of God, meant to be life-giving, love-sharing, and blessed vehicles for just, peaceful, and meaningful relationships.  “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).  Our bodies, our sexuality are vehicles for God’s love and grace, for pleasure and comfort, for the blessings of the Spirit to be experienced and shared.  Is gender God-given?  Yes, praise God. Yes.

But I suspect that the one who submitted this question was looking for something more from me.

There are so many social and political issues related to gender that surround us these days:

          pay equity between the genders, an issue raised so poignantly by our national women’s soccer team at the World Cup;

          the “Me Too” movement has brought long-delayed accountability for those who commit harassment based on gender and sexual violence;

          political and judicial battles continue to be waged over same-gender marriage;

          there was a recent change in military policy to reinstate discrimination against transgendered persons; we have seen a spate of legislation in more conservative states to restrict women’s reproductive choice and even legally mandate which bathrooms we might use;

          recent polling shows a dramatic shift in the understanding of the Millennial Generation when it comes to gender: the majority of adults ages 18-34 in the USA found that the majority see gender as a spectrum, rather than a man/woman binary and 12% of millennials identify as Transgender or gender non-conforming.

 

All of these issues and conversations take place, of course, in the midst of our own intensely personal and often lifelong struggles to define and celebrate our own genderedness.

For some, there is a nostalgia for what they might consider a simpler time when gender roles and relationships seemed locked into a fixed design.  For them, considering gender as God-given implies that gender roles and responsibilities are divinely ordered, and we have strayed from that order. 

And so, they make a natural law argument, a belief that there are certain forms, rights, and duties that exist prior to any humanly constructed laws and customs, forms that should dictate our own behavior. 

This idea of “natural law” was particularly influential at the end of the 16th Century in England and Continental Europe and would form the underpinning to some concepts that are very important to us: “we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights… among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…”  You will recognize Thomas Jefferson’s words from the Declaration of Independence.  That’s natural law, something that exists prior to and

outside English law with its divine right of kings.  This understanding of natural law helped fuel our American Revolution.

The natural law argument on same gender relationships doesn’t usually draw on high-minded, Jeffersonian rhetoric but can often be summed up with the smug old chestnut: “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”  By this, they mean to say that the natural order of marriage is one man and one woman. 

Of course, they’ve got their Bible wrong.  Adam is not a male name in the second chapter of Genesis but is best translated as “earth creature.”  The second earth creature is not given the name “Eve” until nearly the end of the third chapter.  Up until then, it’s Adam and Adam – two earth creatures without shame or sin.  That’s the first human relationship as described by the book of Genesis.

But then the natural law folks will jump back to the first chapter of Genesis where it says that God created humankind in God’s image:

“In the image of God he created them,

Male and female he created them.”

Again, they see in such verses a kind of divinely ordained gender hierarchy.  And again, they’ve got their Bible wrong.

First, notice that there is no divine precedent of one gender over the other.  While Thomas Aquinas years later would claim that males are made more fully in the image of God, the Bible disagrees.  The image of God is male AND female.  One could say that each of us, regardless of gender, is made in the image of God. 

A more radical interpretation is that God is of multiple genders, that God exists in the interplay of living beings, that God is relationship itself.

This fuller understanding of the Biblical testimony never seems to overcome the bias of some natural law arguments that maintain that there is an inherent order to human relationship based on fixed male and female gender roles and identities.

And that’s the problem with Natural Law arguments – they often draw on a biased and even rudimentary notion of what is natural.

When we first started raising rabbits and our pair of pets predictably mated (we’re talking about rabbits after all), the mother rabbit had babies and the father promptly killed them all.  It was heart-breaking for us kids and a sobering lesson.  From then on, the males were always kept separate from the babies.

So that means it’s natural for mothers to be nurturing and fathers to be thoughtless when it comes to raising babies, right?  Except there’s also the example of the tropical jacana birds. After gathering up a harem of nearly half a dozen males and laying her eggs, the female jacana immediately leaves in order to fly around, murder the young of rival females, and mate with their former partners.  Meanwhile, it’s the males who incubate the eggs and raise the offspring.  In this way, they’re much like the emperor penguin or the seahorse, other species where the male does the nurturing of the young.

Well, at least we can rely on nature to remind us that you can’t change genders, right?  Except there’s the clown fish which, like many species of reef fish, can and do change sex. All clown fish are born male and are led (in familial groups) by a dominant female.  When she dies, the next-biggest male simply … becomes female and takes charge of the group.  And then there’s the reed frog which, if it finds itself in a group of all one gender, will simply change genders in order to reproduce.

But when it comes to reproduction, it’s one man and one woman, right?  Except for female kimodo dragons that can lay viable eggs that produce offspring without a male partner

But at least animals are not violating the laws of nature and forming same-gender bonds and engaging in homosexual behavior.  Except, of course, for these species:

·         Baboon

·         Bison

·         Brown bear

·         Brown rat

·         Cavy

·         Caribou

·         Cat

·         Cattle

·         Chimpanzee

·         Common dolphin

·         Common marmoset

·         Dog

·         Elephant

·         Fox

·         Giraffe

·         Goat

·         Horse  

·         Human

·         Koala

·         Lion

·         Orca

·         Panda

·         Raccoon

That’s a partial list, by the way, and only of the mammals.  There are dozens and dozens of birds, fish, amphibians, and insects on the list as well.

So really, we’re no longer talking about Natural Law at all.  Folks who make the argument for fixed gender roles and unchanging gender identities are really just arguing from willful ignorance and bad science.

That seems to also be the case with the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans when he says, “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another” (Romans 1:26-27). 

Paul’s condemnation of homosexual behavior is based on a misunderstanding of what is natural, an ancient mindset that believed all humans were naturally heterosexual and any deviation from that behavior was therefore moral deviance.  How liberating to read Paul’s thoughts in our New Testament Reading this morning where he declares freedom from such narrow thinking, a freedom found in the Spirit of Christ: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus…” (Galatians 3:28).

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was a Twentieth Century priest who trained as a paleontologist and biologist and took part in the discovery of the Peking Man.  He spent his ministry seeking harmony between faith and science and maintained that it was the pattern of God’s work in creation to bring about an increase in both complexity and consciousness.  That was his notion of an evolutionary faith. 

Perhaps Paul in Galatians was embracing the complexity of life in the Spirit and its multiple expressions in the diversity of the community.  In my own experience of and reflections on gender and sexuality, I too have found growth and change in my understandings and outlooks.  Perhaps you have as well.

But those who don’t want to advance their understanding about human sexuality seem to me to be making a willful choice to keep themselves ignorant and not learn something more, something new.  What a disappointment we must be to a God who continues to create and make all things new.

Of course, we don’t need to be scientists to encounter the complexity of sexuality and gender.

My sister was treated to a spa that was reserved just for women, staffed just by women, and intentionally had the women go from treatment to treatment wearing no clothes.  Now Seattle, where my sister lives, is very much an ethnic melting pot.  I remember my sister remarking that seeing all those radically different body types wandering through the spa made her wonder if all these women were of the same species.

When we say “male” or “female,” we often have certain cultural images in mind, super-models or sports figures, ideal body types – Kate Upton and Hugh Jackman.  But that’s not the reality of who we are.  Maybe some of the men here have been to the steam room at the Y and had the same thought that has occurred to me: at the Y: why is it that the guys with the most territory to cover always seem to choose the smallest towels to do the covering?  You don’t have to go to Seattle to see the human body in all its glorious diversity. 

And that doesn’t even begin to address the ways in which the experience of our own body changes, especially as we age.  As my parents needed more of our help to care for their bodies, we became pretty acquainted with the sight of their aging bodies.  As my own body ages and I catch sight of it in a mirror, I see reflections of my father’s aging body and even my mother’s too.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered that I have my mother’s heart, my father’s eyes, Savides’ knees, and Jenks hair.  And none of those are pleasant discoveries, by the way.  They are why doctors insist on taking thorough medical histories.  And what about those moments as we age when large brown spots and strange little growths begin to appear on our hands and faces, arms and legs?  Where the heck do those things come from?  It’s natural, the nurse tells us.  Natural to who?  Natural to WHAT?

What does that mean about our experience of our own bodies, our own genderedness?  What does it mean to be a “man” in a wheelchair or a “woman” using a walker?  How does it affect our sexuality to have a foot wound that won’t heal, to require medication that leaves us impotent, to need help toileting?

While some of us experience these issues as a result of aging, others have been dealing with issues like this their whole lives.  Are we to be denied experiencing the joy of our own bodies, our own sexuality if these bodies don’t conform to someone else’s image of what is attractive or alluring, what is masculine or feminine? 

The gift of God is given to each of us, no matter our shape or size, our age or gender, our relational status or our physical capability.

One of my favorite sights happens at a wedding reception.  When the tables are cleared away and the band begins to play or the DJ cranks it up, and the folks begin their creative swaying to the music that we call dancing, there is often a two or three year old there who discovers dancing for the very first time.  Usually, they will invent for themselves one of two dance steps: the stiff legged skip around the dance floor or the heel kick twirl that sends them dizzily spinning and often careening to the floor.  It never occurs to them that most kids before them have already invented this step.  For them, it is fresh, original, an expression of the elemental joy of having a body that can move through space.  I love to watch them dance.  “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)

Would that you and I could have such joy and freedom.  Would that we could be unencumbered by the expectations that so often oppress us and weigh us down, the roles and stereotypes that squelch our spirits and keep us sitting at the reception, nursing our beers with our shame, as the dance of life proceeds.  Can’t we rise from our places, push back our chairs, and invent something ourselves?  Are you supposed to lead or am I?  Is it right hand on the hip or right hand on the shoulder?  Do we take hands or just start moving next to one another?

I don’t know.  I don’t know that we’re supposed to know.  I do know that we’re supposed to dance, each one of us and all of us together.

 

Amen.

 

Youth Mission Testimonies

Youth Mission Testimonies

Date Preached: 7-7-19
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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How Can Faith Help Me Stop Worrying So Much?

How Can Faith Help Me Stop Worrying So Much?

Date Preached: 6-30-19
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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This morning’s question of faith is about the connection between faith and the things we worry about. Or maybe not the things we worry about, so much as the degree to which we worry about those things. How can faith help me stop worrying so much?

So, if I could have a conversation with the person who submitted this question, I might be tempted to ask, “How much is so much?” Like on a scale of 1 to 10, just how full is your worry bucket? And if that person could answer me, I’m guessing he or she might say, “Well, it’s pretty full,” because statistically that would be right on target. We are worriers by nature. And there are plenty of things in life worthy of our worry. I tried to make a mental note this week of concerns I overheard either personally or professionally, and without breaking any confidences I can tell you I heard worries about family members – children, siblings and aging parents – mixed in with concern regarding pets, property, health, finances and politics. I noted concern for the environment, for immigrants, for threats of war and for what the church will look like in the future – this church, the UCC, and the Christian church in general. I went shopping with my daughter for clothes for her senior pictures the other day. Plenty to worry about there. I spent another hour on the phone with my insurance company trying to get an early refill on a prescription I’ll need while I’m away. Don’t even get me started. In various settings just this week, I’ve heard people worry out loud about job security, rainfall amounts, test results, Medicare, Medicaid, whether they are loved for who they are, whether a treasured friendship has been forever broken and whether they’ll get everything done in time to catch their flight tonight. Oops. That last one was me again.

What worries ME about all these things – which are just a snapshot of a week’s worth of worries in my relatively quiet and highly privileged corner of the world – is that these are just the things I heard. The things we were willing to say out loud. For everything we’re willing to name – just how many worries do we hold inside of us – and what does that worry do to us?

We’re worriers by nature. When worry becomes complicated and compounded, it looks more like anxiety, and anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in our country. More than 40 million American adults fight a daily battle with it – that’s more than 18% of adults, not to mention children and adolescents. Only slightly more than 1/3 of those are treated, though. There are all kinds of reasons for that. Access or rather lack of access to healthcare, especially related to mental illness. Stigma related to mental illness. Shame. An inability to admit it. To ask for help. To acknowledge when the worry bucket is just too full to carry on our own. The whole thing is just so…worrisome.

How can faith help us stop worrying so much? I’m not sure the answer is easy as we’d like it to be. Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 sound so simple. Don’t worry. Just don’t. Don’t worry about what you’ll wear, what you’ll eat, what you’ll drink. Don’t worry about your life. Easily quotable when you’re a Mom with means, shopping with a 17-year old for just the right outfit – but a little too simplistic for the harder stuff in life, I’m afraid. Some years ago I had surgery and when I had just been released from the hospital, a mother of one of my kids’ friends came over to my house and came right into the living room where I was resting. I remember my normally mild-mannered dog started to growl and moved closer to my recliner – my fur-baby was worried for me! – as this woman leaned in before she asked whether she could pray for me. And before I could even answer, she prayed and I mean she really prayed… My dog started barking. She kept praying. And finally when she was done she turned around and left, with platitudes of assurance that all would be well. And I know she had good intentions, but the manner in which she shared her faith did not decrease my stress level at all. Maybe some of you have experienced similar sentiments in other forms. “Just believe in the Lord Jesus.” “Have faith.” “Don’t worry.” Might as well say, “Abracadabra” or “Hocus pocus.” If only we could get by with just HAVING faith and not really having to do anything with it, and if only having faith meant we could be worry-free, not a care in the world. But some fears just run too deep for magic words to cast them out.

I also realized this week, spending time at the General Synod gathering in Milwaukee, that I think it’s possible my faith actually adds to the list of things I worry about instead of making that list smaller. If you’re looking for a faith tradition that lets you leave the cares of this world behind and out of sight, life in the United Church of Christ might not be what you’re seeking. This is a church built for worrying – especially for those too often and too quickly dismissed with shallow prayers and empty words. This week my church – and more than that, my faith tradition (because I understand all of this to be deeply rooted in who God calls us to be) – made me proud but also significantly and rightly I think, heightened my worry over the treatment of undocumented immigrants, and about the myriad effects of the opioid crisis in our country, and for women whose access to basic healthcare and reproductive justice is increasingly denied, and for how we will surely all benefit when the seats of power in every institution start to reflect the rainbow of God’s diversity. This week, as happens almost every week that I pay attention, my faith didn’t absolve me of worry over climate change or the separation of families at our borders – my faith put those scenarios directly in my gaze.

How can my faith help me stop worrying so much? I’d love to give you an easy answer. Just say this prayer! Just recite this verse! But this is a harder question than you might think if the Jesus you follow insists you love your neighbor no matter who they are, and if the Bible you read commands you to care for the orphan, the widow and the stranger, and if the Gospel that is your good news insists that you think more about what you have to give than what you think you need to take from others. When I hear Jesus say things like, “Don’t worry about what you’ll wear, or what you’ll eat, or what you’ll drink,” I suspect it’s less about the not-worrying, and more about where I’m focusing my concern. Because later in Matthew’s gospel we hear that it’s when we clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and offer someone else a cup of water – clean, unpolluted water – to quench their thirst, that we find Jesus right in front of us.

I’ve been reading Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections, about alternative responses to the pervasiveness of depression and anxiety. I appreciated, and I want to be sure to reiterate here, that he doesn’t say his ideas are true for everyone. But he makes compelling arguments about how instead of prescribing away the problem, more lasting benefits are possible when human beings help each other reconnect – to nature, to meaningful values, to purposeful work, to or with each other. Here’s an example of what he’s talking about. He tells the story of how pharmaceutical companies were struggling to distribute anti-depressants in Cambodia. Researchers were sure that life in Cambodia – where rice farmers too often encountered land mines left behind from old wars, and daily survival was a struggle at best – surely people were somehow destined for higher rates of anxiety and depression. When asked about the prevalence of depression, the Cambodians said, yes – they knew some people who experienced such things including a rice farmer who had lost a leg to a land mine and struggled to recover after receiving an artificial limb. But the Cambodians told the researchers, “we already have antidepressants for people like this.”

Here’s a longer quote from the book:

“When they realized this man was despondent, the doctors and his neighbors sat with him, and talked through his life and his troubles. They realized that even with his new artificial limb, his old job – working in the rice paddies – was just too difficult, and he was constantly stressed and in physical pain, and that was making him want to just stop living, and give up.

So they had an idea. They believed that he would be perfectly capable of being a dairy farmer, and that would involve less painful walking on his false leg and fewer disturbing memories. So they bought him a cow.

In the months and years that followed, his life changed. His depression – which had been profound – went away. ‘You see, [they reported], the cow was an analgesic, and antidepressant.’…To them, an antidepressant wasn’t about changing your brain chemistry…it was about the community, together, empowering the depressed person to change his life.” (Hari, p. 160).

I realize I’m getting a little bit loose with my connectors here. Just because you’re worried doesn’t mean you’re depressed; just because you’re depressed doesn’t mean you struggle with anxiety (though they often go hand in hand), and the person who submitted this question might only be struggling with her 17-year old’s wardrobe choices. It would be my prayer that that would be the case, and maybe 3 Hail Mary’s would do the trick.

But I wonder if what Johann Hari suggests about the role of community, in empowering individuals to re-orient their lives, has something to do with how faith – the faith I believe we’re called to share together here – can begin to lighten the load of our buckets full of worry. How can faith help you stop worrying so much? Pray. Breathe. Take time, make time, to pray. To breathe. To worship. How many other hours during the week do you set down your smartphone – oh wait, did you do that? The gospels tell us Jesus took time away for prayer and reflection. The Bible is a lot more clear about honoring the Sabbath than it is about all kinds of other things people tell us to worry about these days.

But what if our faith calls us to go even deeper. Because we aren’t called just to practice faith, or participate in these rituals of prayer and worship, alone. We’re called to pray together, to breathe together, and be in community – together. Living in community doesn’t necessarily change the situations I’m most worried about right now – but boy does it help sometimes to know I’m not the only one who’s ever lost sleep waiting for a test result, worrying over my kids’ future, or wondering what I can do to show up on the side of justice and peace. Being a member of church community might add responsibilities and commitments to my week, but subtracts from my need to go it alone. If I can’t come up with words to pray, I can lean on tradition, or I can trust one of you is praying for both of us, or that we will all somehow be praying for each other. Identifying with a denomination – a tradition – that isn’t afraid to identify and identify with the marginalized, means I get to learn every day how God keeps calling you and me to be a part of creating something better for God’s world. And it gives me hope, which is the best antidote to worry there is.

How can faith help us stop worrying so much? Maybe knowing there’s a place for us here, with each other, and with a God who loves each and every one of us, is a good start. A place and a community where we’re all welcome whether our worries superficial, chronic, chemical or pathological. Where we can learn to listen enough to each other – and even for each other – and even for the many ‘others’ we have yet to know – deeply enough to discover whether we or they need a pill, a prayer, a shawl, or even a cow if that’s what might be most helpful. So we go out to the same world we left behind not quite an hour ago – but maybe, just maybe, we’re somehow changed…

The poet Mary Oliver wrote this about worrying:

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers 

flow in the right direction, will the earth turn 

as it was taught, and if not how shall 

I correct it? 

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, 

can I do better? 

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows 

can do it and I am, well, 

hopeless. 

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it, 

am I going to get rheumatism, 

lockjaw, dementia? 

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing. 

And gave it up. And took my old body 

and went out into the morning, 

and sang.

May it be so. Amen.

What is the Difference between Faith and Belief?

What is the Difference between Faith and Belief?

Date Preached: 6-23-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. John McFadden

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Questions of Faith: How is Faith Acquired?

Questions of Faith: How is Faith Acquired?

Date Preached: 6-16-19
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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This is our second week of our Summer Questions of Faith series where we are spending time upon the topics you as a church have provided. This week our question is: How do we acquire faith?

So…… let’s start with a story.

Jesus, Moses, and an old man go golfing. The first one to tee off is Moses. He smashes the ball and it is heading right for the water hazard before the green. Moses raises his club, the water parts, and the ball makes it to the green. Jesus gets up to swing, cranks it out, and it is headed for the water hazard. Jesus closes his eyes and prays. The ball skips across the water and lands on the green two feet from the hole. The old man’s turn comes and he drives the ball. The ball looks like it is going to drop directly into the water. A fish jumps from the water hazard swallowing the ball, as an eagle drops from the sky, grabbing the fish. As the eagle flies over the green, a bolt of lightning strikes the eagle, making it drop the fish. As the fish hits the green, it spits out the ball and the ball falls into the hole, making a hole in one. Jesus looks at Moses and says, “I really think I’m leaving Dad at home next time!”

Hopefully you didn’t leave dad at home today, and if golf is on your agenda to celebrate, may your game be filled with few water traps and many miracles!

But this joke does shed light on many conversations I have had with both young and old alike. I have found it common, and desired myself, to have some otherworldly miracle take place that wins me over, smashes my reluctance or doubt, leaving me without a shadow of a doubt as to the power and reality God’s presence work in this world.

Well maybe, probably not. Daily life is usually much more mundane. And dangerously, these kinds of expectations place the burden of proof upon God whom we expect to pursue and win us over, like a salesman closing the deal. Why do we place God in this role? Why are we not the ones in pursuit of a relationship of the Almighty creator?

How do we acquire faith? How do we ACQUIRE faith?

For us to go further we have to work from a common understanding of faith itself. So, if you can turn to page ___ of your bulletin, I have included what I find to be one of the most helpful definitions of faith for Christians andI have broken it up into three parts. I invite you to read aloud with me part 1:

Faith is a personal response of trust and confidence in the gracious God made known in Jesus Christ. A wholehearted dedication of one’s life to Christ, faith differs radically from blind submission to church teachings and from routine unthinking adherence to inherited doctrines and practices.

The language of personal response, trust, and a wholehearted dedication to leading one’s life in a specific way is not synonymous with the language of “acquisition.”

Ephesians makes a startling claim; faith is not a thing that can be measured or owned. Faith is a gift, given freely, by our Creator, infused into every human soul that has ever lived. We alone cannot obtain a greater quantity of it. We alone cannot give it to another. Faith is a gift from God and God alone. And like every gift, only the giver has control over what is given.

On youth mission trips, like the one coming up next week to Detroit, we always experience what is called the “second day slump”. Our group travels cross country to a new place and new opportunities and no matter how much we prepare, by that second day, everyone has to face the reality of what we are actually doing. But unlike other aspects of our lives, we cannot “opt out” of the work given to us on these trips. We must persevere even against our own preferences and broken expectations.

A few years back, the year after an exceptionally powerful trip to Pine Ridge, we were in Cincinnati, Ohio. The group morale tanked bad on Tuesday. People were deeply disappointed and frustrated, comparing everything to Pine Ridge, many coming to the desperate conclusion that the trip was a failure. I pulled everyone aside and we talked. We acknowledged real disappointments. We shared in the sense of loss from the prior year’s trip being unrepeatable. One young freshman, alarmed by the upper-classman’s dissatisfaction, and unburdened by any accumulated mission trip history, asked “Do we really think God isn’t here and that these people aren’t valuable? How could last year’s work have been so much more valuable?”

And the group acknowledged that we had committed to be here, in this moment, responding to this call to serve. If we could not accept this moment, and we could not accept the work God was calling us to do, then we would not be able to accept God’s presence or be faithfully in our roles as missionaries of First Congregational Church.

And with that, the morale picked up.

Becoming a faithful person means living in harmony with our desire for intimacy with God and one another. Becoming a faithful person means understanding our call to serve is itself one of the greatest blessings of faith we could ever receive: an invitation to know God more deeply, get our hands dirty, be the hands and feet of the living Christ, improve the lives of our brothers and sisters, and problem solve real-world issues to practice giving the gift of grace to others.

Let’s join in the reading aloud the second section in the bulletin.

The object of the Christian faith is not some thing or idea but the living Lord Jesus Christ who is God with us in the power of the Holy Spirit. Substitution of any other object of faith – whether self, family, church, race or nation – is idolatry.

The last night of our backpacking trip to Isle Royal, after setting up camp and making dinner, our group of 10 met down by a dock overlooking Lake Superior for the evening devotional. We were discussing the first creation story in Genesis, reading a few verses each night and sharing our thoughts, letting God’s word soak in, surrounded by a stunning creation. On this night we were talking about how God blesses the multitude of kinds of creatures, and their teaming and swarming droves. God blesses both having an abundance of living things, and having a diversity of many different kinds of living things,. We were weighing out our call to care for creation when a silence fell over our group. The wind was gentle and the waves lapped against the stones and sand upon the shoreline. The smell of balsam trees was rich. Clouds gently moved overhead. We just drank in the silence and beauty.

And then all these tiny birds came out. Migratory warblers who had very little fear and began lighting in the trees and bushes around us, scouring the ground for seeds, combing dense branches for bugs. These little birds, who had traveled thousands of miles, were of all colors: green, blue, yellow, red, white, black. They were so beautiful and none of us had ever seen their particular varieties before. We just sat in silence, while these little island residents went about their business.

And it was holy, a holy moment. The Living Spirit moved among us. The same Spirit that brings the life and love of Christ to all of creation, was thick, and we swam in its majesty. We marveled at their myriad of colors and their fearless nature. For that brief moment we contemplated God’s love for such a diverse and magnificent creation, a living, breathing, tangible, beautiful, and abundant creation. Someone said, “I often feel closest to God in a place like this.” And we all understood.

Growing in one’s faith means becoming increasingly aware, and brushing up against, the Spirit of The Living God. It means being connected to other life and living things in a way that mirrors God’s love of life and of us. Being a faithful person means doing this so intimately and intensely and repetitively that we become practiced, trained to see, the Living God at work in our midst. And most profoundly, being a faithful person means that we cannot help but anticipate the life-giving movements of the Holy Spirit unfolding in our future.

As one famous poet and mystic from India says, ‘Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.’ – Rabindranath Tagore 

Or as the book of Hebrews says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the convictions of things not seen.”

A relationship defined by ownership does not provide freedom to either party, but a living relationship marked by mutual trust, confidence, and hope can become a platform which can raise us and others up to know God’s love more fully. A relationship we practice trust in the Divine, can become over time one that embodies the craziest optimism, most audacious hope for our future, that we could every aspire too. And hope, it can move mountains, change landscapes, and provide for things unseen, beauty and undreamt possibility.

Would you join me in our last reading?

The subject of faith is the whole person, including mind, will, and affections.

There is a story about a young man venturing out on his own. The night before he is leaving to have his adventures in life, his father takes him aside and they sit quietly next to a fire warming themselves. Not knowing if he would see his dreamer of a son again soon, and wanting give him one last lesson, his father said “My Son, in all these years how many times have we sat next to this fire together?”

 “Too many to count” says the Son.

 “And when we sit here, what is it that I have done for you all these years to keep the fire going, not only for our pleasure but to warm our family on cold nights?”

The son thought for a while “You tend the fire”.

 “And in what way do I tend the fire?”

 “You keep lumping the logs on one another and pushing the coals back into place to gather its warmth.” said the Son.

 “You are right, and when one logs rolls off and is by itself, what happens to that log?”

 “It grows cold and its fire dies out”

 “Yes, its fire does not last as long as all the others who huddle together and keep each other burning through long winter nights. And now you know my prayer for you as you leave us and our family fire. I pray that you will find others to huddle and gather with so that your faith, your hope, your zeal for life never grows cold and that you may always feel the warmth of God’s protection and love for you. And if you do fall away, I pray and trust that God will lift you up and heap you together with others whom will love you, like we do, and your fire will burn once again.”

This is the way God the Father tends to us, like a loving parent with great devotion and intention imparting lessons, which are meant to impact every aspect of our being. God cares about our whole being, God cares about our individual physical, emotional, spiritual, and communal lives. God cares about everyone’s whole being; God cares about all of humanities physical, spiritual, and communal life. God the Father, God the Mother, God the creator possesses a total and complete love for us and all of creation.

Being a person of faith cannot be separated from involvement with a community. We must live in concert with the needs of others: we must bleed when they bleed, suffer when they suffer, rejoice when it is time to offer praise, celebrate accomplishments and milestones, and embolden one another in prosperity and hardship.

If our faith is to burn brilliantly, we cannot go it alone. We are meant to receive and share the fire of the Holy Spirit with the entire body of Christ, so that one day all shall radiate this warmth and none shall be cold.

So how do we acquire faith? Most simply: I don’t think we can. But we can acknowledge and grow this gift which has already been given to us and respond with service to others. We can seek out the Living God and build our interconnectedness with all life. We can gather together for mutual support and encouragement. This is how we can grow our faith and share it with others.

Amen.

Question of Faith: How Do We Deal with the Hate and Hypocrisy of the Religious Right?

Question of Faith: How Do We Deal with the Hate and Hypocrisy of the Religious Right?

Date Preached: 6-9-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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I got the phone call at home from two heart-broken older parents.  Their adult son and his live-in girlfriend of 7 years had died suddenly in a car accident.  Would I do the funeral?

Of course I would.  I didn’t know these parents.  I didn’t know their son and his mate.  But you don’t hesitate when people are in pain, you don’t evaluate their worthiness, you just help.  Of course.

 We arranged to meet at their home that night, and it wasn’t long into our conversation before they answered some of my unasked questions.  They weren’t members of the church I served.  They were members of a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church.  In fact, the father was a member of the Council of his church.  But their own pastor had refused to do the service, and not because their son and his girlfriend were unmarried, but because they hadn’t been regularly attending and financially supporting the church.

 That’s how those parents joined so many of us sitting in the chairs and pews this morning who have been turned away by a church in one way or another.

 In its hypocrisy, those churches have proclaimed unity but practiced exclusion.  They have preached about serving others but have practiced service of institutional self.  That’s why the church has told you: 

       You can’t ask those questions here. 

       You can’t love that person here.

       You can’t have communion here. 

       No baptism for your children. 

       No funeral for your loved ones. 

       No wedding for you. 

       No, no, no!

And isn’t this the very heart of religious hypocrisy?  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” proclaims the Apostle Paul.  “As you have been forgiven, so shall you forgive others,” says Jesus.  Yet the hypocrite stands with the pharisee in Jesus’ parable, looking down his nose at the sinful publican and proclaiming, “Thank God I’m not like HIM!”  

As Fred Craddock once wrote, “What’s the point of going to heaven if you can’t lean over the balcony and say, ‘Ha, ha, ha!’” 

Well, three days later, the evening before the funeral service, after I had met again with the parents and worked carefully to prepare the service, I got a call from their pastor.  He had reconsidered, he told me.  He would do the service after all.  He would do it at the graveyard.  Would I let the parents know? 

You understand the way things go in churches and schools and businesses and families.  When somebody makes a truly stupid decision, sometimes it takes a while, but the pressure slowly rises for them to find a way to walk it back and turn it around. 

This pastor hadn’t reconsidered.  He was getting phone calls wondering why he was treating a treasured family in his church in such a thoughtless and unchristian way.  And a member of the Council, besides! 

He hadn’t reconsidered.  He was trying to save face and cover his… other part of his anatomy.  So he was asking me to let him off the hook. 

So, what should I do?  To let him do the funeral would have helped rescue the relationship between this family and their church.  To step aside would have given their church an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the meaning of grace.  To step aside would be the right thing to do. 

I didn’t hesitate for a moment when he asked – NO.  No, I won’t talk to the parents, I won’t step aside, I won’t discard the work we had done together to prepare a service that would be healing for this family. 

But I DID offer up an olive branch. You would be welcome, I told him, to do the graveside service with me.  I’d be happy to split up the prayers and readings between us. 

Do I sound like a nice guy?  Even though I knew full well that he was prohibited by his denomination from praying, much less sharing, worship leadership with someone who is not Wisconsin Synod Lutheran?  Maybe I’m not such a nice guy, after all…  He declined and hung up rather abruptly.  

I can only imagine the heat he had to face from his congregation. 

Ha, ha, ha… 

This story ends with hypocrisy being spread around a bit, doesn’t it? 

How do we deal with the hypocrisy and hate of the religious right?  That’s the question of faith that comes our way this morning and I began as I did to confess right away that hypocrisy knows every direction: right, left, and center. 

How do we deal with it?  First, confessionally… by confessing the hypocrisy inside of US. 

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from nonchurch goers is this: I don’t go to church because of all the hypocrites there.  To which I have learned to respond, “… and there’s always room for one more.” 

How many hypocrites do we have here this morning?  Raise your hand.  Hypocrisy is that gap between who we say we are and who we actually are or what we intend to do and what we really do.  How many are trying to close that gap between good intentions and good actions, to become less hypocritical?  Raise your hand.  And how many people think it’s stupid to raise your hand?  Raise your hand. 

Yeah, we’re all hypocrites and we’re all here to try to get over the great human disease of hypocrisy – not confined to the religious, by the way, but we sure seem to do it well. 

Here’s a great quote about American Christian hypocrisy from a pretty good lay Catholic theologian: 

“If this is going to be a Christian nation… either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.” 

Who was that from?  Stephen Colbert.  It’s hard to follow Christ without immediately straying down the path of hypocrisy.  And our Gospel reading this morning reminds us that Jesus, so loving, kind, compassionate, and gentle with those in need, quickly turns angry at the sight of the self-righteous: 

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!… do whatever they teach you and follow it, but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach… Woe to you… hypocrites!  You cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” 

Pretty tough stuff, isn’t it?  And have you ever noticed that Jesus pretty much only talks about hell in conjunction with the self-righteous?  With the hypocritical?  He doesn’t talk about hell for sinners and slaves and prostitutes and soldiers and tax collectors, with all of us in such desperate need of forgiveness and grace.  What does that mean?  It means that person in your life who told you that you were going to hell is actually the one with their foot in the devil’s domain. 

How do we deal with hypocrisy?  Jesus is pretty clear.  Take a daily dose of humility and forgive, forgive, forgive. 

But now I want to deal with the second part of our question: How do we deal with the hate of the religious right?  

Hate of course is a human emotion but I’d like to think of it in more specific terms this morning.  The Southern Poverty Law Center defines a ‘hate group’ as “an organization that… has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”   The organizations on their hate group list vilify others because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.  The FBI uses similar criteria in its definition of a hate crime: “[A] criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” 

This is the kind of hate that I’d like us to think about – a hate directed by bias against the most vulnerable among us, or, as that Southern Poverty Law Center puts it, that “fractures our society along its most fragile lines.” 

I was excited to hear the news that there was going to be a Straight Pride March in Boston in August, organized by some of my fellow straight males.  I’m planning to be first in line for this march because I can’t tell you about all the times that I have been asked to hide my straightness for fear of my family’s rejection. 

I can’t tell you about the times when I lost out on a job opportunity because I was straight. 

I can’t tell you about all those times when a female supervisor passed me over or harassed me because I was male. 

I can’t tell you about those times when my wife and I were not allowed to marry or adopt children or serve as foster parents or visit one another in the hospital or show affection in public without risking violence. 

I can’t tell you about it because NONE OF THOSE THINGS HAVE EVER HAPPENED TO ME. 

So now some of our Boston buddies are tugging on their Red Sox caps, moping around and asking themselves, “Where’s MY parade?!”  But what they are really creating is what’s called a false equivalency or what Anne Wilson Schaef termed “the great equalizer.”  It’s saying, “Hey, everybody’s got problems” as a way of minimizing the experiences of marginalized minorities and silencing their voices.

 In this case as in most, hate is directed downward, towards those less privileged, less protected, less powerful, more vulnerable and therefore more prone to oppressive attack.  

The Southern Poverty Law Center lets you know that you don’t have to go far if you want to see a real-life hate group in action: 

       take a drive up to Shawano and find the Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology, a purportedly Christian group that has several targets for their hate but especially Catholics;

       or head down to Oostburg for the local chapter of Act for America, the largest Anti-Muslim group in the United States or head over to Hudson for the anti-Muslim Citizens for the St. Croix Valley;

       while in Milwaukee you could look up the Nation of Islam and encounter their strange mixture of proclaiming black superiority and hate for the LGBTQ community;

       but you’re just about two months too late to hear the broadcast in Fitchburg of Radio Wehrwolf, a Neo-Nazi, white supremacist group who got shut down by their domain host on March 31st of this year;

       however, there’s still time to attend Pilgrims Covenant Church in Monroe and join in their hate for all people LGBTQ. 

       And if you just don’t want to do the driving, there are several statewide hate groups waiting for you: the white nationalist American Freedom Party, Identity Europa, The Right Stuff, or the White Boy Society; the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations Sadistic Souls MC, Atomwaffen Division, or the New Order. 

It’s terrifying, isn’t it, to know how close these many hate groups are to us. 

Many of these organizations proclaim themselves religious and see their work as divinely inspired: splitting and slicing, purifying and purging, dividing and destroying. 

Our New Testament Reading this morning reminds us that nothing could be more UnChristian than such divisiveness. In fact, the Christian Church was born on Pentecost by a miracle of radical inclusion. 

It seems to me that the Holy Spirit had two options on that Pentecost day: the first was to make all those gathered in Jerusalem, all those folks from the countries with the hard-to-pronounce names (sorry, Paul)… the first choice was to make all those different folks understand the language of the disciples.  In other words, make them understand Aramaic or Hebrew.  Instead, the Holy Spirit took the second option and made the apostles speak in all the various tongues of the crowd. 

This radically inclusive choice by the Holy Spirit has serious implications.  If the Holy Spirit would have gone the one language route, it would have let folks know that to become a Christian meant to be just like those apostles, speaking their language, adopting their customs.

Instead, by the very act of speaking in other tongues, the apostles were called to radical inclusion.  By letting those present hear the gospel in their own languages, the Spirit told them – and is telling us – that no one language – not even the language of the apostles and of Jesus – and no one culture – not even the culture of Jesus and the apostles – is Christian.  At Pentecost, the Spirit told any Cappadocians who were present not only that Jesus had died and was risen from them, but also that they were invited to follow Jesus as Cappadocians, with no need to become Galileans.  There went uniformity right out the window! 

So all this purity and conformity stuff is utter nonsense and, in fact, antithetical to Christianity.  That’s what would lead the Apostle Paul to make the incredibly bold proclamation, “with Christ… there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.”  Ethnicity, social status, not even gender can define and divide us.  All the reasons for fear and hate are washed away in the waters of baptism, all the walls of division are broken down by the reconciling power of God.

When we deal with the hate around us, particularly the hate that is given a religious veneer, remember first that hate is simply not Christian and it cannot stand in the face of an endlessly creative and generative God that delights in diversity, in abundant beauty, in extravagant grace.  And that should strengthen and embolden us to deal with the hate around us. 

It’s not easy.  Sometimes there is a pretty subtle line between hypocrisy and hate, between those with whom we disagree and need to offer a listening ear and compassionate heart, and those that simply need to be opposed.  In my Open Door column this week, I included a summary of Charles Kimball’s warning signs from his book, “When Religion Becomes Evil.”  Absolute truth claims, demands for blind obedience, asserting that the end justifies the means – these are some of those warning signs when a line gets crossed from hypocrisy to hate.  And when that line does get crossed, there are no longer “good people on both sides.” 

When that line gets crossed, humility and forgiveness isn’t enough.  That’s when we have to call on the radical power that is available to everyone, and particularly to us as followers of Jesus Christ. 

You know what that power is: the power of love.  “Love your enemies,” Jesus tells us.  “Do not repay evil for evil,” the Apostle Paul, “but overcome evil with good.”  And the community of the Beloved Disciple reminds us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” 

Love.  That’s what we have to use to overcome hate. 

There was a very moving photograph passed along to me this week, showing folks from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church picketing on a college campus with dozens of signs reading “God Hates (insert homophobic slur here)” and other such hateful nonsense.  Nine-year-old Josef Miles Akrouche saw them and right away walked over to his mom’s car, got out his notebook and used a pencil to write in large letters, “God Hates No One.”   Then he stood next to the angry protesters with their loud, hateful signs, and calmly held up his notebook with its very different message.  His mom took a picture and it quickly went viral. 

That little boy gave a testimony to us.  It’s like what one of the daughters of our congregation wrote to me this week:

Our love must be louder than their hate. 

When they come again to Charlottesville or to Madison, goose-stepping and carrying their torches and signs… 

Our love must be louder than their hate. 

When they separate children from their pages and put them into cages on the border because they have been born into violence and they and their families are seeking a place of peace…

 Our love must be louder than their hate. 

When they pay us less in the workplace, overlook us for promotion, and refuse us full rights even in our own homes and even over our own bodies because we’re the wrong gender… 

Our love must be louder than their hate. 

When they suppress our votes in the state of Wisconsin, try to silence our voices in North Carolina, imprison our sons and our husbands in outrageous numbers, and deny us the truth of our own history because of our race… 

Our love must be louder than their hate. 

When they shout curses at us from cars in Appleton because of our head scarves, spray-paint swastikas on our homes, and murder us in our houses of worship in Pittsburgh, Sri Lanka, or Christchurch because we come from a different faith tradition… 

Our love must be louder than their hate. 

When they deny us the right to marry, refuse to give us equal rights and equal service, and beat us on a London bus or a Green Bay street because we love the wrong people… 

Our love must be louder than their hate. 

Let us claim once again the power of love to overcome the hate in our world. 

       Let us love our enemies, 

       Let us love our neighbors as ourselves. 

       Let us love with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. 

       Let us love in our homes. 

       Let us love in our church. 

       Let us love at the office. 

       Let us love at school.

       Let us love in the neighborhood.

       Let us love at the ballot box.  

Let us love and love again until we discover once more that “neither death , not life, nor angels, nor rules, nor r things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth…” nor hypocrisy, nor hate… “or anything else in all of creation….” 

Nothing… nothing… nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Amen.

The Power of Shared Suffering

The Power of Shared Suffering

Date Preached: 5-26-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Danny Saunders is a golden boy in Chaim Potok’s novel, “The Chosen”; incredibly gifted athletically, academically, and in just about any way you can imagine.  He is a teenager in his last year of high school.  He is also the Rabbi’s oldest son and so is labelled “tzaddik,” the Chosen One to lead the closed community of Hassidim after his father has retired or died.  But for the last several years his father, the rabbi, has not spoken to his son except during Talmud study.  The passage of parent/child relationships through adolescence is difficult enough – Danny’s is filled with pain and confusion because of his father’s silence.

Near the end of the book, as Danny is preparing to leave home and study psychology, Reb Saunders finally explains the years of silence he has imposed on his son:

“The Master of the Universe blessed me with a brilliant son.  And he cursed me with all the problems of raising him… when my Daniel was four years old (I saw that) he was a mind without a soul… and I cried inside my heart.  I went away and cried to the Master of the Universe, ‘What have you done to me?  A mind like this I need for a son?  A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son…’ I looked at my Daniel when he was four years old, and I said to myself, How will I teach this mind what it is to have a soul?  How will I teach this mind to understand pain?  How will I teach it to want to take on another person’s suffering?  How will I do this and not lose my son, my precious son whom I love as I love the Master of the Universe Himself?  … (and so) I drew myself away from him… He suffered and learned to listen to the suffering of others.  In the silence between us, he began to hear the world crying.”

Reb Saunders concludes by saying:

“You think I was cruel?  Perhaps.  But he has learned.  Let my Daniel become a psychologist.  I have no more fear now.  All his life he will be a tzaddik.  He will be a tzaddik for the world.  And the world needs a tzaddik.”

There is no more important task for a parent than to shape the character of our children.  What choices have you made for the sake of building up your child’s character?  Have you taken extra care to choose the right school, the right church?  Have you made difficult decisions during tough times in the life of your child on when to rescue, when to intervene, and when to let the chips and the consequences fall where they will?  And what are the virtues you have hoped to share, to model, to help develop in your child?  As my children were growing up, my deepest fear was not that they would be unsuccessful or unpopular but that they would not be good people.  I don’t know that any of us would follow so radical a path as that taken by Reb Saunders on behalf of his Daniel, but we understand his hope and anxiety in trying to infuse the character of his child with compassion.

“Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…”  That’s what the Apostle Paul wrote to the early Christians in Rome.  He too might question Reb Saunders’ methods but would affirm that a faithful, godly character must be shaped by an experience and understanding of suffering.

Many of you would, as well.  How many of us look back at some of our own past difficult and unpleasant experiences and believe that what followed were lessons learned for our betterment, to the strengthening of our character?

Please understand – I don’t think that everything happens for the good.  Cruelty, violence, torture, oppression, abuse, betrayal, bullying – none of these are good things.  They are all bad and should never come again.  You know the difference between those things that happened to you that were simply evil and needed to be stopped and those things that really did help to shape and strengthen your endurance and therefore your character.

“Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…”  We have seen how this can be true in our own lives and personal experiences.  I want to follow the Apostle Paul, however, in pushing this past the personal into the communal.  How can shared suffering shape our community’s character?  For that’s what Paul is really writing about in this morning’s reading.

 

Several years ago, I was privileged to represent our Southeast Wisconsin Association on a mission trip to Haiti.  I worshiped with our brother and sisters in Christ there, preaching and offering children’s sermons.  In all my life I have never been part of such a spirited worshiping congregation.  Tears and laughter, shouts and songs, dancing and celebrating – that’s what marked every one of those services.  And this was among people who were hungry and oppressed, in the grips of poverty and a national unemployment rate of 80%.  This was among families afflicted with high infant mortality and the frequent threat of political, economic, and domestic violence.  As I worshiped with them and reflected on the difference between worship there in Haiti and worship here in Wisconsin, the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick from the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” came to me:

Bend our pride to your control;

Shame our wanton, selfish gladness,

Rich in things and poor in soul.

Yes, even in their poverty, they seemed rich in soul, our partners in Haiti.  I’ve heard the same kind of reflections from every one of our mission trippers to Kenya from this church.  At the time, I asked our Haitian missionary, Felix Ortiz, about it.  Why, I asked him, why are they so spirited, so soulful?

This is how he answered me: “Never underestimate the power of shared suffering.”

“Never underestimate the power of shared suffering.”

           

When the great American oral historian Studs Terkel wrote his book The Great Divide about the changes in America in the 1980’s, he identified the growing class divide between rich and poor – a divide that has only gotten worse over the last 30 years.  And, just as significantly, he saw the growing divide between Americans who remembered the past – things like the Depression, the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam, and Watergate – and those that didn’t. 

I think of my parents who both grew up during the Depression, a time when the whole nation suffered together.  When I was very young, we lived in Waupun just across the street from the state prison.  Two years ago, my older brother told me something I had never known – during those years, mom would serve soup and sandwiches to those folks just released from prison from our back door.  In fact, the back fence of our house had the mark on it – the so-called “hoboes”” mark that indicated this was a place of help and hospitality. 

What made my parents and so many of those who lived through the Depression the “Greatest Generation?”  Studs Terkel would probably say, the power of shared suffering.

I thought about that this past week as so many folks from the Fox Cities lined the streets of Grand Chute and Appleton to pay homage to the sacrifice of Fireman Mitch Lundgaard and his family. 

We were all there to honor a hero.  We were all there to offer our sympathy and support to a grieving family and circle of friends and colleagues. 

But has this and will this shape the character of our community for the better?  I heard the reflections of one person who thought the shooting and publicity afterwards would make our community a much more hostile and dangerous place to live.  His perspective surprised me.  But then one of the things that made his perspective different from mine was race.  Will this act of violence make this a harder place for a black man to live? 

I may have answered this differently a week ago.  Some of you have noticed the sign outside on the church lawn, wishing our Muslim neighbors a blessed month of Ramadan.  I put one up in our yard at home as well.  One day last week I happened to be coming in from the yard and someone in a speeding blue pick-up yelled out his window at me: “Muslims are killers!  They’re murderers!” 

It’s the first time I had personally experienced what so many of my Muslim, LGBTQ, brown, and black friends have experienced here in the Fox Cities.  For just a moment, I felt the chill and just a little bit of the fear that they have to live with. 

So there’s my little moment of shared suffering.  And what will I do with it?  How will it shape my character?  Should I take the sign down?  Should I apologize to my neighbor who witnessed this act of drive-by bigotry?  Should I put a megaphone in the garage so I’m ready to shout back the next time?

You would be right to counsel me that none of these ways – the paths of fear, timidity or anger – follow the path of Christ from shared suffering to Christian character.  Paul gave us a hint to the more way we should follow by how he ended his reflections:

“Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…”  HERE IT COMES! “… because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

It’s only by following the path of love that shared suffering can lead us to Christian character.

 

Back in January of 1982, an Air Florida jet crashed into the Potomac River.  An unnamed man gave his life in order to save other people who, with him, were hanging on to the tail of the plane.  When the rescue helicopter dropped a life-line, he passed it on to another person — and another — and another — until only he was left in the water.  But when the helicopter returned for the sixth time, he was gone; he had slipped under the water of the river.  He gave his life so that others might live. 

Roger Rosenblatt, in Time Magazine, wrote, “… at some moment in the water he must have realized that he would not live if he continued to hand over the rope and ring to others.  He had to know it, no matter how gradual the effect of the cold.  In his judgement, he had no choice.  When the helicopter took off with what was to be the last survivor, he watched everything in the world move away from him, and he deliberately let it happen.”

I know what we want to call this man – a hero.  It’s the same thing we want to call Mitch Lundgaard; the same thing we want to call all those fallen soldiers we will recognize tomorrow on Memorial Day.  I’ve known many of those who have served in wartime, in danger zones, in high stress situations.  Some of them are in this sanctuary right now.  And none of them have been comfortable with this “hero” word.  It’s a word that sets people apart and the real servants I’ve known have wanted to bring people together, to share and ease their suffering, not set themselves apart. 

What they’ve done, they’ve done for love, not recognition.  That’s the Holy Spirit of service that has been poured into their hearts.  And that’s what can transform our own shared suffering into something that can saves us and serve others.

In the movie Memorial Day, a friendly neighborhood gathering on the holiday becomes something deeper.  “Hey, this must be kind of important of a day to you,” one of Matt Walker’s friends says.  “I mean, it’s Memorial Day and didn’t you serve in Vietnam?”  Matt reluctantly admits, “Yes, yes, I served.”  What was it like over there?”  Matt shares a look with his wife before answering, “You don’t really want to know.”  “Sure, why not?  I mean it’s Memorial Day, right?”

So Matt begins to speak.  He starts telling about his experiences in Vietnam, the friends he lost, the illusions he lost, the pieces of himself he lost.  And one by one, two by two, most of the guests began to clear out.  They weren’t here for this, for some depressing war stories.  They were here for a picnic, a party!  Matt Walker, as the stories become more personal and more difficult, begins sobbing, weeping at the things he had seen, the things he had done.  Some departing guests become openly angry with him for being such a downer.  But his wife, his children, a few close friends gently urge him on.  They know that he needs to say this.  They know that they need to hear this. 

“Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…” 

Will we have sufficient love for our neighbors to stay with them, to share their suffering?  If we do, then it will not just strengthen our character.  It will transform the character of our community.  And that’s something worth hoping for.

Walking on Water

Walking on Water

Date Preached: 5-19-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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It Feels Like This

It Feels Like This

Date Preached: 5-12-19
Preached by:

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First Movement

 NARRATOR 1

(spoken): First Movement. The Paralytic.

Maybe you’ve heard of me. I’m the one who was lifted up, let down, raised up and let go. The one on the mat. The one they call the “paralytic”. Maybe you’ve heard about me in that story from Mark’s gospel. Maybe you’ve seen me somewhere else – paralyzed by who knows what – maybe physically. But who knows exactly what made me so numb I couldn’t move; so immobile, I couldn’t get from one place to the next without the help of my community.

There are those who believe prayer is magical. Just say the right words and you’ll be healed! There are also those who think healing is just a physical thing. But I’m here to tell you – to remind you – prayer is more than words, and healing is more than the absence of suffering.

My story, your stories, are a part of a long tradition of bringing to God the full measure of our faith and our doubt…

Trusting in a community of caregivers to risk themselves for compassion’s sake…

Realizing the deeper healing that is possible when all voices are heard and honored in community.

Even the psalmist knew what it was to have faith in God, but to feel so, so alone. Listen…

 

NARRATOR 2 AND NARRATOR 3

You, Lord, reign forever;your throne endures from generation to generation.

NARRATOR 3

Why do you always forget us?

NARRATOR 1

Why do you forsake us so long?

NARRATOR 2

Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?

 

NARRATOR 1

Imagine feeling so alone, you can’t even believe God is within your reach. Maybe you don’t have to imagine. Maybe you know.

Can you understand what it was like for me to know Jesus was just beyond my reach? How I wanted so badly to see him and hear his voice. When you’re paralyzed – by whatever holds you in that place –

well…that’s a lonely place to be.

It’s not just my story. This is your neighbor’s story. Your friend’s story. Your loved one’s story. Your story.

What does it feel like to live with mental illness? It feels like this:

 

(Three speakers enter and are seated on three tall stools – these are the Voices of the congregation)

VOICE 1:       I move through the day…Slogging through a swamp

VOICE 2         Not as aware of the feelings of others

VOICE 1        Self critical

ALL:                …guilty…

VOICE 1        worried about everything

ALL                the world is dark

VOICE 1        (stands and moves to right) I look normal on the outside,

VOICE 2        (stand and moves down stage)…  It feels like being stuck in hell, the most scary and frustrating feeling, you don’t know why you are scared or anxious

VOICE 3        (stand and moves left)  …hiding the pain, tiptoeing around friends and family, my sense of time –

ALL                (all look at each other and say in unison as move to center together)

MY SENSE OF TIME IS ALTERED.

 

VOICE 3        Depression is a sneaky illness.  It creeps up on me, the symptoms can be subtle at first…

VOICE 1        I can’t be my normal self.

VOICE 2        I eat to soothe my feelings.

VOICE 3        I look normal on the outside but really I am struggling.

VOICE 1        My brain frantically seeks out things to worry about.

ALL                You are frustrated with yourself

VOICE 2 AND 3       frustrated with yourself

VOICE 3        for letting it get the best of you.

 

NARRATOR 3

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.

VOICE 1        You can’t shake the fear.

 

NARRATOR 1

I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold.

VOICE 2        You find yourself irritable with those around you and you grow more frustrated the more they ask.

NARRATOR 2
I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me.

VOICE 3        You pray for some relief!

ALL

I am worn out calling for help;

 

VOICE 1       It is a never ending cycle

                     But there is a light at the end of the journey if you just hang on.

 

VOICE 2        HANG ON.

 

 

NARRATOR 2

Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old

 

VOICE 1        Hang on, and get help…  It gets so much better.

 

NARRATOR 3

And we learn to breathe (slow breath)

And we learn to come to the present moment (slow breath)

 

ALL (6)                                           BE STILL AND KNOW THAT I AM GOD  

NARRATOR 1/VOICES 2&3          BE STILL AND KNOW  

NARRATOR 2/VOICE 1                 BE STILL

NARRATOR 3                                BE…  

 

________________________________________________________

 

Second Movement

 

NARRATOR 2

Second Movement. The Caregiver.

I have to remember to breathe, to just “BE” sometimes…especially as a caregiver.

I am one of her friends – a friend of the paralytic, I mean. Have you ever wondered why we did it – carried her up onto the roof? Why we risked digging through the roof? You can imagine – the homeowner had some questions for us after that! Why we risked lowering her down through the opening, to get her closer to Jesus?

I think we did it because we had to do something. Day after day – seeing her like that, unable to move or engage with the rest of the community. Worried for her. We had a schedule worked out between us. Because we were that worried. About how much more SHE could take.

Because we loved her.

Because that’s what it feels like to care for someone with mental illness.

You know, don’t you, how it feels…

 

NARRATOR 3/NARRATOR 1

Love is patient; love is kind;

NARRATOR 2

love is not envious or boastful

NARRATOR 1

Or arrogant

NARRATOR 3

Or rude…

ALL

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 

VOICE 3        What does it feel like to care for someone with mental illness?

VOICE 1        It feels like extreme love.

ALL                LIKE EXTREME LOVE.

 

VOICE 3        It feels like uncertainty, all the time.

VOICE 2        I’m afraid.

ALL                WE LIVE IN FEAR.

 

VOICE 2        The fear is indescribable.

VOICE 3        What will I find when I walk into his room?

VOICE 1        What will I find when I walk into her room?

VOICE 3        All I want is to lie awake on his floor and listen to him sleep.

VOICE 2        I’m always cautious of the storm that might be brewing.

 

VOICE 1        One wrong text.

VOICE 2        One wrong look.

VOICE 3        One undesired reaction could set him off.

VOICE 1        It could be anything.

VOICE 2        Dinner wasn’t what she wanted.

VOICE 3        His sister wants his attention.

VOICE 1        What if he drinks?

VOICE 2        What if she gets more depressed?

VOICE 3        What if I make him feel bad?

ALL                What if she…?

 

 

VOICE 1        My brain knows none of those reactions would be my fault, but I’m exhausted and drained.

VOICE 2        I want to cry.

VOICE 3        We hide the things they might use to harm themselves.

VOICE 2        I want to yell.

VOICE 1        I want to talk, but I can’t find the words.

ALL     WE ARE EXHAUSTED.

 

NARRATOR 2

Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,

and I will give you rest.

 

VOICE 1        My love for him is so deep.

NARRATOR 1

(takes shawl 1, placing it around shoulders of VOICE 1) Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

 

VOICE 2        I love her with every fiber of my being.

NARRATOR 3

(takes shawl 2, placing it around shoulders of VOICE 2) for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

 

VOICE 3        I’ve tried to love them back to health. Mental illness doesn’t work that way.

NARRATOR 2

(takes shawl 3, placing it around shoulders of VOICE 3) For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

 

ALL                 But my love for her is so deep.

ALL

For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

 

ALL               With every fiber of my being.

VOICE 3       When I asked my partner what it’s like to care for someone with a mental illness, he said, “Nothing like  living with the illness itself.” God knew what God was doing when I was paired with this man.

Narrator 1/VOICE 1            We are each other’s partner.

Narrator 3/VOICE 2            We are each other’s caregiver.

Narrator 2/VOICE 3            We are each other’s advocate.

 

________________________________________________________

 

Third Movement

 

THE CROWD WHO WITNESSED THESE THINGS

 

ALL

(spoken): Third Movement. The crowd who witnessed these things.

We have never seen anything like this!

NARRATOR 1

Did we not believe it was possible?

NARRATOR 3

Were our eyes closed to it?

NARRATOR 2

Or our minds? Or our hearts?

NARRATOR 3

That’s how it is for those of us on the outside, looking in. We don’t know what to say, or how to respond. We see things, but don’t ask questions. When we ask, “How are you?”, we get a half-hearted response.

 

VOICE 1        I’m fine.

NARRATOR 3

We don’t press further. We move on with our day.

NARRATOR 2

That day, when the one who was paralyzed was carried by her friends, up to the roof, down through the opening, within reach of Jesus, the crowd gathered around witnessed something amazing.

NARRATOR 3

They saw what was possible in a community where it wasn’t strange at all even to put a hole in the roof to make sure everyone was seen and heard and loved.

NARRATOR 2

Not strange at all. To do whatever it takes.

 

ALL

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

 

VOICE 1        What I wish our church family knew about mental illness in my life is how it’s invisible.

VOICE 2        You wouldn’t know it by looking at me.

VOICE 3        You wouldn’t know I’ve had a dozen medications fail me.

NARRATOR 1

Just try harder!

VOICE 2        You wouldn’t know I’ve had shock treatments.

NARRATOR 2

Just think positive thoughts!

VOICE 1        You wouldn’t know that in addition to exercise, meditation and weekly therapy sessions, I take six different medications to keep me glued together.

NARRATOR 3

I know what you’re going through.

ALL               You wouldn’t know.

VOICE 3        I feel different when I’m depressed.

VOICE 2        I feel like I’m a burden.

VOICE 1        I feel ashamed.

VOICE 3        It’s hard for me to follow through.

VOICE 1        It doesn’t mean I’m lazy.

ALL               You wouldn’t know.

 

VOICE 2        Not wanting mental illness doesn’t help.

VOICE 1        Knowing better doesn’t help.

VOICE 3        It doesn’t get better with one long prayer, one right medication, one great friend, one good answer.

ALL                You wouldn’t know.

 

ALL

Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

NARRATOR 3

Tell me what that looks like.

NARRATOR 1

Tell me what that sounds like.

NARRATOR 2

Can you tell me what might be helpful, today?

 

 

VOICE 1        My friend just hugs me and talks to me about ordinary things.

VOICE 2        Know that “I’m okay,” doesn’t always mean, “I’m okay.”

VOICE 3        Ask more specific questions.

ALL                Listen.

NARRATOR 1

Do you remember – in the letter of James in the New Testament, it asks, Are any among you suffering? The community should pray.

VOICE 1        Offer prayers.

VOICE 2        Call, even when it’s hard and you don’t know what to say.

ALL/NARRATOR 1              Listen.

 

NARRATOR 3

Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.

 

VOICE 3        Pray for me.

ALL/NARRATOR 1/NARRATOR 3          Listen.

NARRATOR 2

Pray for one another, so that you may be healed…

 

VOICE 1        Lift up prayers for those of us with mental illness.

ALL (6)          Listen.

 

 

VOICE 1        It lets me know you see me.

VOICE 2        It lets me know you hear me.

VOICE 3        It lets me know you care for me.

 

 

ALL (6)           It lets me know you will not leave me.

 

The Dirty Work of Forgiveness

The Dirty Work of Forgiveness

Date Preached: 5-5-19
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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Learning to Love at Arm's Length

Learning to Love at Arm's Length

Date Preached: 4-28-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Called Back to Life

Called Back to Life

Date Preached: 4-21-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Three funeral home directors were having their monthly gathering at a local establishment and, after a beverage of two, their conversation took a philosophical turn. “At your own funeral, what would you like them to say about you as they were passing by your casket?”

The first funeral home director didn’t even take a pause before chiming in – ‘That he loved his family. ’ That’s what I would like them to say about me. ‘He loved his family.’”

The second took a moment before putting in her thoughts: “That I served the community.  I was committed to a life of service, that’s what I’d like them to say.”

The third one took a thoughtful sip before saying, “As they pass by my body, I’d like them to say, ‘Look – she’s moving!’

All the main events in the life of Jesus, from the Annunciation to the Ascension, are directly described in the New Testament except for one: the Resurrection. It’s described indirectly, through effects, results and consequences, but not the moment, the instant of Resurrection, the first “Look, he’s moving!” Enter Christian artists who set to work through the centuries depicting that Resurrection moment, eventually producing two views of the Resurrection that are quite different from each other.   

The first is what might be called the Individual Resurrection Tradition, with Jesus coming out of the tomb, completely alone, and rising into the air. The other is what might be called the Universal Resurrection Tradition, with Jesus rising but also reaching back to grasp the hands of others; specifically, Adam and Eve, representatives of the whole of humanity, so that they (and we) may rise with Jesus.

“Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6: 4)

That’s how Paul describes our deep connection to Christ in the Resurrection. Paul clearly was a universalist in his understanding of the power of the Resurrection.

This is by way of posing you a question: how are YOU being raised on this Easter morning?  How is Easter Sunday getting you moving again? How is Jesus Christ reaching back to pull you out, up, and away from the powers of death and despair so that you can come back to life again?

Here’s the example I want us to contemplate this Easter morning: one of those people in the first part of our Gospel Reading who was suddenly reanimated and freed from her or his tomb as described by Matthew.   Have you ever noticed those verses from chapter 27 before? At the moment, of Jesus’ death, the earth shudders in shame, the sky darkens in sorrow, and the curtain of the temple was suddenly torn asunder and thrown to the ground.   And one more thing: at Jesus’ death, there was an initial spasm of Resurrection power that leaked out and opened some tombs and called some dead folks back to life.

I want us to imagine this morning that we are one of those dead ones who are suddenly awakened to wander through the streets of Jerusalem. “What the heck just happened?” we are asking.   “Last thing I knew, I was dead and people were crying as they walked by my casket!”

When’s the last time you were brought back to life, when you were truly surprised, shocked by good fortune, moved by the miraculous, suddenly reanimated from the deadly sameness of daily life?

Were you holding a new baby in your arms?  Did you fall in love as if you were struck by a thunderbolt?  Did someone recognize something good about you and give you a compliment you were never expecting?  Did the power of forgiveness sweep over and through you in a way you had not experienced before?  Did you discover your calling?  Did you have a close call?  Did it suddenly occur to you how incredibly blessed you really are?

So, there I was in eighth grade, tooling along the road on my pride and joy, my 10-speed Peugeot bicycle. I had saved up my allowance, caddied at the local country club, done extra jobs around the house and the neighborhood and socked it away to buy MY BIKE.  It was my first big purchase, the fruit of lots of trips to the bike store, repeated careful readings of Everybody’s Bike Book, and countless conversations with my best friend (who bought a Raleigh, by the way – clearly inferior to my marvelous Peugeot with all its je ne sais crois).

So, there I was in eighth grade, speeding down the road on a beautiful spring day, in the days before any of us wore bike helmets, by the way, thinking about something else and looking at something that had caught my eye – God knows what! Suddenly my bike crashed into a parked car.   Actually, I didn’t see it happen. I was riding along and, next thing I knew, I was tumbling through the air in a full flip, landed on my feet, perfectly in stride and running as fast as I could.

When I finally stopped and looked back, that’s when I discovered that my bike had crashed. But that moment–flipping through the air and landing in a dead run–was as alive as I have ever felt in my life.   

“So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples…”

That was it, exactly!  With fear and great joy – this strange and marvelous, adrenalin-fueled mixture.   That’s how I felt, just like the women who encountered the angel at the empty tomb felt.

Do you think that’s how those reanimated folks in Jerusalem felt? Fear and great joy… When have YOU felt like that?

Back in 1990, they made a movie out of Dr. Oliver Sacks’ book Awakenings. It’s the remarkable true account of a group of patients who contracted sleeping-sickness during the great epidemic just after World War I. These men and women were frozen in a decades-long sleep and given up as hopeless when Dr. Sacks gave them the then-new drug L-DOPA, which had an astonishing, explosive “awakening” effect. Even if the effect was not long-term, the spiritual healing and personal transformations that took place in these patients and their families during their awakenings were remarkable.  

Dan Cohen recently wrote about an experience he had with his father who is suffering from dementia.   His father’s condition had worsened to the point that he barely spoke, had no short-term memory and needed assistance in taking care of his basic needs. He still recognized his family and was emotionally stable enough so that they could take him out to movies and restaurants.           

But then his dementia worsened. He was hospitalized with pneumonia for 10 days. Dan’s father became fully incontinent, agitated and often cried out in pain without obvious cause. He could no longer go out to lunch or to a movie theatre.           

When he had a second bout of pneumonia and hypertension, Dan’s father was hospitalized again and treated with a high dose of steroids and antibiotics. After about 24 hours of this treatment, he began to AWAKE.           

This is how Dan Cohen describes it: 

“He asked me, ‘How are you doing?’ The importance of what he said didn’t dawn on me immediately because my father no long initiated conversation or spoke in full sentences. He hadn’t asked me about my own life or well-being for years. 

“I responded, ‘I’m okay, Dad.’ Then he said, ‘You know I love you very much.’ 

“He then asked, ‘What happened to me?’ 

“… My father’s awakening continued for two days… Among the things we were able to experience… 

“My father told my brother it was great to have a son like him and that he was grateful for his children and grandchildren. He also asked my sister about her beloved dog, which she adopted while he was in the early stages of dementia… 

“Perhaps the most remarkable… was his interaction with my mom, who lives with him every day and clearly suffers the most from seeing my dad’s worsening condition. 

“At one point, he told my Mom she ‘was the love of his life.’ Maybe equally as amazing was when he asked Mom for some money so he could tip the nurses and aides who had been so nice to him…” 

His father’s awakening was temporary, and he reverted to his full-blown dementia after a few days.  You can imagine that his family’s emotions were decidedly mixed – delighted that they had this time with their husband and father when he was alert; sad that the time didn’t last; and confused in trying to understand how and why this awakening had happened. 

Was it medical, having to do with the high dose of steroids? Was it miraculous, the healing hand of God moving in mysterious ways? Was it simply personal, his strong-willed father’s way of sending the family a final message of love? 

“So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples…”

I want to remind you this morning that our Easter Sunday only begins with the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. What we ultimately celebrate is our Resurrection, Christ reaching back, taking our hands and lifting us up with him.   

What we celebrate is both heavenly good news and the power of an earthly awakening if only we are willing to live our lives with that amazing mixture of fear and great joy.

I know you get weary of the world with its persistent lies and hypocrisy and violence.

I know you get beaten down with injustice that infects us like a disease that spreads and hides and surfaces anew.

I know you get filled with deep and buried dread over concern for the earth and the future of life on this planet.

I know you are sorrowful over those who have died, the love you have lost and the futures you had planned only to have them taken away.

Better to live without hope, we think.  Better to live without illusions and plans. Better to join the living dead who have given up on faith and given in to apathy.

But I am here to tell you that Jesus is calling, Christ is reaching back, God is acting in Resurrection power to wake us up, to call us out of our tombs and back to life; to fill us with fear and great joy – the harrowing, thrilling adventure of following Christ’s way in the world.

God is calling you to wake up, shake off your slumber and sloth, your dread and despair and stumble on ahead, leaving the past behind you like a broken bicycle on the side of the road.   

God is calling you to wake up and speak the words you say too seldom: I love you; I appreciate you; I forgive you.

Wake up and dare to dream of better days for the world: of justice and peace, of having enough to sustain this planet and living in harmony with all.

Wake up and live the daily prayer of Jesus: “on earth as it is in heaven,” and do the things big and small that will be a heavenly blessing on those around you.

I know it’s scary. But what if we let ourselves fear again?

What if we opened our hearts to joy once more?

What if we left behind our deadened souls and let us spirits soar once more?

What if when Christ was raised, you were raised too?

Ecumenical Good Friday Service

Ecumenical Good Friday Service

Date Preached: 4-19-16
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A Crucifixion at the High School Tenebrae

A Crucifixion at the High School Tenebrae

Date Preached: 4-18-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Masterworks in Worship -- Seven Last Words of Christ

Masterworks in Worship -- Seven Last Words of Christ

Date Preached: 4-14-19
Preached by: John Albrecht

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­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­MASTERWORKS IN WORSHIP

Choral/Orchestral Work

        “Seven Last Words of Christ”                                                           Michael John Trotta

(b. 1978)

I.     Father, Forgive Them

Luke 23:34; Kyrie

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.

 

II.      Today, You Will be with Me

Luke 23:42-43

Today you will be with me in paradise.

Remember me when you come into your kingdom, O Lord, hear me!

 

III.   Behold Your Son

John 19:26-27; Stabat Mater

Behold your son.

At the cross her station keeping, stood mournful mother weeping.

Nicolette Puskar, soprano/Clover Austin-Muehleck, mezzo-soprano

 

IV. I Thirst

John 19:28; Matthew 27:40; Mark 15:32; Luke 23:37

I Thirst.

If you are Christ, come down from the cross, that we might see and believe.

If you are King, save yourself, that we might see and believe.

Luke Honeck, tenor/Erik Nordstrom, baritone

 

V.  My God, Why have You Abandoned Me?

Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34

My God, why have you abandoned me?

 

VI.  Into Your hands I Surrender My Soul

Luke 23:46; Mathew 6:10

Into your hands I surrender my whole soul.

Not mine, but your will be done.

 

VII.  It Is Finished

John 19:30; Luke 23:44-45; Matthew 27:51-52, 54

And with a loud voice, Jesus cried, exclaiming: It is finished!

Darkened was the sun, darkness covered the earth; torn was the veil;

the earth did quake;

All of the graves were opened wide!

Truly this man was the Son of God.

Building Committee Preliminary Report to the Congregation

Building Committee Preliminary Report to the Congregation

Date Preached: 4-7-19
Preached by:

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Take the survey: https://www.firstcongoappleton.org/building-committee-survey/

CHURCH BUILDING COMMITTEE
PRELIMINARY REPORT
APRIL 7, 2019

In 1968, over 50 years ago, our congregation made a bold new beginning by building and dedicating the church building we are blessed to call our spiritual home.  Over the past few years, our lay leadership has begun looking at the long-term needs of our facility as it ages and as our ministry needs and goals change. 

THE HORIZON TEAM was appointed by Church Council in 2015 to do some evaluation and take a forward look into the life of our congregation.

  • As part of their work, they conducted a survey of the congregation gauging satisfaction levels in the ministry area of the church. The results of that survey were consistently positive with some concerns in three particular areas: fellowship, reaching out to the younger generation, and alternative worship.
  • A Strategic Plan was drawn up in 2016 that sought to address those concerns and included a call for a Building Study around the issues of fellowship, accessibility, and technology

BUILDING STUDY TASK FORCE was appointed by Church Council in 2017 to take up that task.

  • They conducted a Building Use Survey of staff, members of the congregation, and representatives from the outside groups that use our church building. Again, replies were largely positive with some notable exceptions:
    • 40% of congregational respondents rated the Narthex deficient, the CYF/classroom area was rated deficient by 14%, and the Fellowship Hall by 9%.
    • Other insufficient ratings given to specific areas of the church and its ministry: accessibility (28%), technology (22%), climate control (17%), signage (15%), parking lot lighting (13%), Parking (10%), safety (9%), and inside lighting (7%).
  • The Building Study Task Force also updated the 10-year capital maintenance schedule including:
    • $500,000 for roof and window replacements;
    • $350,000 in updates for Fellowship Hall
    • $300,000 for a CYF building elevator
    • $200,000 for Parking Lot replacements and lights
    • $125,000 for church organ renovations
    • $115,000 for boiler and chiller replacements
    • $100,000 building cracks and tuckpointing
    • $625,000 miscellaneous repairs and replacements

Total 10-year anticipated capital needs: $2,315,000

  • The Task Force recommended in its June, 2018 Final Report that a Building Committee be appointed and charged with generating solutions to address the aging facility, particularly around:
    • Renovation of the CYF Building
    • Renovation of Fellowship Hall/River Room
    • Narthex Renovation
    • Replenish the Building Reserve Fund
    • Sanctuary Renovation
    • Renovate Conference Rooms

OUR BUILDING COMMITTEE was appointed by Church Council in October, 2018.  We have met 8 times since then.

  • Reviewed the recommendations of Building Study Task Force
  • Toured the building
  • Initiated visits to other churches that have faced similar challenges with their facilities
  • Interviewed key staff
  • Reviewed our church’s Strategic Plan and asked bigger questions of mission in relation to our facilities
  • Compiled a list of concerns/challenges/needs facing the building

BUILDING CHALLENGES:

  1. CYF Building
  • Structural issues
  • Lack of accessibility
  • Lack of mobility between floors
  • Mechanical systems obsolete
  • Technology outdated
  • Theatre room too small for mass gathering
  • No dedicated space for Middle School group
  • Inadequate space for High School group and Confirmation
  1. Main Building
  • Space restrictions in the Narthex (we are asking a lot of this space; being utilized as more than just a passageway or hallway)
  • Inside and outside signage inadequate
  • Accessibility issues in narthex, sanctuary, and chancel
  • Insufficient lighting
  • Outdated Technology in Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall
  • Hazardous materials (asbestos) in Fellowship Hall
  • Lack of storage space
  • Outdated finishes in the Fellowship Hall
  • Office space inefficiencies; scattered, duplicated resources
  • Parking lot lighting and safety concerns
  • Building security
  • Mechanical issues
  • Need for organ maintenance/renovation
  • Limitations in Family Worship Area of sanctuary
  • Cramped music room, lack of storage in music library, no natural lighting

NEXT STEPS

  • Receive and compile feedback from the congregation – you have a comment card before you
    • Have you noticed/experienced any of the issues identified by the committee?
    • Are there building issues/concerns/needs we are missing?
    • As you consider the list of building needs above, what would be your priorities and why?
    • Other Comments
    • Would you be interested in having a tour of the facility to better understand the issues?
  • This presentation in both video and written form will be on the website along with a link for making comments electronically. We particularly want to call the attention of our live streamers to the electronic comment option.  For the entire congregation, we would like to receive your comments within the next two weeks, by April 21.
  • Interview/engage an architectural firm to offer potential solutions to the identified issues with our facility.

WRAP UP

Watching the video last fall celebrating the 50-year construction of this beautiful building, we were inspired by our predecessors’ courage and boldness.  They were visionaries for our church’s mission.  We felt the weight of that as we, as a committee, have been on this path of discovery and discernment.  Our journey has enlightened us as to the current challenges of an aging facility and grounds that do not meet the functional needs of both current and future members as well as current day building code standards.  Our church’s mission is to be the Church of the Open Door.  An aging and, in some areas, deteriorating facility makes accomplishing that mission, difficult.

CLOSING PRAYER

We want to remind you that our church is a gift from God through Jesus Christ.  It is, first and foremost, comprised of the love God has given us, that we have shared with one another, and that we are called to share with the world.  That is the heart of this church. 

This building is a gift from those who have gone before us who too found the love of God, self, and neighbor at the heart of First Congo.  As we move forward, let us never forget that loving heart.

This is how Rev. George MacLeod put it, as he offered up a prayer of dedication for the rebuilding of the Abbey on Iona:

“It is not just the interior of these walls,
It is our own inner beings you have renewed.
We are your temple not made with hands.
We are your body.

If every wall should crumble,
And every church decay, we are your habitation.
Nearer are you than breathing,
Closer than hands and feet.
Ours are the eyes with which you, in the mystery,
Look out in compassion on the world.

So we bless you for this place,
For your directing of us,
Your redeeming of us, and your indwelling.
Take us ‘outside the camp’, Lord,
Outside holiness,
Out to where soldiers gamble, and thieves curse,
And nations clash at the cross-roads of the world…
So shall this building continue to be justified.”

 

The Judgement of Grace

The Judgement of Grace

Date Preached: 4-7-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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They were thirteen and eleven years old when their mother brought them into my office to be straightened out; two boys, Ronnie and James, looking sheepish and wishing they were anywhere but here in my office.  Their mother was fresh from a church belonging to one of the Lutheran Synods that deals quite strictly with communion.  She thought our church should too. Their mother was blocking them from communion and wanted me to back her up in the on-going family argument.  

I was going to disappoint her. You know that, right? And doubly disappoint her by neither backing her up or giving her another clear instruction.  She came from one of those traditions that figured a trip to the pastor’s or priest’s office was a chance to get the answer, plain and simple, from God’s lips to your ears.  Those of you who have had the courage to set foot in one of OUR offices with a serious faith question know what’s coming… a lot of “on the one hand” and “but on the OTHER hand,” and some “there are various answers contained in the Christian tradition” thrown in which a big helping of “what do YOU think?”  She came to her pastor hoping to set sail on the good ship Certainty and instead get thrown overboard into the waters of Ambiguity.

Anyway, I disappointed her. I told her that we didn’t have an age requirement to receive communion in the UCC. That’s why the boys had probably seen a lot of youth and kids even younger than themselves receive communion.

“Yeah, a LOT younger!” the older boy, Ronnie, chimed in with resentment.

“But you certainly have to be a member of the church first,” she went on, hopefully. You know what’s coming:

“Nope. You don’t have to be a member.”

“But your FAMILY has to, right?”  She and her husband hadn’t yet joined the church and were still on the books at their old church.  And here it came again:

“Nope, we don’t require that either.”

“See, Mom?  We TOLD you!” the younger James proclaimed, sticking his chin out with goat-like defiance.

She made one last attempt.  

“Well, maybe we could let the older boy do communion and make the younger one wait.” 

Now James looked daggers at his mother while his older brother smirked.  

“Well, it’s up to the parents, of course, but the church doesn’t make that kind of distinction.” 

As I said, I disappointed her. Though we did come to a compromise where I would take some time with the boys to talk some more with them about communion and then her mother would let them come to the table. The boys, of course, were THRILLED to look forward to another visit to the pastor’s office.  But I did see them smile with satisfaction when the plate came around a couple of weeks later and they were able to take the elements before they proudly passed them on.

Maybe another pastor would have handled it differently, but I have a tough time imagining any prerequisites or requirements before allowing someone to come to this table.

First of all, it’s not MY table. So I have no business deciding who can or cannot come to it.  

It’s not even OUR table. We’re not a club or secret society or fraternal order. We’re the Church of Jesus Christ and this table isn’t ours – it’s CHRIST’S table.  

            And we know who HE ate with – sinners and slaves, tax collectors and prostitutes, pharisees and party-crashers.  Even at his Last Supper he broke bread with his betrayer, with the one who would deny him, with those who proved to be faithless and fearful disciples. We know who he ate with – everybody!

            It’s like our reading says this morning: “when the Son of Man comes in glory ALL the nations will be gathered before him…” ALL the nations. Everybody. That’s who he ate with. That’s who he lived for.  That’s who he died for. And that’s who is welcome at this table of grace. Everybody. Because that’s the way Jesus wanted it.

            Maybe you’re like that well-meaning mother who wanted to know the rules, the limits, the requirements, the criteria, the cost of admission. And none of that is our business, if we are to take Jesus at his word. This is up to God to figure out the sheep from the goats, the worthy from the unworthy, the wise from the foolish, the faithful from the faithful.

            Did you notice something curious about this parable – that the sheep and the goats ask the very same question of the king?  “Lord, when was it we say you hungry and thirsty or a stranger or naked?”

Both groups ask the very same question. Neither group saw Christ in the “least of these.” Neither group was able to clearly sense the divine presence in their everyday transactions.  

So, the difference between the two was not their ability to believe in or to see God. Yet even though they ask the same question, the thought behind it seems to be very different.

For the first group, there is surprise.  Gee, I didn’t know you were there, Jesus, when I volunteered at the homeless shelter, when I dropped off food at the food pantry, when I sat with someone in church who seemed to need to talk, when I stopped by the hospital to call on my coworker. I didn’t know you were there.”

The other group seems to be saying something like, “Why didn’t you tell me you were gonna be at the jail with my foolish nephew?  If you had, then I would have made an effort to visit him.” I would have been nice to that lady on the plane with the crying baby. I would have dropped a quarter in that street person’s cup. I would have… I would have… if I had only known.

It seems to me that the second group is trying to figure out the rules, aren’t they? The criteria, the requirements, the prerequisites. When Jesus speaks, their first response is not to listen, but to ask, “Is this gonna be on the TEST?”

What if we gave it up this morning?  What if, this morning, we really stopped worrying about who’s a sheep and who’s a goat, who is worthy and who is unworthy, who is good and who is bad, who deserves God’s love and who doesn’t?  What if we gave that up and left it to God?

And what if we started that with US, with ourselves? What if we stopped trying to figure out if WE deserved God’s love, deserved forgiveness and affirmation, deserved kindness, deserved salvation and just… accepted it?  What if our open communion meant open to YOU?

Sometimes we find it nearly impossible to allow ourselves to really come to the table of Christ’s mercy – I mean, not just taking the elements and passing the plate, but really taking it in, and feeling and passing the peace. What if we opened up our clenched little hearts and really accepted God’s judgment of grace, of free, unearned, unmerited, unfettered forgiveness and love?

What if we did that starting today?  What if we did that starting with ourselves?  What if we did that starting right now?

Present in the Absence

Present in the Absence

Date Preached: 3-31-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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No Easy Invitation

No Easy Invitation

Date Preached: 3-24-19
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Matthew 22:1-14

In my defense, I could only have been 15 or 16 years old at the time – hardly mature enough to know myself, where I “fit” in the social hierarchy of my high school, much less the rest of the world. All that mattered in the moment was the invitation. Those sought-after words, spoken by the one who appeared to the 15-year-old me to know exactly who SHE was. “Hey, you can come to my party Friday night.” Wow. EVERYONE was going. “Everyone” always went. I wasn’t “everyone” – but in that split-second thrill of being invited, I flirted with the idea that maybe I WAS.

So I went, of course, with another friend who could drive us there. Eager to see what “everyone” did on a Friday night. (Apparently not everyone spent Friday nights watching Dallas and Falcon Crest with a bowl of ice cream in their laps.) Anyway, as we drove up to the house, cars were everywhere. Kids were everywhere. Outside of the house, inside the house. “This is great,” I thought. EVERYONE is here. But something felt off, something felt uncomfortable. I realized all the groups who hung together all day, everyday at school, were hanging together here, too. Judging each other, gossiping, primping, rolling their eyes at each other just like they did all day, every day. But without the teachers (nor any parents as far as I could tell), all of that happened without any restraint whatsoever. Honestly, no one appeared to be having any real fun, not even the group huddled around the case of beer someone had managed to sneak in. One of those boys watched my friend and I walk by, and I swear I heard him mumble, or maybe slur, the question we were already asking ourselves – “What are YOU doing here?”

Which just goes to show you, you never can tell where Scripture is going to take you. I’m not sure how I ended up back in my awkward adolescence, but there you have it. Sometimes even when you don’t quite know who you are, you can still be pretty good at knowing who you aren’t, right?

So, the kingdom of heaven is like a king, who threw a wedding banquet for his son. That’s what it says in Matthew Ch. 22, and at first glance I think that sounds like an invitation a person might want to receive. The kind of party “most people” might want to attend. Who wouldn’t want an invite to the royal wedding? But in this case, reading further, something goes weirdly, wackily wrong in this kingdom, with this king, with this party, and even with the invitation itself. First off, no one DOES seem all that eager to take the king up on his invite. When the initial invite flops, the second round of announcements comes out, and the messengers are killed! Who does that? And then the king loses his cool – and his mind, maybe – and sends in the military to avenge those killings and burn down the whole city. Who does that?

Maybe that’s a king’s prerogative, but I’m not sure any of this is sounding very heavenly. I have to tell you, I pored over several commentaries and read all kinds of other sermons online on this passage, and I can guarantee you a lot of other congregations are going to get schooled this morning in what to wear to Jesus’ party – and maybe that’s the better message. But I can’t seem to get past the violence in this parable. And the chaos of it all. How in this “kingdom” Jesus describes, everyone’s literally killing each other just to get the upper hand. When the king in Jesus’ parable tells his servants to “go out and invite everyone they find” to his big party, to make darn sure EVERYONE shows up, it sounds less like the Church of the Open Door – no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here – and more like a Friday night house party I’d really rather not have to attend on second thought.

When the king comes in to see his guests – the ones, let’s face it, he’s FORCED into filling the seats in his banquet hall (because he’s fixated on numbers, and always has to host the biggest party, the BEST party, maybe – and because look what just happened to the people who declined his invite!) – are we really surprised to see this king turn on one of the attendees, calling him out for his outfit? “How did YOU get in here?” he asks, as if he’s forgotten the man quite honestly had no choice but to be there, and nowhere was there any mention of proper attire.

The kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. Except in this kingdom, chaos rules the day and the rules keep changing. Violence begets violence and no one gets to escape it, but no one seems to notice, either. No one stands out or stands up for anything different. Unless, of course, you count the guy who’s not dressed right for the party. The one who doesn’t quite fit in…

You know, while the kingdom in this parable sounds nothing like the way I imagine the kingdom of heaven, it’s not all that unfamiliar. Like many of you, I’m sure, I’m horrified in response to the senseless shootings in New Zealand. 50 Muslims killed while they prayed; countless others injured. While to us in the United States, this is another in a long list of hate-inspired acts, rooted in white supremacist thinking, did you know that in New Zealand, between the years of 2008 and 2017, there were only 69 TOTAL homicides caused by firearms? 69 TOTAL in 9 years? In the city of Chicago alone, in one year, 2016, 750 people were killed in 3,000 shootings. In 2017 across our country, 40,000 people died because of the use of firearms. I know these statistics aren’t exactly apples-to-apples, and I know it’s a complicated issue – my husband and daughter are both avid gun hunters – but none of it feels “right” somehow. Something feels “off” – like there has to be another way to exist. They say that when violence is normalized in a society, the necessity for violence is also normalized. In other words, in response to our insecurity and fear, we respond to violence with more violence, we respond to deadly weapons by making weaponry even more accessible. Is that really the kingdom of heaven Jesus hopes for on our behalf?

It strikes me that Jesus knew more than a little about the chaos and violence of human institutions. This parable is a piece of his response to the chief priests and leaders in Jerusalem who find him in the Temple, having entered the city the day prior to shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!” His presence, Matthew tells us, causes the whole city to be in turmoil, asking “Who IS this?” What is he doing here? Jesus isn’t interested in the status quo – he’s overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple. He’s driven out those who had turned the house of prayer into a marketplace. The religious leaders, the “in crowd”, are asking questions. “By what authority, by whose authority, are you doing and saying these things?” It won’t be long before they’re no longer interested in his response, before they choose violence in an effort to quiet his voice and shut down his so-called movement.

What if the kingdom of heaven described in Jesus’ parable isn’t a place – some fairytale, where God sits on a throne, and the banquet hall is tricked out with solid gold everything – but it’s a moment. That moment when something just seems off to us somehow, about the world the way it’s always seemed. That twinge of discomfort when we think, there must be another way. What if the kingdom of heaven exists for us when maybe we don’t quite know who we are – but for at least a moment we know without a doubt, who we aren’t.

In a speech at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967 – exactly one year before his assassination – Dr. Martin Luther King outlined his criticism of the Vietnam War, detailing the economic burden the military “solution” placed on both poor Americans and Vietnamese peasants alike. Calling on clergy in particular to take a stronger stand, but on the church as a whole to stand for something more, he suggested that unless there was some movement toward real change in American life and policy – where we would start to prioritize the economics of social well-being over the funding of military might – at best, all the world could hope for – all that the poor in our own country could hope for – from our nation would be (to use a more contemporary phrase) “thoughts and prayers”. Many people think that this turning point in his thought process – this decision of his, to speak against a society and an economy so dependent on answering to violence with more violence, to openly declare this to be ruinous to the spiritual core of our nation – this is what led to his death a year later.

Some decades earlier, Dietrich Bonhoeffer surmised that through Jesus, God allowed God-self to be pushed out of the world onto the cross, becoming weak and powerless in the eyes of the world (in direct contrast to what passes for power in the world) because that was God’s way of showing us…God’s way.

Imagine that – if the invitation to us in our time in history, in this Lenten season, has to do with figuring out who we are in response to the chaotic kingdoms and violent politics of our own age?

The kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son, but one who was there refused to play the king’s games, and without so much as a word, showed the world a whole different way of being. Knowing clearly and completely who he was, he invited generation after generation to join him in choosing love over violence, service over self-interest, peace over chaos. No easy invitation, to be sure, but good news nonetheless, for those who might be thinking even now, there must be a better way.

Amen.

On the Same Terms

On the Same Terms

Date Preached: 3-17-19
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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The Pirates of Samaria

The Pirates of Samaria

Date Preached: 3-16-19
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“The Pirates of Samaria” — FCUCC Intergenerational Musical 2019 Book and Lyrics written by Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides; Directed by Dee Savides; Music by David Stoddard and performed at First Congregational United Church of Christ by the UCC Still Speaking Players on Saturday, March 16, 2019 at 7:00 p.m.

The Power of Forgiveness

The Power of Forgiveness

Date Preached: 3-10-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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ON FORGIVENESS

Scripture Readings: Matthew 18:15-35

In a large town, there were two merchants who were fierce competitors. Their stores were across the street from each other. The sole method each one had of determining the success of their business was not daily profit, but how much more business the one over the competitor. Feelings between the two were so bad, that if a customer made a purchase at the store of one merchant, the merchant would taunt the other across the street when the sale was complete. The rivalry grew with each succeeding year.

One day God sent an angel to one of the merchants with an offer. “The Lord God has chosen to give you a great gift,” the angel said. “Whatever you desire, you will receive. Ask for riches, long life, or healthy children, and the wish is yours.”

As you can imagine, the merchant was overjoyed. But then the angel added, “There is one stipulation. Whatever you receive, your competitor will get twice as much. If you ask for 1000 gold coins, she will receive 2000. If you become famous,s he will become twice as famous.” The angel smiled. “This is God’s way of teaching you a lesson.”

The merchant thought for a moment. “You will give me anything I request?” The angel nodded. So the merchant said, “I ask that you strike me blind in one eye.”

A hard-hearted person. That story is about a hard-hearted person. His heart was almost as hard and unforgiving as the heart of the man in Jesus’ story that was read this morning, the Parable of the Unforgiving Steward.

Now, let’s set the stage a little bit here. A steward owes his king 10,000 talents. That’s the amount the king ultimately forgives him. Sounds like a lot of money, doesn’t it? You’ll remember that one denarius is equal to roughly one day’s wages. Well, ten thousand talents are equal to 50 million denarii. So the amount the steward owes the king is equal to about 137,000 years of income. Another way of putting it is that the amount the man owes is ten times the amount of Judea’s national budget. It is a great deal of money.

Obviously, Jesus is exaggerating the amount because he wants us to know that what is being forgiven the steward is more than he could ever possibly pay back. What is being forgiven is not really money – it is much more than that. The steward is being forgiven by the king for his life.

The story proceeds with the forgiven steward calling a fellow servant before him. This servant owes the steward 100 denarii – 100 days wages. A paltry sum when compared to the incredible debt that has just been forgiven the steward. When the servant asks for forgiveness, the steward refuses and has the man thrown into prison. Though he has just been forgiven by the king, the steward turns around and refuses to forgive his fellow servant.

A hard-hearted man.

I want to remind you of something – when we say the Lord’s Prayer in this church, what words do we use? “Debts” and “debtors,” right? Not everyone in the Christian Church uses those words. That’s why whenever we say the Lord’s

Prayer, it’s always a little game of “Spot the Lutheran.” The reason why we say it differently in our churches is because the Gospels have two different versions. In Luke, Jesus says “sins” and “those who sin against us.” But in Matthew, Jesus says “debts” and “debtors.” Well, according to this parable of Jesus’ which is only in Matthew’s Gospel, the debts for which we ask God’s forgiveness are enormous, the debts owed us by others which we forgive, are paltry in comparison. Think about that the next time you say the Lord’s Prayer:

Forgive us the enormous, unpayable debt that we owe you, O God, the debt for our lives, for your love, for our salvation, as we forgive the tangible and comparatively small debts that others owe us…

It’s the life debt, the unpayable debt that Jesus is talking about in this parable. It’s not the first time Jesus uses hyperbole and exaggeration in this passage. “How many times should I forgive another remember of the church who sins against me?” Peter asks. Jesus answers, “seventy-seven times,” also translated as “seventy times seven times” – a number perhaps best translated as ”a perfect seven to the perfect power of seven.” It’s a symbolic number indicating to Peter that his forgiveness is to have no limits. Peter has come to Jesus wanting precise calculation, a statement of reasonable limits on the forgiveness of brothers and sisters in the church. Jesus is telling him there is no limit on forgiveness.

The hyperbole concludes with the shocking ending to the parable: the unforgiving servant is to be tortured until such a time as his 137,000 years of debt has been repaid. In other words, he is to be tortured for eternity.

In the story and in his instruction to Peter, Jesus lays two realities side by side. One reality is the world of vengeance and greed, self-interest and blindness. That’s a world without forgiveness, where debts are held and must be accounted for. Sounds like OUR world, doesn’t it? The other reality is God’s reality, the kingdom of heaven, where love and forgiveness are triumphant.

In this way, the parable isn’t so much telling us that if you don’t practice forgiveness then God is going to punish you, as reminding us that we choose the reality in which we live. Those who turn their backs on forgiveness choose a harsher reality where they themselves will not be forgiven. Those who choose forgiveness will find forgiveness themselves.

As George Herbert once wrote, “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass if he would reach heaven; for everyone has need to be forgiven.”

You choose. Which reality do you want to live in? One of vengeance and violence or one of love and forgiveness?

The Teacher sat praying under a tree that had large, exposed roots. As he prayed a scorpion, hanging on one of the roots, began to move slowly toward him. A young boy passing by saw the scorpion only inches away from the one in prayer and shouted, “Teacher, quick, kill that scorpion; it is going to bite you!”

The Teacher looked up at the scorpion and slowly moved a short distance before he spoke to the lad: “Just because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting is no reason that I should change my nature to save.”

It seems the nature of our times is one of division, of individual and tribal loyalties, of violence, vengeance and war. There is a great temptation for us to conform to the world’s nature. But our nature as Christians was given to us by and defined for us by the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.

Do you remember the name Ruby Bridges? In the 1960s, six year old Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child at the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis. You would recognize little Ruby from the famous 1964 painting by Norman Rockwell, “The Problem We All Live with,” as we see little Ruby, school book tucked under her arm, accompanied into school front and back by federal marshalls.

Child psychologist Robert Coles watched her back then, walking into school while around her an angry crowd of white adults heaped abuses on her little head. Coles noticed her lips were moving as she walked, and asked her afterward, in her home, what she was saying. She said she was praying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Ruby explained that her parents had given her this prayer, hoping that it would shield her mind and heart as she walked through this daily hell.

Ruby chose, didn’t she? She chose the way of Jesus, a reality of love and forgiveness even when others around her chose hatred and division. And that choice transformed her from a small, frail victim into a brave young girl, heroically following the way of Christ.

We saw that too in Anita and Ronnie Smith who moved to Benghazi, Libya a few years ago with their infant son on a journey of faith. Anita wrote, “We saw the suffering of the Libyan people, but we also saw your hope, and we wanted to partner with you to build a better future.” Ronnie became a chemistry teacher in a Benghazi international school.

Anita and their young son headed home to the U.S. for the Christmas holiday with Ronnie soon to follow. But he was shot down by gunmen from a car as he was out jogging in the street.

Just a few weeks later, an open letter from Anita was published in the Benghazi press. “I hear people speaking with hate, anger and blame over Ronnie’s death, but that’s not what Ronnie would want. Ronnie would want his death to be an opportunity for us to show one another love and forgiveness, because that’s what God has shown to us.” And she included a message to her husband’s killers, who have yet to be captured: “That I love them. And I forgive them, and I have nothing against them.”

What a contrast Ruby Bridges and Anita Smith show us with the hard-hearted steward of the parable who has been granted such great forgiveness and yet shows no forgiveness in return. He has no gratitude for the gift of his life. He simply sees that he has escaped one debt and now can make a little money off a fellow servant.

Unfortunately, his reaction is not so untypical. So many have been given the gift of life from God and yet make no use of it; those who devote themselves to nothing but themselves, those who peer out at the world and at everyone else with suspicion and doubt, rather than gratitude and faith. We see them every day. In fact, too often, WE are that kind of person: hard-hearted and unforgiving.

They have made their choice – a world of cold calculation and hard hearts, of never-ending resentments and an ever-present thirst for retribution.

We can choose differently. We who have been touched by the gift of God’s forgiveness, can allow the gift to change us and give us a forgiving heart. We can choose to live in God’s loving and forgiving reality rather than the world’s reality of hard hearts and harsh revenge.

There’s another dimension to this choice between realities. It is also a choice between living in the past and moving towards the future.

When he was only 11 years old, Didier witnessed the killing of his mother, a street vendor in Medillin, Colombia. Dider was next to his mom when he saw her drop dead. As a reaction to his mom’s killing, Didier went down a self-destructive path and embraced a life of drugs, alcohol and crime for four years. “In drugs and alcohol I looked for the love that was taken away from me with the assassination of my mother,” he said later.

In those years, Didier was also thinking about retaliation and vengeance. People in the neighborhood told him who the killer of his mom was. Planning his vengeance, Didier started collecting guns and even two grenades in his room. At night he would cry and think of how he would kill his mother’s assassin, but he never found the will to do so.

The opportunity for change arrived when a friend, belonging to a Christian church, approached Didier. As he was realizing that the hatred he was harboring in his heart was consuming his soul and was killing him, he found the strength and the courage to forgive the man who killed his mom.

One day Didier saw the killer sitting on the the street curb. He joined him, sat next to him and asked him why he had killed his mother. The man broke down sobbing. Those tears were, for Didier, the confirmation that the man was the one who shot his mother to death.

Some time later, Didier ran into the man again. He went up to him and told him, “I don’t know why you killed my mother, but I forgive you.” Didier embraced the man, and the guy once again broke down in sobs.

Only recently did Didier discover that it was indeed someone else who had killed his mother. He learned it from a friend, who inquired if Didier had indeed forgiven his mother’s assassin. When he was assured, Didier’s friend confessed to him, “My brother killed your mother.” Since then, Didier has been trying to find the whereabouts of the killer, because he learned that he is facing troubles. “I want to give him my forgiveness, and try to help him,” Didier said.

As I reflect on Didier’s story I can’t help be struck by two things: Didier’s incredible capacity to offer heartfelt forgiveness, and the reaction of the person who did NOT kill his mother yet burst into guilty tears when accused of doing so. What load of guilt was it that he was holding in his heart and so needed to be offered forgiveness, even forgiveness for something he did not do?

Lewis Smedes writes: To not forgive is to allow someone else’s evil, or thoughtlessness to control your life. Christians are offered freedom in Jesus’ command to forgive; freedom from the past. In forgiveness, I release someone from his or her past. This is not excusing a person from an evil or unjust deed. Mere toleration is not costly Christian forgiveness. Forgiveness is a courageous, joyful turn toward the future. Forgiveness is the most creative act of which human beings are capable.

And so we are faced with the choice between realities. What will you choose? The reality of vengeance and violence, of being trapped in the past? Or will you choose the reality of love and forgiveness and move towards God’s future kingdom?

A Great Millstone

A Great Millstone

Date Preached: 3-6-19
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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A Great Millstone

Years before I came here, I spent a summer in Northern Wisconsin and among other things got involved with the local Community Presbyterian Church. I found out  Pastor “Chips” was taking the church youth on a canoe trip and I offered to help lead. So six middle schoolers and us three adults went into Canada later that summer.

If you have even been on a wilderness trip, or any team, you know there’s certain etiquette that you follow when working closely with others. In canoe camping, one of the important practices is that when you are landing a canoe, the person in front gets out first and then holds the canoe so that the person in back can shimmy over all the packs and get out in shallow water- then both people work together to unload the canoe as to not block the way for the next boat.

Somehow, this was lost on the middle schooler named Christopher who sat in the front of my boat.

Landing after landing, where I was doing all of the paddling, Christopher would be staring off into the sky, looking around, not even aware we needed to get out. Consequently we would just sit while I tried to get his attention, and when I did, he blot out of the canoe, throw his paddle wherever, and just walk away not carrying a thing, not a care in the world.

“Ok, I thought to myself, this kid just needs a little direction.” So I carefully explained why we needed to work together, why he couldn’t just jump out of the boat, why he cant just throw his paddle wherever, why he needed to hold the boat, and how he would then help unload and carry things on the portage.

And what happened at the next portage?

We sat the portage while he stared of into space, until abruptly jumping up, throwing his paddle and walking off. This time leaving me being pelted by waves which were driving me into the rocky shore.

It happened one more time- and I blew my top.

At the final landing, as we were sitting doing nothing, I waited for him to stand up and when he did, I yelled “Sit down” and back-paddled as hard as I could causing him to fall over in the canoe. I paddled all the way out into the middle of the deep lake calmly put my legs up and leaned back, then said “Since you have been too busy to help out in the front of the canoe, now you can paddle us all the way back in or we will just sit here the rest of the day while everyone stands around to watch us- sounds like a plan?” Without one word, and embarrassed, Christopher slowly paddled us in to shore where Pastor Chips slowly shook his finger, not at him, but at me “Temper, temper” he said “Remember where that young boy comes from.”

It was not until later, I found out that Christopher’s mother had called Chips and asked him to spend time with her son. Christopher’s father was a deadbeat and had left years prior, she had no job, Christopher was delinquent from school and literally had nothing to do all summer on the small Island in Alaska where their tribe, the Tlingit Native Americans lived. Chips flew Christopher in so that he might be welcomed and loved and mentored by older male role models. Against that backdrop was where I took the opportunity to have my temper tantrum, express my anger, inflict embarrassment and shame. It was one of my worst moments in youth ministry. I apologized not just to Christopher, but to Chips as well.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”

You may have seen a millstone before; in fact they still use them in some places in the world and even here in the USA for “stone ground” grain products. They are large circular flat stones which lay upon one another and can grind wheat into the fine dust of flour, the top stone having a cut out, like a donut, so that when a donkey would turn them they could rotate upon a shaft and staff in pace. In Jesus time these stones could easily weigh thousands of pounds.

This is the kind of Stone that Jesus was mentioning, saying that it would be better to wear it as a collar than to cause harm to the community in which we belong.

A Christian Scholar elaborates saying

“(Jesus) doesn’t just talk of people being ‘thrown into the sea’; he is talking of the deep sea, far out, away from the shore. If this seems violent or extreme, perhaps it’s because we, too, have undervalued the ‘little ones’ Jesus is talking about — children in particular, of course, but also all those who are powerless, vulnerable, at risk in our world.” ~ (N.T. Wright)

In this metaphor, meant to snap us out of our ambivalent abuse of power, Jesus says that literally dying by wearing a millstone is better than abusing those who are vulnerable. Maybe we find this ridiculous- the very notion of wearing great grinding millstone and having it pull us into the dark depths. But the placing of a grinding yoke should not be that unfamiliar to us, many of us are actually very experienced in heaving these stones, especially we who value community and interdependence.

Have you never turned a blind eye offering kindness or providing a teachable moment? Have you ever been left, far out in some deep water, with some millstone of embarrassment or shame, leaving you floundering and dragging you under, feeling as though no one was guiding you to the safety of shore? Have you ever discounted another journey, their pain, their importance because you deemed it trivial and of little consequence?

If so, then you know what it is like to wear a great millstone yourself, or one the one placing it upon another.

I am always cautious about Ash Wednesday, about talking about our sins, focused upon our worthiness and shortcomings because when people are truthful with me as a pastor, it is apparent that most everyone carries some great heavy weight that they bear, but which they are too frightened to take off. Out of guilt and shame people say things like “this weight I must bear” because “I have gotten what I deserve.”

There is the weight of the millstone of self-doubt and hatred in a teenager’s hopelessness. There is the millstone of marriages and relationships that have come to an end and are perceived as failures. There is the millstones of those who believe they are to short, to tall, too thin, to fat, too disproportionate, to busty, to flat, to ugly, and yes, the millstone of being “too beautiful” and having your whole world warped for its sake.

And I bet, on this Ash Wednesday, as we take the dust of burnt palms and impose them upon our bodies, that we too bear the weight of the many millstones in our lives, silently grinding away at us and upon those we love. So that is why tonight is so important, to be reminded that we are mortal, and that we are still alive, and that true life means asking for forgiveness and to receive the freeing Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And not just forgiveness for our actions that we must seek, but also forgiveness for others who have harmed us.

Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!

For Lent, we give things up. We lay things down. We put things aside: all things that distract our attention from the living God. WE do so, not to be the greatest, the most humble, the most contrite: we do so to be in the presence of God. To walk a disconcerting road with Christ, listening to his passionate words calling us to attention, calling us to re-asses our own choices, and calling us to greater forms of accountability knowing that how we treat one another can have lasting consequences.

On this journey we will stumble, oh yes we will, but at the end of the road, we can lay it down. We lay the weight which we carry down, just as Jesus laid down the cross, we are asked to lay down our millstones and trade them in for the glory that we know Easter morning. Where there was death will be life, were there was sadness, unrelenting joy, where a great weight ground us to dust we shall be raised from the ashes. But in the days between now and then, let us head this warning from Christ, let us take it seriously, for our choices in the ways we allow God’s love to work through us and in us, have real, lasting consequences.

May we do our best to love one another the Way Christ has loved us; trusting that when we do stumble, the grace and forgiveness of Jesus will pick us all back up, carry us in from the deep waters, and plant our feet firmly upon the shore of God’s infinite love and life.

Amen.

Shine

Shine

Date Preached: 3-3-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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The Singing Blacktivist and His Church

The Singing Blacktivist and His Church

Date Preached: 2-24-19
Preached by: Dr. Derrell Acon

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The Leaven of Justice

The Leaven of Justice

Date Preached: 2-17-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Scripture Reading: Matthew 13:24-35

Wheat and weeds:

let them grow together.

Arabs and Jews in Palestine: let them grow together.

Greeks and Turks of the Balkans: let them grow together.

Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland: let them grow together…

Documented and undocumented aliens: let them grow together…

Disciples prone to boasts and betrayals: let them grow together…

Joys and sorrow, laughter, tears: let them grow together…

Doubt and faith: let them grow together…

All contrarieties of the Lord: let them grow together.

This is from the Litany of Contradictory Things written by Michael Moynahan. What would you add to that list?

Rich and Poor?

Democrat and Republican?

Bear fans and Packer fans?

Kanye West and Taylor Swift?

Or maybe we can think about our local High School rivals:

Lightning and Patriot?

Ghost and Terror?

Blue Jay and Rocket?

Even, and I hesitate to suggest it, the dreaded Papermaker?

Put in your own additions and, in all that list, where do you feel most uncomfortable, most uneasy at the thought of simply abiding the difference, tolerating the contrary, letting them grow together when it seems to you, by God, that one of them clearly needs to be dug up, plucked out, and burned out of existence.

The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds should leave us uneasy, squirming, really, if it does its work properly and finds that spot in us that wants desperately to clean things up, set things to order, and put all our moral and social ducks in a row.

And it’s not that the parable itself opposes ordering. There ARE weeds, after all, that are ultimately worthy of destruction. But this parable opposes us being the final arbiters of what that order ought to be. That’s in God’s hands, the final discernment between wheat and weeds, good and evil, divinity and devilry.

Truth is, that leaves us uneasy, or at least it does me.

Do you know the story of the son of a famous composer who caused his father no end of worry by his riotous living? One night the son came home, staggering into the house. The boy knew his father would be awake, simmering with anger and disappointment at him. So he went straight to the piano and played the last page of one of his father’s most famous compositions. In spite of his condition, the young man played beautifully, movingly, and sincerely touched his father as he lay in bed listening. Then, as he played the final few triumphant measures of the piece, the son suddenly stopped just before the final chord. He promptly got up from the piano and went to bed, leaving the unresolved phrase hanging there in the air.

The father tossed and turned until he couldn’t take it any longer. He got up, threw on his robe, tromped down the stairs and hit the final chord on the piano. From his son’s bedroom came a triumphant “Ha!”

By the end of the parable of the wheat and weeds we’re like that composer, uneasy, squirming in our sense of violated order, unresolved messiness, and unsatisfied need for a tidy ending.

We don’t want to leave that ordering to God. We’d rather do it ourselves! But the parable says to us what that son what saying to his father – “back off!” and stop trying to control everything.

So take a deep breath, everyone. Rub your neck and roll your shoulders, release the tension and stop your squirming. It’s not up to you to figure it all out, set it all to rights, put everything in its proper place. The wheat and the weeds… let them grow together.

Relax. Back off. Lay back. Let go. Let God.

That may be the most important learning from Jesus’ teaching about the wheat and the weeds.

But of course, Jesus’ teaching doesn’t begin with this parable or end with it. The letting go that Jesus is recommending is not the final step in our journey of faith nor in our relationship to the weeds of our world, to the evil and cruelty and violence among us. In fact, Jesus goes on to offer two parables that jerk us back into motion, kind of like a roller-coaster ride that is suddenly clacking up a new incline.

The primary mover in these next two parables is not us, however, not us would-be weed pickers and wheat harvesters. No, the primary mover in these parables is God.

First, we’re told that God’s gift of the kingdom is like a mustard seed, a small little nothing of a seed that sneaks into the cracks and crevices of our world and introduces an invasive species – the mustard plant. This plant is so tenacious, so pernicious, so viral in its impact that it is outlawed in the religious practice of Jesus’ time, declared unclean by religious decree.

Similarly, in the next parable leaven is lifted up as a vehicle of God’s spirit; again, a smaller substance that takes hold and permeates and transforms the larger whole. Like the mustard seed, it too is declared unclean and dangerous by Jewish law and custom.

I want to give you a brief historical baking lesson. Nowadays, when we want bread to rise, we just take out a little packet of yeast and mix it into the dough. In Jesus’ time, leaven was made by taking a piece of bread and storing it in a damp, dark place until mold formed. It was that yucky, moldy stuff that served as the leaven.

Now you know why in every other place in scripture where leaven is mentioned, it’s dealt with negatively. Don’t eat it – don’t touch it – don’t let it make you unclean! But here, in this parable, Jesus is telling us that God’s kingdom, God’s spirit is the leaven.

This Leaven, this mustard seed, this earworm of a melody is God’s vision of a just and beloved community. It’s a thing that is so dangerous, so pernicious, so tenacious, that once it takes hold, it can only spread and spread and spread, contaminating all it contacts with God’s loving justice. That’s the powerful message contained in these parables of unclean mustard seeds and unclean leaven. God’s loving justice is an irresistible contaminant of goodness in our weed-choked world

Have you had a secret sense of perverse delight like I have in the blackface controversies tearing through the Virginia Democratic Party? And this was the so-called enlightened folks, the “woke” ones who were being exposed as being neck deep (or perhaps down to their chins) in a cultural practice that simply couldn’t stand up to God’s call for racial justice as it has seeped into the cracks and crevices of their own personal, private practices. Nothing makes me cackle with cynical glee like the exposure of the hypocrites.

But then… the call for justice started seeping into deeper and more unlikely places.

I was sixteen years old, my first year of High School, doing the Spring Variety Show with the drama department. The theme for one of the musical numbers that year was Vaudeville and, among the dozens and dozens of people doing the number, our High School drama director selected some to be dressed as the Marx Brothers, as Mae West, as Ziegfield girls, as W. C. Fields, and one lone boy, as Al Jolson, the Jazz Singer. We came on very briefly, some with a line or two, or some, like me, with a quick little line of music. We came on rapid-fire, one after another, in boa and blonde wig, in top hat and cane, in sequined dress and, last of all, me in black face.

I had conveniently forgotten that until about a week ago. There goes my run for Governor of Virginia.

Of course, there are distinctions of moral culpability to be made between a young, high school kid who was doing a part in a play and a medical student who chose to put on the make-up as a joke among friends. My point is not to confess my own personal culpability but to show how God’s vision of racial justice, how God’s call to mutual love and respect can shine a light into the

cracks and crevices of many places – in Virginia among the powerful, and in Eau Claire, Wisconsin in a High School variety show.

It can shine a light in many times – in the Jim Crow era south, when the Negro Travelers’ Green Book was published annually between 1936 and 1964 to instruct African-American travelers along Route 66 to those places that would safely accommodate them, and in 2014 St. Louis, Missouri when the Ferguson Commission envisioned racial equity through a reform of not just policing procedures but through fairer judicial court practices, through changed policies of the school system and through providing equal economic opportunities in the workplace.

God’s vision of justice can shine a light into the past, in times we do not want to remember, and into the future, in hopes that are not yet realized and demand from us great effort and sacrifice.

We were just having fun! It was a different time back then! We were just kids! I was just in med school, college, high school! This is the thing we hear again and again when it comes to our past, to the ways we tolerated racism, sexism, cruelty against those who express their sexuality differently, mockery of the differently abled.

I’m just one vote, one small voice, one little lifestyle – the changes we need are just too hard and too big for us to make any difference. That’s what we hear when it comes to the future, to the political reforms needed to preserve our democracy, the social changes needed to find peace with our neighbors, and the economic reforms needed to preserve our planet.

And while you and I may disagree on many things, we are united in this – we have been touched by the Leaven of the kingdom, infested by the mustard plant of faith, contaminated and changed by God’s vision of loving justice. And God wants it to spread. God wants it to reach deeper inside of us, into our past, present, and future, and spreader wider through us, to our homes, neighborhoods, communities, and world.

This is how a letter began that they recently received at LEAVEN, our mission partner:

As a young, single parent, I had no savings and no known way to make enough money to pay for a security deposit, or to have my utilities turned on. It wasn’t easy to ask for help. I found myself referred to LEAVEN. The person I met with could have easily looked down on me; she could have ridiculed or lectured me about the life choices I had made that led me to be in that situation. Instead, the staff person treated me with kindness and compassion. If she judged me negatively, she hid it well. LEAVEN came to my rescue at a time when I so desperately needed assistance.

That staff person had been touched by God, hadn’t she? She wasn’t trying to separate the weeds from the wheat. She was trying to pass on the love, acceptance, forgiveness, and generosity that had clearly shaped her own spirit. Here’s how the woman she had touched with her own leavening spirit ended her letter:

That type of kindness and generosity has not been forgotten. Please accept this modest donation of $100 as a thank you and appreciation for the work you do, and the compassionate manner in which you do it.

The thank you was wonderful. The donation was deeply appreciated. But there’s one more thing that accompanied this letter. It was a bit of news: the news that this woman who had been helped by LEAVEN, by us, years earlier, had recently received her PhD.

Today I want God to corrupt you with hope. I know it’s easier to keep our expectations low so as to protect ourselves from disappointment. Our hope seems like such a little thing against the monstrous weeds besetting us: war and inequity, illness and poverty, loneliness and loss. But today I want God’s hope to touch you and change you into a creature of hope.

Today I want God to corrupt you with justice. I know how inconvenient it is to dig down deep within yourself and even into your own family or personal history and discover that, in fact, you’ve been a jerk, you’ve been unfair, uncaring, or unjust in your relationships with others. But that’s what forgiveness is for – to touch us with a love that empowers righteousness and to inspire us to reach beyond ourselves in seeking justice for all. Today I want God’s justice to touch you and change you into a creature of justice.

Today I want God to corrupt you with joy. I know what a risk it is to take deep delight in that which is transitory, that which doesn’t last. But each joyous gift given –

a bright day of sunshine,

the taste of dark chocolate,

the warmth of a lover’s cheek,

the gentle sound of a parent’s voice,

the impulsive lapping of a pet’s tongue,

the scrambling dance of a child’s legs,

the laughter of a rushing spring river,

the memory of a first kiss,

the anticipation of a warm bath,

the tickling taste of a cold snowflake on the tongue

– each of these may last but for a moment but their author and creator is eternal and has an endless supply of joyous gifts in store for you and for me. We need but to keep our hearts and minds and senses open to receive them. Today I want God’s joy to touch you and turn you into a creature of joy.

Today I want God to corrupt you with hope, justice, and joy; I want God to corrupt you like Jesus said God would – like a mustard seed falling into the cracks, like a small ball of leaven in a large batch of dough. I want God to change you and me so that God can change this weedy world into a never-ending harvest of love and justice, peace and harmony – a true kingdom of God.

Amen.

Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business

Date Preached: 2-10-19
Preached by: Rev. Starsky Wilson

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Consider your Lilies

Consider your Lilies

Date Preached: 2-3-19
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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Turning the World Upside Down

Turning the World Upside Down

Date Preached: 1-27-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Out of the Wilderness

Out of the Wilderness

Date Preached: 1-20-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Scripture Reading: Matthew 4:1-17

The crows brought out the crazy in my Dad.

He was a bird watcher in his later life, setting out an avian banquet every morning on our porch – the nuts here, the mixed seeds there, the thistles in this feeder, the sunflowers in that, the suet, the oranges, the left-over toast and bread crusts, etc. etc. The birds and squirrels and rabbits flooded our back yard.

We weren’t really gardeners, so the rabbits were welcomed. The squirrels were tolerated, though a standard Christmas gift for Dad every year was the newest squirrel-proof cantilevered bird feeder. But the crows… Dad couldn’t abide the crows and the way they bullied the song-birds and chased them away.

The biggest hint that he had lost his mind over the crows was when we found him sitting on a hidden part of the porch with a hand-gun in his lap. Now, to be fair, it was really a glorified BB gun. And with Dad’s failing eyesight, there was little or no chance that that he would actually hit the crows. Even if he had, the BB’s would just barely nudge them aside.

But there he was, sitting up vigilantly, gun in lap, eyes squinted in a kind of Clint Eastwood-like grim determination: “Go ahead, crows; make my day.”

He had gone nuts and the crows had driven him to it.

Dad’s dilemma wasn’t anything new. Crows have long been the nemesis of the human race. Think of all the old folk tales and ancient mythological stories where crows are the embodiment of devilry, even evil. And, down through human history, many attempts have been made to counter their persistent gluttony and bullying. The scarecrow is probably the most popular example, but the most creative solution I’ve ever come across comes from a native tribe who was trying to keep the crows away from their corn.

They tied threads to kernels of corn and fastened the other ends of the string to the ground. When the crows swallowed the corn, they were trapped, fluttering helplessly and unable to fly away. Instead of the crows eating the native corn, this tribe of native peoples ate the crows!

I wonder if that image shouldn’t remind us this morning that every temptation has a string attached to it, and the foolish person, like a greedy crow, doesn’t notice the string until they can’t fly away. When Satan tempted Jesus in our passage from Matthew, he offered him three good things – food, power, and faith – but each of these gifts came with a string attached, didn’t they?

All of us are tempted, and, like Jesus, the choices we are offered aren’t always clear cut, aren’t always between something that’s clearly good and something else that’s clearly bad. The strings are sometimes hard to see.

It’s easy to choose the obviously good over the patently bad. But this passage takes Jesus and us into a much more murky realm, this wilderness place of temptation where choices are not clear and it’s easy to get caught by the strings attached.

There is a wilderness. There are places in our lives when we are alone, vulnerable, confused, and lost. We think of big events as being evidence of that wilderness: depression, disease, divorce, death. And indeed those are significant times and places of wilderness in our lives. Those are our Gethsemane moments when we cry and pray and struggle to say, “Not MY will but THY will be done.”

In fact, however, the wilderness is always there; sometimes in the place between one day and another, one hour and another, one moment and another. The wilderness isn’t just the big moments and big decisions, but the small decisions, the not-so-clear ones that face us every day.

There’s a telling moment in the movie The Paper when the very pregnant newspaper report wife turns to her husband, the very driven city editor. She is frantic with worry that he won’t be able to detach himself from his crazy devotion to his work to care for her and their child. It’s been their routine throughout the movie to pose hypothetical questions to one another and, so she does it one more time: “What would you do,” she asks him, “if a terrorist broke into the office with a bomb and held a gun to my head. ‘Choose the paper or your wife,’ he says. Which would you choose?”

“You’re crazy,” her husband protests. “I would never be faced with a choice like that.”

“Exactly,” she says. “We’re never offered one big choice. But we’re offered little choices every day and how we choose them ends up making one big choice.”

Little choices, that’s we’re offered. Little choices every day. If we are wise like Jesus, we will always examine our temptations carefully and look for the string attached.

Because add up all those little strings and what you end up being is someone tied up in knots.

* It couldn’t hurt to skip out of work or school, just this once.

* It couldn’t hurt to fudge the numbers, just this once.

* It couldn’t to lie to a friend, just this once.

* It couldn’t hurt not to tell my spouse where I’ve really been, just this once.

* It couldn’t hurt to take out my frustrations on the kids, just this once.

* It couldn’t hurt to take a drink, take a puff, have a fling, just this once.

* It couldn’t hurt to have MY will rather than God’s will make a decision, just this once.

But it DOES hurt, doesn’t it? It’s like Mae West once said: “I used to be Snow White — but I drifted.” Give in to the little temptations enough and suddenly you’ve drifted, you’ve given in to a lifestyle you never meant to choose, and you end up with a life you didn’t want and can’t be proud of. Like the Hebrews with Moses, you’re lost in the wilderness of sin.

Once several members of an Hasidic congregation had become hopelessly lost in a dense forest. They were delighted when unexpectedly they came upon their rabbi who was also wandering through the woods. They implored, “Master, we are lost! Please show us the way out of the forest.”

The rabbi replied, “I do not know the way out either, but I do know which paths lead nowhere. I will show you the ways that won’t work, and then perhaps together we can discover the ones that do.”

Maybe following the example of Jesus means to first refuse to follow the false paths offered to us by those that bedevil us; refusing to accept the false gifts that sorely tempt us.

“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” – that’s the message that emerges at the end of our passage. That’s the message that Jesus carries with him out of the wilderness and into the everyday lives of those to whom he has been sent.

“Repent” – did you know that repentance comes from the Greek word “Metanoia” which literally means, “to turn”? And remember – turning involves two things: turning away from something and turning toward something.

Repentance involves both.

What do you need to turn away from? What are the temptations that have captured you, that have tied you into knots, that have caused you to drift and get lost in the woods of your life? How many of us know people we both love and admire who can’t seem to turn away from destructive impulses and behavior?

And, even more importantly, what do you need to turn toward? What does it mean for you to turn toward the kingdom of heaven?

There’s a wonderful quote from Evelyn Underhill, an Englishwoman and scholar who, in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when women were not allowed to be ordained clergy in the Church of England, did them one better: she became a teacher of clergy. One of Evelyn Underhill’s quotes spoke

deeply to me of what it means to turn toward the kingdom of heaven:

“A modern saint has said, with the directness and simplicity of the saints, that the bread of Life seldom has any butter on it. “

I like that expression: the bread of Life seldom has any butter on it.

Underhill goes on: “And this is so just because it is life and not a lovely dream or a heavenly vision: a life which is full of tension and of difficulty, and full of opportunities for heroic choice and for sacrifice…”

What does it mean to turn toward the kingdom of heaven? Well, I agree with Underhill. I don’t believe the kingdom of heaven is the butter of our lives. It isn’t the extravagant and ecstatic and supernatural and super-emotional. I believe it’s present in the bread, the very stuff of our lives. The daily work and frequent friends and ordinary signs of love and affection. It’s in our living, our trying, our hoping, our dying. That’s where God is. Not somewhere else, some higher plane of existence. Right here. Right now. I mean, isn’t that what Jesus told us? The kingdom of heaven has come near?

So what is this repentance that can free us from our temptations? I believe it’s the daily, even moment-to-moment discipline of turning toward and looking for God in the midst of our lives;

* Looking for wonder

* Looking for hope

* Looking for kindness

* Looking for joy

* Looking for every opportunity we can find to offer those same gifts to others in sacrifice, in service, in sincerity of heart and intention.

Yes, sometimes that turning towards God involves turning away from that which dazzles, distracts, or drags us down. In all things it means turning, however slightly, towards God.

And remember what we will find when we turn toward God. Jesus spent his lifetime trying to tell us what we’d find:

* a loving father who welcomes the prodigal home,

* a shepherd who rejoices in finding a lost sheep,

* a woman who throws a party when she finds a lost coin,

* an employer who gives us full wages no matter how late we join the work.

What we find is a loving God who forgives us before the words of confession can even form on our lips; who can see and rejoice in our turnings, no matter how small they may be. We find a God who, in Jesus C the very bread and substance of who we are and what we can be.

That’s what we’ll find. Therefore, “Repent” – turn – “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

The 'Yes and No' of Baptism

The 'Yes and No' of Baptism

Date Preached: 1-13-19
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Scripture Reading: Matthew 3:1-17

YES NO NO YES – that’s the journey we’re going to be taking with John the Baptist this morning.

YES NO NO YES

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic

and she said yes

I asked her if it was okay to be short

and she said it sure is

I asked her if I could wear nail polish

or not wear nail polish

and she said honey

she calls me that sometimes

she said you can do just exactly

what you want to

Thanks God I said

And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph

my letters

Sweetcakes God said

who knows where she picked that up

what I’m telling you is

Yes Yes Yes

That wonderful poem by Kaylin Haught reminds me that I am so privileged to be in a church that wants me, first and foremost, to say “yes” on their behalf.

You want me to say “yes” to folks from all different traditions when it comes to communion. “Yes,” all are welcome to Christ’s table here at the Church of the Open Door.

You want me to say “yes” to folks from all different experiences when it comes to marriage. “Yes,” if you’ve been living together, if you’ve been married before, if you’re same or different genders, “yes” we want to celebrate with you that God has called you into lifelong commitment to one another.

You want me to say “yes” to all kinds of family configurations when it comes to baptism. “Yes,” we will honor and share your commitment to raise your child in the knowledge and love of Christ if you’re a single parent or two parents or same gender parents or an unmarried couple or are a member of this church or a member of another church or a member of no church at all, if you want one godparent or two godparents or three or four or however many godparents.

“Yes!’ “Yes!” “Yes!” That’s what you want me to say on your behalf!

And I think you want it because that’s who we think God is and because you and I know how important that kind of “yes” has been to our own lives.

Eric writes about struggling as a boy to put together the model his father had bought him for Christmas. “Can’t you do anything right? I might as well bring it back to the store!” That’s what his father said. But his grandmother stayed after his father had stormed off. His grandmother said to Eric, “That looks hard. Can you show me how to do it?”

And now the pressure was off. The time limit of impatience was removed. And slowly but surely, Eric and his grandmother

figured out how to put together that model. “You are so smart,” his grandmother told him afterwards. “I am so proud of you.”

Think of when someone said “yes” to you. They recognized your worth, your talent, your gift, your beauty, your smarts, your kindness, your goodness. Maybe it was a teacher who took you aside and gave you an encouraging word. Maybe it was a friend, a parent, or a grandparent. “Yes,” they said. Yes, you can do it, you can achieve it, you can accomplish it.

Or maybe that “yes” was even more precious than that. Maybe that yes came to you not at the moment of your success but at a moment of failure, of fault, of illness and struggle, of feeling burned out, unloved and unlovely. That kind of “yes” can go even deeper and lift us up even higher. Who is the one who stood by you through the tough times and still proclaimed their love for you, belief in you, caring for you?

That’s the YES that John the Baptist gave to all those who came scrambling out into the wilderness, those who had heard so many NOs due to illness and poverty, social status defined by gender or birth or work or region or any of a hundred things. Desperate, hungry souls came flooding out into the wilderness, splashing through the Jordan to hear God’s YES delivered by John the Baptist.

YES

That’s what John the Baptist was saying and to folks who perhaps hadn’t heard it much before. “Yes!” You are forgiven. “Yes,” your repentance has been honored. “Yes,” there is a faith community ready to welcome you home like the Jewish exiles were once welcomed back to Mount Zion from where they had been scattered to all the nations of the earth, back to Judah, to Jerusalem, from all those places where you were a stranger and

considered second-class, back to your home where you are loved and honored and cherished.

YES

But I want to remind you that there was another place where people could hear that “yes.” There was a regular system available back in Jerusalem, back at the temple, where you could purchase your “yes” for a price, for the costs associated with the religious ritual economy, dove or goat costs and the priest’s fee for performing the sacrifice.

But John the Baptist offered a “yes” without price, a “yes” outside the temple grounds and the religious economic structure. Now do you understand why the Scribes and the Pharisees, who didn’t see eye to eye on much, both came out to the wilderness to see what John was up to? This “free-for-nothing” YES from John was threatening to disrupt a whole economy!

YES NO

And now we come to that point in our passage when the master of “yes,” John the Baptist, said “no.”

YES NO

First, let’s acknowledge that “no” is sometimes a good thing for some of us to hear. Where are the teachers in our congregation? Okay, imagine for a minute a student who is pretty smart, gets good grades, but is constantly overcommitted and procrastinating and always comes up with a good excuse for why the paper is late, the assignment isn’t done, the test needs to be taken later, and the deadline has to be extended. Have you ever had a student like that? I mean a mostly good kid, nice smile, well-spoken, but with an extra helping of weasel when it comes to getting things done on time.

That was me in High School. I imagine that you’ve said YES to students like me again and again in your teaching career. Yes, I’ll accept the paper even if it’s late. Yes, we can arrange another time for that test. Yes, you can take an incomplete until the project is finished.

Did you ever say NO?

Mr. Skamser, my Junior English teacher, finally gave me a firm “no.” It took the shape of a C grade for the quarter, something superachiever Steve hadn’t had to deal with since third grade handwriting.

Did that NO crush my spirit and wreck my life? No, of course not; it woke me up. It gave me some needed accountability and discipline. And it lowered my weasel quotient by at least a little bit and for at least a little while.

Have you experienced a helpful “no” in your life? Not just a misfortune and especially not an act of cruelty, but the kind of “no” that serves as a wake-up call or a corrective to move you on to a better path for your life?

I wish the Scribes and Pharisees would have received John the Baptist’s NO in that spirit. “You brood of vipers,” John spits at them in anger. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Don’t come here to spy on me or judge others or to defend your own little religious economy. Come because you’re ready to live a new life.

All indications are that John said “No” to their request to be baptized. He turned them away.

YES NO

Early on in my ministry I married a couple that I know had each experienced divorce. They were lovely folks and we had good premarital counseling sessions prior to the wedding. I

performed the ceremony and then went back into my office to sign the marriage license. In those days, the state of Wisconsin required you to disclose on the marriage license the number of times you had previously been married. As I prepared to sign the license I saw that she had been married 3 times previously and he had been married 5 times previously.

Wow! They never told me that in our conversations together! If I had known that, I would have been awfully tempted to say NO to their wedding.

On a Saturday morning ten years later, I’m sitting in my office at my next church when the phone rings. It’s them, that couple, the 3 times/5 times couple. “We’re celebrating our tenth anniversary this weekend and thought of you, Pastor. We just wanted to thank you again and tell you how much it meant for us to have you marry us.”

And I thanked God that I hadn’t said NO. I thanked God that I had said YES.

But there are things that we need to say NO to as Christians. Over the next three weeks, some folks in our church are going to be studying the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the series of official papal pronouncements that declared that as Christian explorers we could claim for ourselves and our faith any lands we “discovered,” regardless of who was already there. This Doctrine of Discovery formed the basis of a major Supreme Court decision in the last century curtailing Native American rights. It continues to influence legal and certainly religious thinking today.

There may be no better example of how Christianity went from being faith in Jesus to an imperial religion, complete with its own self-interested economy; kind of a large and modern version of what those Scribes and Pharisees were trying to uphold over

and against John the Baptist and, ultimately, the Jesus movement of freedom and grace.

NO. Converting our faith into a self-interested economic venture is diametrically opposed to the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus came to announce and reveal.

More broadly, all attempts to fashion self-interested systems of control that exercise the power of “yes” and “no” are abhorrent to John and to Jesus. Now I’m talking about those churches who will shun the heretical and excommunicate the disobedient. I’m talking about those pastors and teachers who love to keep you guessing as a way to keep their own power. I’m talking about those parents or partners you will never please; whose “yes” is always provisional and comes with the threat of a swift, judgmental, and more powerful “no.”

NO. John is telling us to not play that game, the game of the Scribes and the Pharisees, of the power elites, of the petty, everyday tyrants of exclusion and gossip.

God says “Yes.” But to those folks, John the Baptist delivers a No.

YES NO NO

I want you to notice one other thing. There is another baptism that John says no to in our passage. Whose was it?

Right. The baptism of Jesus. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” I am not worthy. I am not equipped. I am not good enough to baptize you. No. I can’t do it.

John was following in the scriptural tradition of Moses and Miriam, of Rachel and Leah, of Jeremiah and so many others who did not believe that God would work through them. Think of the heroes of our own time and history who had the same sense of

being overmatched by the needs to which God called them to witness: Alexander Hamilton, Rosa Parks, suffragettes and abolitionists, civil rights leaders and peace advocates. Again and again, their first response to God’s calling was NO.

YES NO NO

I’ve asked you to think about those times, people, and places in your life when you received a liberating YES. And I’ve asked you to think about the same when it comes to NO – when have you received a helpful NO? And now I want you to think about one more thing: when have you said NO to something you thought was beyond you, too hard, too risky, too scary, too strange? For John the Baptist, it was baptizing Jesus. What was it for you?

YES NO NO YES

You know how John’s story ends – Jesus turns John’s NO into a YES. John baptizes Jesus, and the Spirit of God is released and revealed.

Could that be the same for you? As you renew your baptism today, is there a NO that could be transformed into a YES?

What Will We Seek?

What Will We Seek?

Date Preached: 1-6-19
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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First Sunday After Christmas

First Sunday After Christmas

Date Preached: 12-30-18
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Rehearsing Christmas

Rehearsing Christmas

Date Preached: 12-24-18
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Christmas Meditation

Christmas Meditation

Date Preached: 12-24-18
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Becoming Joseph

Becoming Joseph

Date Preached: 12-23-18
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Masterworks in Worship -- Midnight Mass for Christmas

Masterworks in Worship -- Midnight Mass for Christmas

Date Preached: 12-9-18
Preached by: John Albrecht

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Midnight Mass for Christmas; Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) as performed by the First Congregational Sanctuary Choir on December 9, 2018.

Worth Waiting For

Worth Waiting For

Date Preached: 12-2-18
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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A Place Where God Can Dwell

A Place Where God Can Dwell

Date Preached: 11-25-18
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Have you noticed how much of our daily lives are affected by issues of safety and security? Just in the last month or so, I’ve traveled on airplanes a few times, so I’ve made sure my liquids were properly packed and labeled, removed my shoes, belt and earrings for TSA and set my cell phone to “airplane mode” when asked. I also do a mean recitation of the safety features of the Boeing 737, if you care to follow along using the placard in the seat pocket in front of you. I’ve had my flu shot to protect myself and others against that contagion. I’ve wiped down my shopping carts to prevent illness. After the great romaine lettuce recall, I removed the traditional green salad from the Thanksgiving menu last week and opted instead for an extra pie in an effort to keep my family “safe”. I buckle up every time I take the wheel. Submit information for background checks for volunteer work. Pass by security cameras everywhere I go. Ask to be buzzed into my daughter’s school. And that’s a pretty tame list compared to friends of mine who carry mace when they are out for a walk, lock down their steering wheel when they park their car, or feel compelled to have a gun on hand for self-protection.

Safety and security are big business these days. Some say there are more guns in America than people, though only 30-40% of us are said to own them. A 2017 article from The Guardian estimated there were 20 million private security workers worldwide in an industry worth an estimated $180 billion and growing rapidly. Half of the world’s population lives in countries where there are more private security workers than there are police, including the U.S. where there are almost twice as many private security workers as there are police officers.

Of course, we know why this is. Fears, both real and imagined, fuel our desire for protection, safety and refuge. The news is full of fear. Did you notice the campaign ads this season that simply labeled candidates as “dangerous” – without providing any other information as to why that might be? Even the weather is identified as “threatening”, as are whole groups of people. God only knows what will happen when the caravan of refugees reaches the southern border of our country. Thousands of troops are ready for action. The word from the top is that they’re permitted to use whatever means are necessary to protect and defend our country from this mass of tired, hungry, yearning-to-be-free human beings.

Thank goodness we can come to church and find some peace. Or not. Google the words “church safety”, and you’ll unleash a whole host of articles and videos, eager to sell you on the idea that with the proper policies, technology, training and vigilance, it’s entirely possible to prevent violent, destructive behavior in God’s house. Whether any of that would have prevented what happened at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, or in Charleston, in Sutherland Springs or at the Tree of Life Synagogue is very much a matter of debate.

Still, the illusion that houses of worship are set apart somehow persists. We are “set apart” in many ways. We’re the “Church of the Open Door” – literally, most hours of the day. We don’t run cable news on the A/V monitors in the Narthex, thank goodness. We tend to be a little gentler here than in other places in our lives. We tend to clean up ourselves, the way we interact, even our language. You know who you are… We get a break, we take a break from those things, for the most part, when we’re here together. When a cell phone rings during worship, we all act like it’s the strangest thing we’ve ever heard. Then we check our notifications as soon as we get to the car…yeah, you know who you are…

We like to pretend we’re “safe” here, at least for a little while. That we’ll be left alone, at least for a time.

The truth is, I’ve seen some pretty world-changing stuff happen in here. Not violence, thank goodness, and not to belittle even the notion of that – but there are a whole host of other ways peoples’ lives get turned upside down and rearranged because of what happens in spaces like this, in hours like those we spend together. There’s mission and service and outreach – that’s a piece of it – but I mean what happens to those of us who come here, thinking we’re safe. Set apart. Getting a break. And then the choir sings. Or Jon Riehle plays the organ. Or Pastor Nick preaches a feminist sermon. Or Pastor Steve asks that one question that gets right to the heart of it. You know who you are.

Author Annie Dillard says “churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry set, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. …we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” I’ve seen it happen – haven’t you? I’ve known people to leave worship here and elsewhere, feeling called by God into ministry. Then they have to go home and figure out what to do with that. Or they feel leave feeling affirmed for who they are and who they love, for the first time, ever – and they have to explain that to a partner, a spouse, a parent, their children. Once, one of our newer members told me the welcome she received from those seated around her on her first Sunday here was so overwhelming, she actually burst into tears. And then still more people came to her aid, and she cried all the more. Others realize what steps they need to take toward healing themselves, or that they have a right to ask others in their lives to consider taking such steps as well. Church is a lot of things, but if any part of keeping it “safe” means keeping things status quo in your life – there’s some evidence to suggest this might not be the best place to seek refuge.

God isn’t typically in the business of leaving God’s people alone, or off the hook for that matter. Take Jeremiah, for instance. Jeremiah stands in a long line of those who do not volunteer to do God’s work, who do not profess to have any skills to be about God’s work, who get the same answer from God. “Don’t be afraid. I’ll tell you what to say. I’ll show you what to do.” And like most of those who answer that call from God, it isn’t long before he figures out that what God wants him to say and do is more than he might have bargained for. “See,” God says, just when Jeremiah is starting to get on board, “today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” This will not be easy work. This will not be “safe” work. Jeremiah may not see himself as God’s best choice, but this isn’t the kind of work that will get done because of who Jeremiah is. This is the kind of work that gets done when people like Jeremiah allow God to work through them anyway.

The way Jeremiah gets called into this work gives him the very credentials he needs to invite others to let God in, too. If he can do this – anyone can. And one of the first places God sends Jeremiah to say what God wants him to say, and to do what God wants him to do, isn’t into the throne room of the king or the halls of the powerful. Because if you’re going to pluck up and pull down some kingdoms, surely you’d start there, right? No, Jeremiah stands at the doors of the temple. He’s like the greeter for the day, sent to speak directly to people like you and me, who too often mistake the temple, the sanctuary,

for a place to get away from it all for a while. As a safe place. Where nothing will happen and too little will be asked. Or who have been led to believe our voices are too small, too inconsequential, to make much of a difference in the big picture.

This is an interesting strategy on God’s part. To go after the ones who live otherwise in states and nations of fear and upheaval, who think of the temple of the Lord as the last place we might experience the same. “Don’t be fooled,” God tells them and us, in Jeremiah’s voice. Don’t pretend I’m here but not out there. Don’t be thinking the world’s going to change when those people up the ranks have a change of heart. The ones God calls to task, the way God intends to turn the world upside down, is through those of us who have already been told, time and time again, that the next place to make a difference and the next person you could impact for the better is the next person you talk to, sit next to or smile at. God knows whole worlds turn on how neighbors treat neighbors, and on how the most vulnerable are cared for – especially the foreigner, the orphaned and the widowed.

Do that; think that way, God says, and then let me dwell with you wherever and whenever you do that. Let me be with you in that space where you act from the heart of compassion I know you have within you – not because it’s something you’ve earned, deserved, learned or memorized by rote – but because it’s the person God created you to be. God says, let me dwell with you there. Actually, the translation we read from suggests in 7:3 that God says, “let me dwell with you.” But the original language is confusing, so some versions say if we do that, God says, “I will let you live.” Either way, life – the kind of life God intends for us – is all wrapped up in God and us and how we connect what happens in here, with what happens out there, and how we live that life with each other, and with God.

Because that’s real life. Not the one where we spend every second and every dollar consumed and controlled by our own fears, but where we choose faith, choose love, choose compassion – even and especially when it’s not terribly “safe” to do so.

Gavin Rogers is an Associate Pastor at Travis Park United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas. Instead of sifting through the diverse and disruptive news reports about the caravan of migrants heading north toward the U.S. from the safety of his living room, he went and joined the caravan himself. He’s been posting about his experiences on social media, including one day’s journey of 400 kilometers – 23 hours of walking, hitchhiking and police escorts. “It is a long road. But life is good when you are with people filled with love and hospitality,” he wrote. That day’s journey was aided by a Mexican truck driver who gave some of the refugees a lift not because he wanted to be heroic, but as he put it, “because I’m human.”

Pastor Rogers has been listening to stories from parents whose children have been kidnapped or killed in their homelands. Their journey, Rogers says, is “not about a better life in American terms, it’s just about living.” The only Christian response to immigration, he says, is “to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Do that, God says, and I’ll let you live. And you’ll be letting me live with you.

Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, sometimes called Christ the King Sunday. According to some sources, it’s been a part of the cycle of the Christian calendar only since the 1920’s or so, after World War I, in response to the shifting of powers and allegiances and “kingdoms” emerging across the world stage at that time. It was a meant to be a reminder that we who claim Christ claim a different kind of life, a greater allegiance than nationalism. While adding this Sunday to the liturgical calendar didn’t prevent all that led to World War II, and hasn’t kept the world from waging war since – at the very least, it’s a little bit like the voice of Jeremiah calling to us in our own generation, reminding us what we’ve signed up for by coming here, the life God keeps hoping we’ll live. And that God’s still looking to live in that kind of world, too. And that God hasn’t given up on thinking we’re just the ones to make it happen. Which is, after all, a timely reminder, because next week we begin our Advent preparations, readying us for the birth of Christ into our world in our time, full of fear as it is. In a few weeks, we’ll hear Mary sing words not vastly different from the prophet’s when she considers what the birth of her son – God’s Son – might mean for the world. “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things…”. Mary chooses to live the life to which she is called – not because it is particularly safe, but because she knows that to bear Christ for the world is what the world most needs. And she, despite her only credential being her faith in a God who loves her, is just the one to be about this work.

Do this, God says, and I’ll let you live. And you’ll be letting me live with you.

Years later, Jesus himself will let his disciples know that he came into the world so that they (we) might have life – and have it abundantly. He’ll say such things at the very moment those in power will think they have the upper hand. He’ll say such things, knowing death will not win. Love of God, love for neighbor – faith lived out simply by the most ordinary of God’s people – will confound the powerful and create hope for the hopeless.

I’m not suggesting we all go join the migrant caravan, but as Advent approaches, how will we prepare for the incarnation – God-with-us? Who else might need us to walk with them, to listen to them, to love them? How else, where else, might we be asked to respond not from a place of fear, but from a willingness to risk ourselves in faith, hope and love? It starts here. You are called. You are chosen. Don’t be afraid. Do this – love God, love your neighbor – especially the stranger in your land or in your midst, those who find themselves alone, those who live with grief and loss – and you’ll truly, truly live, God says.

And into that space and that moment, Christ will come again. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Swords into Plowshares: Ridiculous Hope

Swords into Plowshares: Ridiculous Hope

Date Preached: 11-18-2018
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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In the second chapter of Isaiah, we are offered up one of the most compelling and comprehensive visions of peace in all of scripture. We are told that when the God of Jacob, the God of Israel appears to all the nations, then…

“they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,

and their spears into pruning-hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more.”

The first part of our Old Testament Reading this morning sets this vision in historical context. The vision arose at a time of great and serious threat to Judah’s existence. The Empire of Assyria under King Sennacherib has been gobbling up the smaller city-states nearby, including the northern kingdom of Israel. And now the Rabshekeh, the Chief Steward of Assyria, after defeating the fortified cities of Judah, comes to the gates of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, to make an arrogant speech before King Hezekiah and all his leaders. Surrender to Assyria, the Rabshekeh demands, for you have no hope against us. Don’t think your Lord will save you. Have the gods of all the other nations saved them? Of course not. Neither will your Lord save you.

The Rabshekeh’s speech rattles King Hezekiah to his core so he sends his servants to the prophet Isaiah to ask what he should do. In response, Isaiah makes a stunning prediction – God will deliver Judah from Assyria. God will not let the king of Assyria conquer Judah.

“I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor, and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.”

Now comes the vision of peace and how the swords shall be beat into ploughshares and the spears into pruning-hooks.

A beautiful vision, isn’t it? And an audacious call to resistance against overwhelming force. But here’s the thing – it comes true. I mean, historically, what Isaiah pronounced is what happened. For reasons lost to history, the army of Assyria withdrew from Judah without conquering Jerusalem and returned home where King Sennacherib would be killed by his own sons. And, ultimately, the empire of Assyria would collapse under the greater force of the Babylonian empire.

Why did the king withdraw his forces? We don’t know. Was it disease spreading through his troops? Was it a threat from Babylon? Was it some foreboding that he was losing power back home? We don’t have that knowledge. But what we do have is the example of the audacious hope Isaiah proclaimed, a hope in the power and peace of God against violent forces and overwhelming odds.

“SWORDS INTO PLOUGHSHARES: A MIRACLE OF PEACE”

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4;

Matthew 5:13-16

A magician worked on a cruise ship. The audience was different each week, so the magician did the same tricks over and over again. But the captain’s parrot saw the shows each week and began to understand how the magician did every trick. He started shouting in the middle of the show and spoiling the magician’s tricks: “Look, it’s not the same hat!” “Look, he’s hiding the flowers under the table.” “Hey, why are all the cards the ace of spades?” The magician was furious but couldn’t do anything about it. It was, after all, the captain’s parrot.

Then, one night, the cruise ship hit an iceberg and sank. As fate would have it, the magician found himself in the middle of the sea clutching to one side of a piece of wood while perched on the other side was the parrot. They stared at each other with hatred but didn’t say a word. This went on for hours and hours until finally, the parrot said, “OK, I give up. Where’s the ship?”

Over the centuries, we’ve been a bit like that parrot: Okay, we give up. What happened to the Assyrian army? I mean, they were right there, ready to conquer Jerusalem and then the next morning – historically speaking – they were gone.

What happened? How did it happen? Who did it?

We don’t know. It’s a mystery. In theological terms, it’s what we call a miracle.

And understand – it’s not a miracle because we can’t explain it. It’s a miracle because of what it led to: peace, mercy, hope, lives preserved that could have been lost, a better, kinder, more just world. That’s what makes it a miracle.

If you take a walk around Judiciary Square in Washington D.C., you’ll pass by the Washington D.C. Metropolitan police department. Right out front, is a shiny black steel sculpture 16 feet high and 19 feet long that is fashioned in the shape of a huge plow. Walk a little bit closer and you’ll notice that the plow is made up not just of steel but of over 3000 hand guns which have been welded onto it. These guns were turned into the police department as part of various buy-back programs. The title of the sculpture would have made Isaiah proud: “Guns into Ploughshares.”

It’s a miracle. Guns are transformed from weapons of violence into objects of art promoting hopes for peace. A miracle.

I know we can park ourselves in front of the television screen or cellphone and get talked into believing there is no hope for the world, that everything is bad and getting worse. As Lily Tomlin put it, “Ninety eight percent of the adults in this country are decent, hardworking, honest Americans. It’s the other lousy two percent that get all the publicity. But then, we elected them.”

We can give in to cynicism and a feeling of powerlessness, but Isaiah doesn’t buy it. The power of God is such that merely a rumor, a whisper will bring down an empire. As Martin Luther put it, “One little word shall fell” the demons of this world.

“You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world… you are a city set on a hill…” This is what Jesus said about us. These are the high hopes God has invested in us, not in the bullies and tyrants of this world, not in the Sennacherib’s and Rabshekeh’s, but in US.

The devastation from the ongoing California wildfires has hit no town as hard as Paradise, a town in Butte County, Calif. Some of you might remember that our former Interim Pastor, Jeannie Douglass, comes from Paradise and has family there. Well, the entire town has been destroyed by the Camp Fire. I received word from Jeannie that – praise God – her family is safe, but her childhood home has been totally destroyed. She wrote, “I have no place to go home to anymore.”

Because of the housing shortage and incredibly high cost of existing housing the thousands displaced by the fire, including Jeannie’s family, are having a hard time finding places to live in the area. So what do they need? A miracle. A miracle of kindness, love, and hospitality.

Last Saturday night, the girl’s volleyball team from Paradise Adventist Academy was supposed to face Forest Lake Christian School of Auburn, California a state semifinal match. Of course they had no uniforms, no equipment. Everything had been lost in the fire. But they decided to go anyway.

When they arrived after a nearly two-hour drive, the girls from Paradise found waiting for each of them brand new uniforms, knee pads and socks as well as truckloads of donated clothes for their community. All of this had been arranged by the Forest Lake girls and their family. And at the dinner provided for the Paradise girls and their families, their coach was presented with gift cards for each player and family, $300 per student.

Finally, the Forest Lake team had persuaded the California Interscholastic Federation that, rather than accept admission to the game, they could accept donations to the Paradise community. The Forest Lake head coach Travis Smith said, “I’ve never seen that many people in our gym, and there were people there who had never watched a volleyball game in their life, but they came to support what we were doing.”

At the end of the game, he presented the Paradise team with the proceeds – a check for $16,000.

Oh, and who won the game? Well, everybody.

“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their shin guards into gift cards and they shall learn war no more.”

Sometimes it’s hard to believe in human goodness sometimes, in the prospect of historical progress, that somehow the arc of human history is bending towards justice. Elections don’t come out the way we wanted them to. People let us down. Mistakes, bad decisions, self-interested and small-minded attitudes, and outright dastardly actions shake our faith in ourselves, in our families, communities, leaders, and nations.

But you know that I want you to keep at, keep trying, keeping working and speaking for justice and progress. In order to do that, we will always need that inner sense of the miraculous power of God, the liberating force that can part the waters, still the seas, whisper in the ear of the Assyrians, and fell an empire with nothing but a rumor.

It doesn’t all depend on you! You can depend on God to be at work among and beside us. Let God’s Spirit lift your spirit and sustain it in difficult times!

We need the kind of determination Paul expresses in 2 Corinthians: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

We need the astonishing word that there is one whose power is “at work within us (who) is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

We need the stunning pronouncement of Jesus that “You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world… you are a city set on a hill…”

And if we really could really let such hopes and determination, power and inspiration shine within us, shine before us, shine through us so that a weary world could see, what would we call it? How about, a miracle…

Amen.

Our Still-Speaking Captives

Our Still-Speaking Captives

Date Preached: 11-11-18
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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Scripture Reading: Matthew 8:2-3

The story of Naaman holds many lessons and contains many stories in one single narrative. There is the story of how confusing power structures can be for those subject to their influence. There is the near-miss war between clashing men of power. There is the age-old pursuit of health and wholeness for those who suffer. And it seems the main actor in the drama is predictably a man of great stature, accomplishment, and importance. But scripture is daring, scripture doesn’t obey social customs or power structures, and this story, read even today, should turn our expectations upside down.

I had a spinal fusion a few years ago to cure congenital deformity in my spine. After being sent home I had what was labeled a “sever inflammatory reaction” in my lower spine. Spare you the details but I got my first ride in an ambulance where I pleaded for them to knock me out, to give me anything to alleviate the pain. I wound up in the hospital thoroughly drugged for days where time just blurred together, and some unfortunately honest Facebook posts took place. Side Note: don’t leave you family member with their smartphone during a “sever inflammatory reaction”. At one point in my haze, I remember a young care-giver coming in, gently touching my arm, and asking:

How are you doing?

I looked at her and said, “I feel like I am dying.  Like my body is shutting down.”

Without flinching she said “Yes, you like hell, that’s what’s happening. We get people like you now and then who have this reaction to spinal surgery. Your body has been traumatized and we find you are similar to people who have been in serious can accidents. In fact, I’m here because your lungs are starting to collapse, and we need you to prevent it from getting worse, so here, blow into this.”

She handed me a spirometer which I held for a second and said, “What do you mean (huh) my lungs are collapsing (huh) they feel (huh) just fine.”

“Really?” she said, “Because they don’t sound good, just try blowing hard into this see how it feels.”

Grudgingly I blew and barely moved the small ball in the machine before sharp pains hit my chest and I winced. She stood patiently for what felt like a long time.

“I think (huh) my lungs (huh) are collapsing” I said to her and I remember smiling and she smiled too and walked me through a set of breathing exercises.

You know I can’t remember this young woman’s name, I don’t know what day it was, I don’t know if she was a Doctor, Nurse, CNA or what. I just remember that she acknowledged my pain in a way that made me feel truly validated and her compassion was real.

Such were the words of the young Jewish girl, taken into captivity, to the wife of Naaman, a man who had battled and killed her people. “If only my Lord were with the prophet in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy!” Startlingly compassionate is the heart of this servant girl to care at all about the health of her captor, to acknowledge his suffering as a leper. This man undoubtedly brought her and her people terrible suffering, and yet she offers him compassion, pointing towards a path for his healing and wholeness.

Sometimes, just truly acknowledging another human being suffering can be one of the most powerful acts of healing that can happen. Words of compassionate understanding can come from anyone, because God tirelessly seeks share with us the Good News with us, and in indiscriminate in doing so.

I wonder, if you think back on your life, who has shared words of understanding and compassion with you?  What person or situation comes to mind?  What did they say, or what did they do, that spoke to you?

Let’s take a few minutes and share with one another in groups of 3-4.

(Take 5 Minutes)

There is an old Jewish fable that goes like this:

An old woman had two water cans which were attached to a yoke. Each day she put the yoke over her shoulders and went down to the river, filled the cans, and walked back to her modest hut. The water can on the right side of the yoke was fine and sturdy; when she arrived home, it was always full. But the can on the left had a crack in it. By the time the woman arrived home, half the water was usually gone.

The water can always feel inferior to his partner. He was ashamed that he was cracked and wasn’t pulling his weight. One day he turned to the woman and apologized for being defective. The woman smiled gently and said, “Did you think I didn’t know that you had a crack, and water dripped from you? Look at the path from the river to my hut. Do you see all the beautiful flowers that are growing on the one side of the path? Those are the flowers that I planted there, that you watered every day as I walked home from the river.”

For a mighty warrior and commander of an Army, listening to a young captive Jewish girl’s advice would be shameful and humiliating because she was a fundamentally inferior person, much like the cracked and broken bucket. This girl has four major strikes against her credibility and importance: she was Jewish, she was young, she was a girl, she was a servant. This was the consummate non-person: nameless: faceless; fairly worthless; broken; insufficient. The word for her in Hebrew is “Qal” which means small, unimportant, insignificant. In scripture she has no name and we never hear of her again.

The fact that this verse is even in the bible, the fact that that the work of God is made manifest through this girl and is even mentioned, is a profound testament that the God of Israel does not care for our social constructs of patriarchy and sexism, God’s work does not rest only in men, God  is beyond the oppressive limitations of male domination and the subjugation of women, God is beyond ethnocentric prejudice, God works beyond ageism, God is beyond nationalism; willing to heal the enemy of the state. God is fearfully trashing all the structures that these men fight for and cling too. And God brazenly does this out of love foreshadowing the frightening work of the cross of Jesus Christ which will be drug over the ashes of these once great nations and powerful kings, to forgive their sins and offer Grace to all of creation.

And God does this, through a little slave girl.

Women’s voices have long sought to be silenced by men. In American movies women are rarely the protagonists, and if they are, often their story is still intertwined in a love story, the assumption being women are “incomplete” without a male partner. In politics, America has had a startling low number of female politicians, even though their voices represent 50% of the population. But lately there has been the #metoo movement and now a wave of over 107 female voting members of Congress and the House and as the Chicago Tribune Article says “A wave of women has congress looking more like America. It’s about time!” It is the year of the woman for us, to have women’s voices heard; but it’s nothing new for the gospel of Jesus Christ, for women have been changing the political destiny of nations for eons, shaping the world not of men but of humankind. This includes young girls we might not be willing to hear. Young girls whom sexism still seeks to imprison, the voices of women who are still laboring for equality.

How have you witnessed the struggle for gender equality taking place? How proactive are you in listening to women’s voices in your life? What girl or woman’s words have most deeply impacted you?

Let’s take a few minutes and share with one another in groups of 3-4.

(Take 5 Minutes)

Friends, I hope your conversations have gone well. I pray that you have heard God’s loving words of peace and wholeness spoken into your lives when you needed them. I pray that you have listened to the women and girls in your life, knowing their voices are uniquely chosen by God to challenge us and witness to God’s never-ending pursuit of liberation for all of God’s children. I pray for those of us who are still learning to listen, for those of us who harbor sexism, who lean on ageism, those of us diseased by ethnocentricity.  I pray that we would have Naaman in us, even if we bumble around and don’t get it right the first try, I pray that we could be fearless and courageous enough to hear the non-person, the captive, the unlikely ones sent our way for our healing and our wholeness by the God of Creation.

May this God be with us, turning us upside and inside out, until we finally bath in the waters of social righteousness again and again and again, until we as a people, are cleansed of all that separates us from love, from grace, from wholeness, and from healing.

Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev. Nick Hatch at First Congregational United Church of Christ, Appleton, Wisconsin on November 11, 2018.

What Shall We Bring?

What Shall We Bring?

Date Preached: 11-4-2018
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Looking Back, Looking Forward: Grounded in Love

Looking Back, Looking Forward: Grounded in Love

Date Preached: 10-28-2018
Preached by: Rev. Jane Anderson

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How Do You Deal with the Shameless?

How Do You Deal with the Shameless?

Date Preached: 10-21-2018
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Renewal in the Wilderness

Renewal in the Wilderness

Date Preached: 10-14-2018
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

Many of you have asked about my sabbatical and so I thought I would share one story with you from my time of renewal.

In August, Amanda and I ended up planning a spur of the moment week-long canoe trip to the Boundary Waters, just the two of us. Unbelievably it was sunny and 82 every day. The was only a light wind, lakes were crystal clear and their blue water tasted clean and crisp. We moved camp everyday, crossing vast stretches of water and clamoring through deeply-wooded portage trails. In the afternoons we would swim and then we would take a sun bath to dry off, waving at fellow travelers passing by. In the cool evenings we drank spiced tea and watched the sunset as blanket of stars unfurled overhead. It was our first wilderness trip together and our longest stretch alone together had since having children. It was exquisite to say the least. On the last day as we loaded the canoe, Amanda cheerfully said “I am having such a great time, I could see doing this a lot when we get older its so wonderful to be out here in the silence, just disappearing and being off in our own world to see all this beauty. I have loved this week so much.”

I was overjoyed, but I quickly reminded her that I have never had a week in the Boundary Waters where it was 82 and completely sunny without a drop of rain. Usually its much different: its often cold, wet, and stormy with sun being the exception rather than the rule.

After we had returned to civilization, we were sitting in the restaurant in Grand Marais and Amanda began to reflect. She noticed how affluent its yachting community was; high end name brand apparel assimilated the crowds that shuffled by on the sidewalk. Cars busily moved back and forth in tourist-congested streets. Our cell phones begin alerting us to all our missed texts and voice mail messages. It was a sharp contract to the people and places we had been immersed in.

“Huh, I don’t feel like I want to be here,” Amanda said. “I felt more at home in the wilderness and I honestly don’t want to go back. I know we need to go home and I miss my children, I love Appleton, but when we were canoeing I felt like me. I guess it’s the introvert in me but I just so deeply reject this over-busy, non-stop, jam-packed life that seams to be the norm, that requires so much STUFF.”

As a leader of wilderness trips, I have seen this reflecting happen in people of all ages. After the week of wandering has ended, after we are in the van headed home, or our first night with a real bed, there is a sense of emerging from one life to another. When one encounters a wilderness time, one crosses over from one chapter of life to another; we are separated from our old life and now have to lead life anew. Its as if you stand on the outside of yourself.  It can be disorienting, confusing, but also deeply meaningful, and ripe for prioritizing that which is most important. For in one way or another, most everyone has to ask “What has this wilderness time taught me, how am I different, how will I be in my life moving forward?”

When Joshua called the twelve tribes of Israel together in Schechem they had been wandering through the wilderness for a long time; traveling from battle to battle, crossing the Jordan and Red sea, settling and resettling many before permanently making their home in the land of Judah. Their meeting a Schechem was much like that conversation in Grand Marais: it was their time to reflect upon all that God had for them after a long and arduous journey, and their time to prioritize that which was most important.

I can hear their murmuring voices now just like those with whom I have traveled with:

Finally, some good, non-dehydrated food that isn’t Manna!

Finally, a place to rest my head that’s actually flat!

Finally, shelter from the storms that come our way!

Finally, we have found safety and familiarity, today isn’t so full of the unexpected!

Finally, I can call this place my home, our home.

The Israelite’s wilderness wandering points to a much deeper lesson about human faith and about God’s self.

“To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness – especially in the wilderness – you shall love him.”  – Frederick Buecchner.

It is hard to love God in our wilderness.

For our wilderness is more than a geographic area untouched by humanity. Wilderness encompasses our seasons of wandering where we are displaced or dislodged from our former life, unsure of what tomorrow will bring.

Maybe it comes as a time of unwelcome unemployment, or a time of chosen rest from our profession. It might be an annual trip up north to a familiar place, or an unexpected road trip to nowhere in particular. It might be the deepening of a friendship with someone we love; it might happen while painfully letting go of a relationship we wish we could keep. It might be a time where we are diagnosed with an illness we never thought would come. It might be losing our house, enduring a season of depression or mental illness, welcoming a new baby, healing from an accident, saying good-bye to a teenage son or daughter. Whatever period it is, wilderness becomes a time where we wander between one chapter of life and the next, making sense of what came before and wondering what will come next.

You have known seasons where warm sunny days were the exception and the rule was stormy hardship. There have been wilderness chapters for you, times where you struggled to see God’s goodness in your new life and its new landscape.

During these times we often long to return to a former way of life, the good old days, just like the twelve tribes of Judah who spent much of their wilderness wanderings begging, pleading to return to Egypt. Even though in Egypt they lived in bondage. But bondage was understood as better than wandering about unsettled, homeless, hungry, and unknown.

A friend of mine went through the long a painful experience of divorce. After the final decision had been, as amicable a parting as possible had taken hold, and she stood in the kitchen of her new home, she felt the weight of a season of grief and loss upon her. She was in-between the life that once was and the beginning of a new life. But this life had came about through circumstances she never wanted and pain she didn’t ask for. And she knew she had a decision to make. She picked up a post it note and wrote and simply wrote “I choose love”. It remains on her refrigerator to this day.

This note is in many ways, her liturgy. Its one way she renews her covenant, a covenant to have faith, to trust in God’s goodness, to be be bold and love despite such hardship. This small note serves as her liturgy to remember, to celebrate, and move forward into a new landscape and new life.

So, I have to ask, what is your liturgy? How do you seek to renew your covenant with love? Do you say grace at the table? Do you worship regularly? Do you pray fervently? What is your liturgy to renew your hope and recommit your labors to the one who has unfailing committed to you? How do you gather together like the twelve tribes to remember, celebrate, and renew your covenant with love, with life, with hope?

You know our wilderness time is usually limited. And when that time of dislocation and wandering comes to an end, when we gather ourselves together to be as whole as possible; we have to make a choice. We have to make a decision, between the past and its gods, and our life today, with the living God of Israel. Will we choose to make this our home, or will we long for that which was? Will we choose to renew our covenant, or will we seek to force God to meet our old selves where we once were? Will we praise the name of the one who has shepherd us, or will we blame that same God for discarding us? Will we be bold and choose love? Will we choose grace? Will we choose to give and receive forgiveness? Will we embrace life, the life that is, accepting its joys and its sorrows, its sun and storms? And we must ask how are we different because of this season of wandering? What must we celebrate and what must we let go such that we might thrive again?

A few of you have come to me and asked what was the most meaningful part of Sabbatical; and I have told each of you the same thing. It was time with my wife. In these past five years our marriage has endured a long wilderness time, a season of hardships and struggles. There was the great fear and concern over my son’s brain surgery, my pain of losing the ability to walk and the reconstruction of my lower back. There were three miscarriages and the grief each one brought. There were Amanda’s health struggles and somehow everything piled on top of one another, dislodging us from the joy and connection we once knew. If you have endured life with a partner over the course of time, you probably know a time like this. Then came this past summer and what happened was the last thing I expected: God blessed us yet again with the time to reconnect, to talk, to give and receive healing forms of forgiveness and understanding we didn’t even know we desired. And we fell in love all over again. Now that this has happened that phrase “to fall in love all over again” carries with it real weight and not some half-hearted sentimentality. Such is God’s love when we come to know it.

When we first met, we were going to elope but instead elected a small wedding making the promise we would have another larger event in the future for our extended family. Well years roll by and life happens, its never seemed like a good time. But after our week together in August, it was clear now is the time. So I asked if Amanda would marry me again next June and we could have a Renewal of Vows service and invite all our families from across the country. I am not for sure she ever said yes, but she did buy a beautiful white dress, so I got the point. We have spent hours making fancy invitations; polling our families for the best date, make an itinerary, visiting hotels, thinking about the worship service and its music will be like.

I am so excited for the chance to renew the most critical and important covenant I have made with another human being in my life.  to lift it up and formally declare my intentions and devotion once again.

Why am I telling you this? I want you to see that as your pastor, and as a fellow wanderer, I believe in renewing my sacred covenants. It’s a sacred thing to honor God and oneself, to gather and remember, to celebrate the devotion of God you know through another, to re-declare our devotion to God’s great love and ask for God’s continued blessing.

For me, this renewal means having the wedding we never did. For you, maybe this means writing your partner a love letter or celebrating an anniversary. Maybe it means regularly calling an old friend. Maybe it’s inviting those you consider as family into your home for a old or new tradition. Maybe it’s choosing to pray or study more often about faith. Maybe it’s about seeking real forgiveness for where you have wronged another; maybe its choosing a healing form of forgiveness towards another. Maybe it’s volunteering with those who need your time and talents. There are many ways you could choose to renew your covenant with Yahweh: the one who is Love and through whom all love is given.

Friends there is no landscape where the God of Israel is not sovereign. There is no mountain to high nor sea to deep to be beyond the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Gods covenant and Gods presence endures. The love of God remains. In every season we find ourselves, God is actively renewing God’s covenant with us for there is renewal remembering, there is renewal in celebrating, there is renewal in the wilderness, there is renewal in this moment.

Be bold, have courage, say aloud, “As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord God.” Choose love, choose joy, choose life, covenant once again with the Lord God almighty.

Amen.

Presentation by our Kenyan Partnership

Presentation by our Kenyan Partnership

Date Preached: October 7, 2018 10:30
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Presentation given by our Kenyan Partnership at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on October 7, 2018 at 10:30 AM.

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Out of Dangerous Places

Out of Dangerous Places

Date Preached: September 30, 2018 10:30
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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Meditation given by Rev. Nicholas Hatch at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on September 30, 2018 at 10:30 AM.

The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of WHAT?!

The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of WHAT?!

Date Preached: September 23, 2018 10:30
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Meditation given by Rev. Kathryn Kuhn at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on September 23, 2018 at 10:30 AM.

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Fearless Faith: Part 2

Fearless Faith: Part 2

Date Preached: September 16, 2018 10:30
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Meditation given by Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on September 16, 2018 at 10:30 AM.

Fearless Faith: Part 1

Fearless Faith: Part 1

Date Preached: September 9, 2018 9:30
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Meditation given by Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on September 9, 2018 at 9:30 AM.

The Face of Gratitude

The Face of Gratitude

Date Preached: September 2, 2018 9:30
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Meditation given by Rev. Kathryn Kuhn at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on September 2, 2018 at 9:30 AM.

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Facing the Enemy

Facing the Enemy

Date Preached: August 26, 2018 9:30
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Meditation given by Rev. Kathryn Kuhn at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on August 26, 2018 at 9:30 AM.

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Facing the Truth: Almost Persuaded

Facing the Truth: Almost Persuaded

Date Preached: August 19, 2018 9:30
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Meditation given by Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on August 19, 2018 at 9:30 AM.

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Face to Face: The Sins of Our Ancestors

Face to Face: The Sins of Our Ancestors

Date Preached: August 12, 2018 9:30
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Meditation given by Rev. Kathryn Kuhn at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on August 12, 2018 at 9:30 AM.

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The False Face of Betrayal

The False Face of Betrayal

Date Preached: August 5, 2018 9:30
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Meditation given by Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on August 5, 2018 at 9:30 AM.

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Facing Another Way

Facing Another Way

Date Preached: July 22, 2018 9:30
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Meditation given by Rev. Kathryn Kuhn at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on July 22, 2018 at 9:30 AM.

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The Face of Friendship: Without Friends, I Don’t Know Who I Am

The Face of Friendship: Without Friends, I Don’t Know Who I Am

Date Preached: July 15, 2018 9:30
Preached by: Rev. John McFadden

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Meditation given by Rev. John McFadden at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on July 15, 2018 at 9:30 AM.

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Facing Off with God

Facing Off with God

Date Preached: July, 8 2018 9:30
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Meditation given by Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on July 8, 2018 at 9:30 AM.

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Facing Our Own Worst Intentions

Facing Our Own Worst Intentions

Date Preached: July 1, 2018 9:30
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Meditation given by Rev. Kathryn Kuhn at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on July 1, 2018 at 9:30 AM.

I’ve been thinking about that song: “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong?” as I consider the place Jonah occupies among the cavalcade of stars known as the prophets of the Old Testament. They are a mighty band – over a dozen mostly unusual names whose call stories are fantastic, and whose spoken word is inspiring. Isaiah tells of a vision of cherubim and seraphim, set to the tune of “Holy, Holy, Holy.” As God wonders who will go forth on God’s behalf, Isaiah utters the classic response, “Here am I, send me.” Jeremiah’s somewhat more humble, “I am just a boy,” contrasts Ezekiel’s dry bones and tripped out dreams. Meanwhile, Amos offers chapter after chapter of rebuke against the injustice perpetuated against the oppressed. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Beyond Jonah we find Micah, asking what the Lord requires of us other than to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

All of these prophetic books feature a classic call and response motif. God calls. Prophets respond. Jonah is called, too – in 1:1 we read, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it for their wickedness is ever before me.” A perfectly clear plan set before yet another of God’s faithful, right? We know the routine! And surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, how could God go wrong, calling on Jonah? Jonah’s got this – right?

But Jonah doesn’t. He’s not like the others. God calls, and Jonah turns tail and runs the other way. God calls, and Jonah says, “I don’t think so.”

One scholar of the Old Testament suggests that prophets – good ones – share 4 characteristics: insight, foresight, courage and compassion. Insight – a word from God and the wisdom to understand its significance for their time; Foresight – a vision of what could be, if only God’s people would heed the prophet’s warning; Courage – to speak truth to power, to do the challenging work of calling for justice even when it’s unpopular; and Compassion – a heart not only for the prophetic word but for the people who need to hear it.

Jonah might be the worst prophet ever. He appears to have none of these qualities, and not a lick of interest in heeding God’s call. He’s been called the sullen prophet, the anti-prophet, the reluctant prophet. Maybe he should be called the toddler prophet, because he acts no different than a 3-year old. I won’t go, God. You can’t make me.

What a lovely thought, the idea that we could ‘just say no’ to going where God wants to send us. Interacting with the people God places in our path.

Sometimes I think it might be a lovely thing to be able to say “no thanks.”

After the 2016 election, Erik Hagerman said no thanks. He was so sick of listening to all of the politics leading up to the election, that he simply shut it all off. No more TV or radio news. No social media. He plays soundtracks of white noise over his headphones when he goes to his local coffee shop. Has no interest whatsoever in hearing what the rest of the world has experienced almost daily since. In an article about him in the NY Times, he says, “[The cut off] was draconian and complete. It’s not like I wanted to just steer away from [politics] or shift the conversation. It was like I was a vampire and any photon of [the conversation] would turn me to dust.”

The article goes on to describe him “as ignorant as a contemporary citizen could ever hope to be.”

It’s an interesting way to take a stand. To live as though it just isn’t happening.

I envy him in some ways. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired, too – of news, of politics, of the arguing back and forth. Not long after I read his story, I deleted Facebook and Instagram from my phone. I was spending too much time there, and it wasn’t good for my blood pressure. It was good to turn it down a notch.

Good for me. Good for me to avoid the conversation. Easy for me, when so little of my daily life has been affected or changed…

I wonder if Jonah, if Erik Hagerman, if I…might understand what a privilege it is to think we can turn off the conversation. Choose a different direction. Ignore God’s call to action, when the truth is there are plenty of our brothers and sisters who are affected by it – who live it, daily – and deeply…

It is a privilege to tune it out and walk away. In fact, I think it might be the very definition of privilege.

Last month at the Wisconsin Conference Annual Meeting, a number of us attended a presentation on racism and white privilege, given by Rev. Dr. Ben Sanders from Eden Seminary. Dr. Sanders says having privilege is all tied up with the assumptions we make about space: literally about how we negotiate who is allowed in what space and when and under what circumstances. Having privilege means you don’t typically have to think about whether its okay for you to be in a certain space or not. You can sit in a Starbucks as long as you want. You can be on your cell phone in your grandmother’s backyard, or walking home from the 7-11 with a bag of Skittles, or I could go on – you can do all of these things without being questioned, suspected, shot at. Having privilege means you are free to travel where you want to go, and free to avoid where you do not want to go. You can turn off the news, live in a gated community, go for years without knowing anything about what’s happening at our country’s borders. You can choose NOT to vote, when free elections are the envy of all kinds of places in the world.

Meanwhile, stories about people risking their lives to cross our borders – those are real people. Stories about parents who send their young black sons out with their friends with daily reminders about what to do if the police pull them over, and daily fears that their sons won’t return home – just from an evening with friends – these are real people. Stories of children being trafficked – even in our state – even along the I-41 and I-94 corridors – these are not someone else’s children. I saw these words on a sign at yesterday’s rally for Family Reunification at Houdini Plaza – “There is no such thing as someone else’s children.”

I wonder if the Book of Jonah isn’t in some ways a cautionary tale about privilege. Thinking he could just go to Tarshish and leave those Ninevites to deal with their own problems.

Because here’s the thing. Privilege only feels like privilege when we’re oblivious to the truth that we’re all in this together.

The book of Jonah is one of the traditional readings for Jewish communities on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. It’s read late in the day, when those gathered are the hungriest, the thirstiest, the most exhausted from the fasting, the praying, the confessing and the soul-searching that shapes that day’s liturgy.

An article on Reform Judaism explains the reading of Jonah on Yom Kippur this way:

“[I believe that] we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon to remind us that sometimes we are Jonah. We run, we are swallowed up, and we are spit out. We have times when the responsibility of the world is thrust upon our shoulders and we have times when we feel very much alone. Sometimes, just like Jonah, we feel that life is too much for us. Who wouldn’t want to book a cruise, get on a ship, and run away from such burdens? Perhaps, we are more like Jonah than we even want to admit.”

Being a prophet is hard work. Challenging work. “In it for the long-haul” kind of work.

I think about the little cautionary tale of Jonah sandwiched in between these poetic prophetic rockstars – and I wonder if it isn’t scripture’s way of saying to the rest of us (who are reluctant prophets at best, resistant prophets most of the time, who might not even know God is asking us to be prophetic): hang in there. These prophetic works in scripture cover hundreds, maybe a thousand years or more, of tradition – where God used voice after voice after voice, and body after body after body to try to wake God’s people up to God’s word of justice, compassion, righteousness, grace – for all. So who are we, who say we are called by God to be about God’s work in the world, to shrug our shoulders and pretend the children are someone else’s, the issues aren’t ours, or the experience is too remote for us to care?

It’s a message about “hang in there,” but it’s also a cautionary tale about how the work of the prophet is not simply about what happens with those people over there. Privilege lets us choose whether we will or will not be with the others – the very real others whose experiences are so different than our own. But privilege also fools us into believing that the work is all about them.

Jonah finally goes and does what God asks him to do. The king hears the word and changes his heart. The people hear the word and change their hearts. God sees the repentance that has taken place and God changes God’s mind and heart about the chaos God had in store for those people. The only one who doesn’t change – is Jonah. The story ends with Jonah being displeased, angry, and mostly concerned about his well-being.

When Jonah’s shady resting place disappears and the sun beats down harsh and hot, God asks him, “Are you really more upset about this plant dying, than you are about ‘those people’?” And Jonah’s answer – “Yep.”

This is the cost of privilege. Not recognizing that even if every policy, every practice, every social institution and law were set right, and everyone put away their guns, and no one went hungry or lived in fear for their lives – it isn’t just about them. It’s about us. For all the work there is to do out there, we’ve got some work to do in here.

The cost of privilege is missing out on what God hopes – not just for the world around us, but for you and for me. Grace abundant. Courage and compassion to go the distance on God’s behalf. Salvation that is ours, if only we will repent – of the prejudices we hold, the self-centeredness that guides our actions, and the ease with which we dismiss each other’s concerns. If only we will acknowledge what needs changing in our hearts.

Jesus said, “just as you [cared for even] one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did so to me.” The cost of privilege is missing out on seeing who Jesus is, by risking ourselves to be with him in the places we least want to go.

I was on Facebook this morning. A clergy friend had posted this quote from Fr. Richard Rohr as a thought to start the day: “As compassion and sympathy flow out of us to any marginalized person, wounds are bandaged – both theirs and ours.”

What are the wounds within us that can only be healed by overcoming our own fears, our own indifference and our own ignorance? Where – into what other spaces and places – might God be inviting us, calling us, challenging us to be a part of that work of healing – not just for others, but in order that we, too, might be saved?

The good news is this: God’s grace is not just for the others in our midst. Christ chose to be with us – to get into our space and to invite us into this place – so we will not be left to linger in our prejudices and our fears, but instead find healing for our souls, and grace abundant for all.

Jonah’s story ends with grumbling and complaint, displeasure and discomfort – but it continues in conversation with a God who loves him just the same, and whose work continues not only through Jonah, but around him and in spite of him, too.

Thanks be to God for the ways God’s story continues, as ours do, too. Amen.

The Face of Grief

The Face of Grief

Date Preached: June 24, 2018 9:30
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Meditation given by Rev. Kathryn Kuhn at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on June 24, 2018 at 9:30 AM.

Just a few days ago, Earl Brosnahan, Jr., age 89, died of a heartattack. He had been in failing health for some time, but his family issued a statement that in fact he was “heartbroken” over the recent death of his daughter. And then his heart literally gave out the day before her memorial service was scheduled. His daughter was Kate Spade, the fashion designer and celebrity, whose death by suicide, along with that of author and restauranteur Anthony Bourdain that very same week, put yet another public face on the grief far too many families experience, much more privately than the Brosnahans, Spades and Bourdains.

Mr. Brosnahan’s death sheds light on another under-discussed reality: how grief affects us as human beings. How grief “gets into our bodies,” disrupting our sleeping, our eating, our emotions and our health. The Old English word for grief was “heartsarnes” – literally, soreness of the heart. Anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one can likely see the connection. Grief tears at the heart. Sometimes literally. It seems “broken heart syndrome” is real. In a research study from 2012, 2,000 people were assessed during the first 24 hours after a significant grief event in their lives. Their risk for heart attack was found to be 21 times that of a similar population untouched by grief. It’s by no means routine for someone to die from grief, but it can happen. More commonly, grief causes physical pain, hinders our immune system, and changes thought patterns and perceptions of reality.

When that grief is unaddressed and unresolved, it complicates things. People who don’t find healthy ways of dealing with their grief sometimes act out with unexpected outbursts of irritability or anger, develop irrational fears regarding other potential losses, or turn to self-harming behaviors or addictions of all kinds to numb the heartache. Sometimes, a person just becomes numb emotionally and spiritually, unable to be moved from the depth of their sorrow.

Grief affects us as individuals, as human beings. Healthy processing of grief never fully relieves the emptiness we feel after a loss, but it can, over time, allow for new beginnings and new life to emerge. Is it any surprise that remedies for grieving hearts include reaching out – talking with peers and professionals, participating in rituals of closure and remembrance, establishing new routines and becoming physically active? To get healthy, we have to resist the urge to turn inward, and instead stretch ourselves and risk ourselves toward a new future. Unresolved grief closes us in and shuts the door on anything other than our sadness, making us oblivious to the truth that the hurt will seep out of us one way or another, whether we realize it or not.

I like to think of David, from our reading from 2 Samuel today, as a textbook “good griever.” If you know some of David’s story, you know he’s typically not shy about his emotions. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and maybe a few other places. Maybe it’s just part of his personality, but he’s got this grieving thing down. When David hears that King Saul and the king’s son, Jonathan, have both died in the war with the Philistines, David is so visibly upset, he tears his clothes. He mourns. He weeps. Not by himself, but with the others in his household. It’s like a grief PARTY. They all weep. And they fast. And David writes a poem, a song, that he insists be shared with everyone in the land. “How the mighty have fallen! Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions…”. Beautiful stuff, David’s poetry. He’s a good griever, that’s for sure. He feels it. He’s open about it. He lets others grieve, too. He even gives them words to help them express their own grief.

David is a textbook good griever, but it’s this last bit that sets David’s grieving apart. Because this isn’t really just about David, although there’s no doubt this affects him personally. The deaths of Saul and Jonathan set the stage for David to assume the throne of Israel. David’s grief can’t be private. And how he grieves is no longer simply a personality trait. It sets the tone for the kind of ruler David might become. Even more than that, it defines the very kingdom he seeks to rule.

Because let’s face it. Grief isn’t always just a personal thing. There’s also such a thing as public grief. Community grief. The grief that we feel collectively, as a people, for losses and tragedies we experience somehow together. And how our leaders respond to that grief – the words they choose to say, to tweet, to wear on their sleeves or on the backs of their jackets – it matters.

I remember growing up, hearing stories of where people were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot. Or that Dr. King had been assassinated. I have my own stories to tell, as do many of you, of where I was on September 11, 2001 when terrorists took thousands of lives, and on December 14, 2012, when a lone gunman killed 20 schoolchildren and 60 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, or on August 9, 2014, when the death of Michael Brown brought so much grief and loss to light.

Public grief, community grief, is real. It’s why it matters so much for us to hear a word from those in leadership about those events. President George W. Bush was reading a book with schoolchildren at a school in Sarasota, FL, when Secret Servicemen whispered into his ear the news of those terrorist attacks on 9/11. He sat in that classroom for another 7 minutes, taking in that news. Listening while the children finished the book they were reading. Praising them for their accomplishment. A lot of people criticized him for staying there with the children; but years later, those children (now adults) remember something different. One of them said, “I think he was trying to keep everybody calm, starting with us.” Another said, “I think he was trying to protect us.” It’s possible that was the most compassionate option – to let those children finish out one more story with a happy ending, before their lives and their world changed forever. To let the grief “be” for a minute, or 7, or more. Our need to process public moments of grief is why it mattered when we saw President Obama wipe tears from his eyes as he memorialized those who died in the Sandy Hook massacre, and why it’s important for public officials to show up after natural disasters and human tragedies of all sorts.

Just as individual grief requires healing and processing so new beginnings can emerge – public grief, community-wide tragedy is no different. As one public health physician from Boston (one of my former college roommates) posted on social media earlier this week – “If reading about the separation of immigrant children is heartbreaking, remember sobbing is therapeutic! Keep sobbing; it’s the key to our humanity.” Dr. Liz is a big believer in the idea that we would all be more physically healthy as individuals, if we would work harder to heal the social ills that plague our community, our country, our world. And if we’re going to heal those ills, we have to feel them first. Be moved by injustice. Be appalled by gun violence. Weep in response to the cries of children housed in “tender care” centers, miles away from the parents who risked everything for the hope of a better life.

Because unresolved grief isn’t good for us as individuals. And it isn’t good for us as a community, or as a country, either.

It occurred to me that Dr. Liz was the first voice I heard this week that didn’t try to distract me with solutions for the immigration problem or defense of a policy – but instead, just left room for a little bit of humanity to be realized among the tears. Dr. Liz. The messiest roommate I ever had, let things just be messy for a little bit.

Which is what David does as he leads his whole household, and then a whole nation, and then the roots of our very faith tradition, in pausing for a moment to acknowledge the sorrow that is very real indeed. The losses grieved by David are messy, too. Saul had tried on at least 2 occasions to kill David. Jonathan should have been the heir to the throne biologically, but he ceded his place in the line of succession to David – behind Saul’s back. Saul and Jonathan were at complete odds. And Israel just suffered a horrific loss at the hands of the Philistines. David’s lament, the song he instructs the nation to sing all together now – is, for lack of a better term, fake news. Some might even label it a phony story of grief and sadness. Saul and Jonathan – undivided in life? Swifter than eagles? Stronger than lions? A lesser leader might have rejoiced to finally be rid of Saul. Might have blamed their collective losses on Saul. But David surprises God’s people, and the Philistines – who are fully expecting a military response to the slaughter on Gilboa – and you and me, who sometimes don’t know what to feel anymore – with a chance to linger for a moment in the collective sense of loss. He lifts up only the best of who Saul was. He is open about the complexity of his love for Jonathan. He weeps, he fasts, he sings – he grieves, because he knows God grieves, too.

Our tears are the key to our humanity. Our tears in response to another’s tears are signs of our compassion. Walter Brueggemann calls David’s lament an “act of political courage.” It’s a strange way to build a kingdom, but David’s reign is not just about David – it’s about the God who called him to lead in the first place. And this is our God, who hears the cries of the Hebrews when they are slaves in Egypt, who sets history in motion in response to the tears of the outcast, and insists on a community that cares for the widow, the orphan AND the stranger in our midst. The same God who gave us Jesus, whose earthly father was from the house of David. And Jesus weeps, and his heart is grieved, and his compassion for humanity is political, too. It’s a strange way to build a kingdom, but that’s how God does it.

It is possible to be moved – to be heartbroken by something or someone – not because of your political party, not because of a policy whose origin seems obscure, not because you’re being manipulated by the media – it’s possible to be moved by something, or to be heartbroken – because you are HUMAN. And because it’s who God made you to be. Because by faith your spiritual roots are in the house of David, which was built on tears. Because if Jesus saw the way we treat children, families, each other – I don’t know about you, but I have to believe Jesus would be weeping, too.

Broken heart syndrome is a real thing. A real thing for grieving individuals, and a real thing for a world full of heartbreak. Grief “gets into our bodies.” It affects our health. We have to face it. Because if we don’t, the pain is going to work its way out one way or another. Our grief, as a people, cannot be private. Especially our grief over what we’ve lost. What if the greatest loss we experience is the loss of our humanity, the loss of our compassion for our neighbor? Our grief cannot be private, if justice is ever to be done, if God’s kingdom, God’s kin-dom, is ever meant to come.

May God be with us as we learn to grieve, together, for the sake of justice, for the sake of new life, for the sake of hope, for the sake of each other.

Face to Face in Christian Confrontation

Face to Face in Christian Confrontation

Date Preached: June 17, 2018 9:30
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Meditation given by Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on June 17, 2018 at 9:30 a.m.

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Till We Have Faces

Till We Have Faces

Date Preached: June 10, 2018 9:30
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Meditation given by Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on June 10, 2018 at 9:30 a.m.

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Born Renewed

Born Renewed

Date Preached: May 27, 2018 9:30
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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Meditation given by Rev. Nicholas Hatch at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on May 27, 2018 at 9:30 a.m.

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Jesus on the Jukebox

Jesus on the Jukebox

Date Preached: Sunday, May 13, 2018 10:30
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Meditation given by Rev. Kathryn Kuhn at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on May 13, 2018 at 10:30 AM.

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Proclaimed in Every Way

Proclaimed in Every Way

Date Preached: Sunday, May 6, 2018 10:30
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Imagine you’re looking for a faith system that will guarantee you health, wealth, and happiness – religion, philosophy, vocation, political party, whatever. This is the perennial human quest – health, wealth, and happiness – both back in Philippi in Biblical times and in the here and now. But now you see that the person who has been offering you a new faith system, the one with the curious name of “Christian,” has been arrested, imprisoned, and waiting for the authorities to decide his fate. What happened to health, wealth and happiness?

This calls for some interpretation. I bet the unbelieving community in Philippi had its own interpretation of what was happening to Paul, just as it did for the crucifixion of Jesus. Thinking that there must be a direct correlation between an easy life and God’s presence, they might have declared that there was no God.

But Paul offers them a different interpretation. A larger purpose is being served, he tells them. The Gospel of love and justice is being spread even through the injustice of Paul’s imprisonment.

I couple of Sundays back, a new family came to church. They had little children and wanted to know where the preschool area of the church was. Rather than just point the way, I walked them down, across the bridge, up the stairs and to the end of the hall where the nursery and preschool rooms are across from each other. I wasn’t wearing a robe that Sunday so, when I stood up to preach later that morning, the parents were surprised.

The next week I got a lovely note from them thanking me for my hospitality. In the note they referred to me walking them down to the preschool area and wrote, “We thought you were just a nice person. We didn’t know you were a pastor.”

I wonder if we are so used to hypocrisy that we are surprised when the preacher turns out to be a good person, when the politician turns out to be honest, when the speaker turns out to be actually practicing what she is advocating.

Socrates, writing nearly 1500 years ago, had something to say about this when he wrote about rhetoric. Now remember that public speech was critically important to those first practitioners of democracy in Classical Greece. It was how politics was done, how community was formed, how common vision and purpose were forged. Their greatest philosophers gave it their full attention.

Socrates wrote that there were three sources of persuasion in rhetoric: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos:

 

  • Logos means an appeal to reason. How can an argument be persuasive and worthy of our hearing if it isn’t logical, factual, rational?

 

  • Pathos means an appeal to emotion. Not only must our minds be swayed by reason, our hearts must be moved if we are to be propelled to action.

 

  • Finally, ethos refers to the character of the speaker. Not only must something move our hearts and persuade our minds, but we need to see an embodiment of that which is being urged upon us; we need to see how that which is proposed is reflected by or has made a difference in the moral character of the speaker.

 

The Apostle Paul, in the great classical tradition, made use of all three in his persuasive writings: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos; reason, emotion, character. But he may have been most sorely tested on the grounds of ethos, of character. Again and again, Paul was personally challenged and attacked – arrested, beaten, chased out of town, and, finally, executed. Again and again he testified to his high character: imitate me as I imitate Christ, he told those early Christians. Don’t just listen to what I say but do what I do. Do you see what a difference is has made in me?

 

It’s helpful for us to reflect on how these three classic elements of persuasive discourse are faring in our modern world. Logos or Reason – are we getting our facts straight today? In communal discourse, are we making clear, rational arguments? Pathos or Emotion – is there enough passion in how we converse? Or is there too much? Are we dead from the neck down or are we being moved to action?

 

We could have a helpful talk about each of these two, couldn’t we? Logos and Pathos, Reason and Emotion – each of these is, I would argue, problematic in how we engage in public discourse today. But I would like us to focus on the third attribute of public discourse and argument – Ethos or Character. That’s the one that really seems to get us today. How can we believe anything, trust anyone when hypocrisy and dishonesty seem so prevalent?

 

For instance: What do I do with these?

 

-Hold up my Bill Cosby albums…

So much of my childhood is wrapped up in these records. I remember rushing out and buying them as an eight or nine year-old boy –  Bill Cosby, my first favorite comic. When my kids were little, we put on these records and they laughed, too, touched by the sweet, creative, and innocent humor of Bill Cosby.

And now he’s a convicted felon awaiting sentencing. The allegations of sexual violence brought against him are not just allegations anymore. He has been found guilty.

So do I play his albums anymore? Would I still find them funny?

And what do I do with this?

-Clinton/Gore button…

Bill Clinton and Al Gore – finally some baby-boomers coming into power! I remember seeing them up there on the dais in New York City in 1992, freshly minted nominees for President and Vice-President, as Fleetwood Mac sang out, “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow!

Of course, we had ignored all the warning signs – Paula Jones, Jennifer Flowers, etc., etc. – that this guy was unfaithful and not completely trustworthy. And his behavior would embarrass the nation, bring shame to the Oval Office, and derail his political agenda through impeachment.

So what should I do with my campaign button?

And what do I do with this?

-Bart Starr autographed football…

The only time in my life I stood in line to get an autograph was when I was eight years old and waited at the YMCA in Eau Claire to get Bart Starr’s autograph. It came back to me a couple years ago when a friend gave me this, a Bart Starr football, inscribed “To Steve.” He gave it to me even though it was a different Steve that Bart originally signed it for.

Bart Starr might be one of the best, most gracious and giving sports heroes our nation has ever known. In 2006, a 70 year-old woman from Kerrville, Texas wrote a letter to Bart Starr threatening to expose their affair from forty years prior unless he paid her two million dollars. It hit all the snarky internet sites – Deadspin, TMZ, etc. So was it time for me to get rid of this autographed football? Was all the good that Bart Starr had done throughout his career as a Packer, his many philanthropic activities like founding Rawhide Ranch for boys – was all of that undermined and exposed as hypocrisy?

 

It turned out the woman was lying. She would be charged with criminal extortion. So then the autographed football could go back up on the mantle, right? Or should it never have come down, even if the allegation of an affair forty years ago was true?

 

I’ve got some other things here: the “Naked Gun” movies, absolutely hilarious and co-starring the actor-turned actor O.J. Simpson. Not so funny anymore, I guess.

Here are a Martha Stewart and a Paula Deen cookbook. “Prison Cooking with Martha” or “White Comfort Food with Paula Deen” – which one is in better taste, do you think?

More seriously – what do I do with this?

-Copy of the Declaration of Independence…

You remember the great JFK quote when he had brought together American Nobel Laureates tor a congratulatory dinner: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence may be the most accomplished politician and thinker our nation has every known. He was a gentleman farmer and a Biblical scholar, a political philosopher and a visionary leader. He was also a slave holder, an adulterer, the father of several children born out of wedlock.

And what do I do with this?

 

-Hold up the Bible…

 

To us, this is a sacred book holding the Gospel, the Word of life. But it also contains the culture of the times in which it was written – racial and ethnic cleansing, patriarchy, slavery, violence, oppression. And so it can be also used as a club to bully others. Shakespeare wrote, “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” You and I have seen and experienced such devilry again and again.

This is the crisis we face in our culture today – we have become so disillusioned with our comedians, our politicians, our religious leaders, our cultural leaders, our historical icons, the pillars of our community – that we seem to have no way to engage in public discourse. We’re so convinced that everyone is a hypocrite (and so terrified that we ourselves will be exposed hypocrites!) that we won’t really talk with one another anymore.

 

How many times do I hear from non-church goers that they won’t come here because there are so many hypocrites in the church? To which I usually respond, “Yes and there’s always room for one more.”

 

We seem defeated by it right now. The hypocrisy around us and inside of us defeats us, and we give up on the hope that we could actually talk with one another, reason with one another, and constructively argue with one another. We no longer believe that we can find enough common ground and shared human feeling to act together for the betterment of all.

 

Such hypocrisy, of course, is nothing new: “Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.”

 

The hypocrisy, the dishonesty, the hidden motives and selfish intentions were there in Paul’s time just as they are in the here and now. But rather than let them defeat him, in the last verse of our reading, he says something truly astounding:

 

“What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.”

 

Listen to that again, for this is the verse that slapped me awake this week, that shocked and surprised me:

 

“What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.”

 

Do you understand what Paul is saying? He is asserting that ultimately our Pathos, our character is irrelevant. Good or bad character, the Gospel will be proclaimed and will prevail.

Paul knew his Socrates well. He understood the rules about Reason, Emotion and Character; Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. Elsewhere he will talk about the foolishness of God being wiser than the wisdom of the world. In this way he stands our Reason on its head. One chapter later in Philippians he will write:

Let the same mind be in you that wasin Christ Jesus, 
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.

This is the real Passion of Christ, a spirit of Self-sacrifice and humility. This is how Paul inverts Pathos. And now this:

“What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.”

 

Every preacher has the experience, sooner or later of someone coming up to them after a sermon and saying, “Pastor, you were speaking to me this morning; especially when you said…” And the thing that they found so meaningful is NOT something I said. In fact, sometimes, it’s the exact opposite of the point I was trying to make.

Do you understand why I praise God every time that happens? I praise God for an attentive listener, for a listener who is attentive not to my words, not to my Reason, Emotion, or Character, but to the Word that God is speaking to them through the sermon. The Word of God cannot be reduced to the words of a preacher. The Word of God cannot even be reduced to the words of the Bible. That’s why I’ve always steered us away from saying “The Word of God” after sharing a scripture reading. Even Luther thought the Word of God was, first and foremost, the Spirit of Christ; secondarily, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, of which the best authority is in scripture. For Luther and for us the Word is something at work among us, spoken and active, seeking change, movement, redemption. This is how Isaiah puts it:

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
(Isaiah 55:11)

Gardner Taylor, speaking in 1972 at Harvard University at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Service, said something shocking and shockingly true:

Martin King spoke out of that long background of the people who sat in the slave galleries of the churches of the North and South. They heard preachers say to them one thing, but they heard something else. It was said to them, You are ordained of God to be slaves, but they heard, “Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”

The preachers said to them it will forever be the same, but they heard, “There’s a bright side somewhere. Don’t you rest until you find it.” As they sat in those galleries the preachers said to them that it will never be different, but they heard, “Walk together, children, don’t you get weary, there’s a great camp meeting in the Promised Land.”

Do you hear, in the words of Gardner Taylor, an echo of Paul’s words? –

 

“What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.”

 

So, don’t despair. Don’t be afraid. Put on the record, watch the movie, cook the recipe, root for the athlete, engage with the politician, talk to the neighbor, even listen to the preachers even if they don’t live up to their intentions. Even through hypocrites God’s Word, Christ’s Gospel, can be heard.

Amen.

Waiting at the Window

Waiting at the Window

Date Preached: Sunday, April 29, 2018 10:30
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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Meditation given by Rev. Nicholas Hatch at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on April 29, 2018 at 10:30 AM.

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When Christians Get Together

When Christians Get Together

Date Preached: Sunday, April 22, 2018 10:30
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Meditation given by Rev. Kathryn Kuhn at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on April 22, 2018 at 10:30 AM.

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Masterworks in Worship: Jubilate Deo

Masterworks in Worship: Jubilate Deo

Date Preached: Sunday, April 22, 2018 10:30
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Prove It

Prove It

Date Preached: Sunday, April 8, 2018 10:30
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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A guy walks into a bar with his dog. He says to the bartender, “Hey, what’ll you give me for a talking dog?”

The bartender says, “Well, a free beer if you can prove it.”

So the guy turns to his dog and says, “What’s up over our heads?”

The dog says, “Roof.”

The bartender looks unimpressed. Guy says to his dog, “Describe sandpaper.”

The dog says, “Rough.”

The bartender is still unimpressed. Guy says, “Who was the greatest ballplayer who ever lived?”

The dog says, “Ruth.”

The bartender hollers, “Aw, get outta here with that mutt!”

As the two are leaving, the dog asks the man, “Should I have said Mickey Mantle?”

There are some things that are just hard to prove. That’s what Einstein discovered when he died and went to heaven. As he came to the pearly gates, St. Peter asked for proof that it was indeed him. So Einstein wrote out a page full of advanced equations, and St. Peter let him in.

When Picasso died and went to heaven, St. Peter also asked him for proof that he was who he said he was. So Picasso drew one of his masterpieces from memory, and St. Peter let him in.

When Donald Trump died and went to heaven St. Peter told him that he needed to prove it was him. After all, St. Peter explained, Einstein had to prove it and Picasso had to prove it.

Donald Trump said, “Who Einstein? Who’s Picasso?” And St. Peter let him in.

Some things are just hard to prove! The Resurrection of Jesus may be at the top of that list. The fact is, we really do believe that Jesus Christ was Risen. The one rejected by the world, crucified as a subversive, killed as a crackpot, punished as a peacenik, mocked and derided as a foolish dreamer, that one was raised by God to prove to us once and for all that the ways of Jesus Christ, the ways of peace, of graciousness, of forgiveness, of love and justice are the ways favored by God – the only ways we can live our lives if we wish to be God’s people.

But still – how can we prove it?

A famous German religion professor was walking on the moors on a misty, gray day, when he came upon a boy flying a kite. The kite was so high that it couldn’t be seen; it was out of sight in the mist, in a low cloud. The professor said to the boy, “How do you know it is there?” And the boy replied, “Because I can feel the pull of it.” Not long afterwards, someone asked the profes­sor, “Why do you believe in God and in a spiritual reality?” and he answered in the words of the little kite flyer: “I believe be­cause I feel the pull of it.”

Our Gospel Reading this morning is about belief. Thomas, who missed Jesus’ earlier appearance to the disciples, didn’t believe that Jesus had actually risen from the tomb. And for him to believe, he required more than that little boy flying a kite – more than the simple pull of a spiritual presence.

“All I know of God is what I can taste, smell, and touch.” So wrote Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis. But we think of ourselves as more sophisticated than Zorba the Greek. We think of spiritu­ality as a cerebral, disembodied affair, we Chosen-Frozen. We pray in silence, stillness, hands empty, and open only our minds and thoughts to God. No matter that some of our most deeply spiritual moments are when we find ourselves immersed in nature or in the arms of another.

Spiritual means mental, head-stuff, right? But for Thomas, that isn’t enough. It is the touch of God that instills belief. For Kazantzakis, it is the taste of the sacred which changes the heart. It is the touch of the other which helps us reach for heaven here on earth.

Pastor Nick brought me into this year’s confirmation class to tell them about the concept of “justification by grace through faith” – that no one earns salvation, but it comes to us as a free gift. So to see if they understood the concept, I asked them, “If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into Heaven?”

“NO!” they answered.

“How about if I got up at 4 in the morning every day and went down and cleaned Main Street to keep this city neat and tidy, would that get me into Heaven?”

Again, the answer was, “NO!”

By now I was starting to smile. This was going great – they were really getting this central doctrine of our faith. “Well, then, if I was kind to animals and gave candy to all the children, and loved my wife and kids, would that get me into Heaven?”

Again, they all answered, “NO!”

I was just bursting with pride. So I asked them, “How then can I get into Heaven?”

One of them said, “You gotta be dead!”

That’s what Thomas thought. Jesus had to be dead and still showing the wounds of his dying before he would believe that Jesus had been raised from death, before he would believe that the resurrection was real.

And so Jesus extends his hands. Jesus shows his wounds.

How does God prove it? By letting us touch, feel, hear and see the resurrected Christ with our own eyes, with our own ears, with our own hands, in our own lives. That’s how Jesus proved it to Thomas. That’s how God proves it to us.

The late Earle Nightingale liked to tell the true story of a boy named Sparky. For Sparky, school was all but impossible. He failed every subject in the eighth grade. In High School, he flunked Physics, Latin, Algebra, and English.

Throughout his youth Sparky was also awkward socially. He was not actually disliked by the other students; no one cared that much. He was astonished if a classmate ever said hello to him outside of school hours. There’s no way to tell how he might have done at dating. Sparky never once asked a girl to go out in high school. He was too afraid of being turned down.

In our ways of social understanding, Sparky was a loser. He, his classmates…everyone knew it. So he rolled with it. Sparky had made up his mind early in life that things weren’t meant to work out. He contented himself with what appeared to be his inevitable mediocrity.

However, one thing was important to Sparky — drawing. He was proud of his artwork. Of course, no one else appreciated it. In his senior year of high school, he submitted some cartoons to the editors of the yearbook. The cartoons were turned down.

After completing high school, he wrote a letter to Walt Disney Studios. He was told to send some samples of his artwork, and the subject for a cartoon was suggested. Sparky drew the proposed cartoon. He spent a great deal of time on it and on all the other drawings he submitted. Finally, the reply came from Disney Studios: No, thanks. He had been rejected once again. Another loss for the loser.

So Sparky decided to write his own autobiography in cartoons. He described his childhood self — a little boy loser and chronic underachiever. The cartoon character would soon be appreciated worldwide. For Sparky, the boy who had such lack of success in school and whose work was rejected again and again, was Charles Schulz. He created the “Peanuts” comic strip and the little cartoon character whose kite would never fly and who never succeeded in kicking a football — Charlie Brown.

That’s how God proves it to us: when we see the pain, the loss, the challenge, the loneliness, and all of it overcome through grit and grace, belief and determination. Here are the wounds – see them, touch them. And now see that they have been overcome.

That’s what makes us people of the Resurrection, people believe that God has proved it in Jesus and God will prove it again in you and me.

There wasn’t any time to brief the class of children attending Sunday School about the little boy who came in late. There wasn’t any time, either, for the teacher to find out how the little boy had lost his left arm and how he was coping with it. Understandably, she was nervous, afraid that one of the other children would comment and embarrass him or, worse, tease him.

But, taking a deep breath, she proceeded with the lesson. No problems there. No problems with the art work; he drew quite well with one hand and seemed to fit in well. No problems during snack time; he gulped his juice down without any spills.

Relaxed and quite relieved now, the teacher led her class into the center circle for the little ritual they did every Sunday at the close of class.

“Let’s make our churches now,” she said, leading them in the familiar activity. “Here’s the church; here’s the steeple; open the doors – “

Suddenly the awful truth of her actions struck her – a second too late. The very thing she feared had happened – something that would make this little boy feel different, inferior – done not by a child, but by herself!

As she stood there, ashamed and speechless, the little girl sitting next to the boy reached over, placed her left hand against his right hand, and said, “Let’s make a church together.”

On this Sunday after Easter, you and I come again to taste, to touch, to see and to hear, to witness the resurrection yet again; risen in you, risen in me, rise for all so that all may see God’s coming peace and glory, in justice and love. Reach out and touch the wounds. The proof is there: Christ is risen indeed. Amen.

Trying to Hold Back Jesus

Trying to Hold Back Jesus

Date Preached: Sunday, April 1, 2018 10:30
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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It’s not supposed to be complicated or difficult, preaching on Easter Sunday morning. The message is clear, wondrous, and beautiful. It only wants a reliable reporter to pass it on. But sometimes the message gets lost or confused in the reporting.

I was reminded of that when I came across these five MOST BADLY WRITTEN HEADLINES of the last decade:

  1. Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures
  2. War Dims Hope for Peace
  3. Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead
  4. Man Struck By Lightning Faces Battery Charge
  5. New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group

Easter Sunday calls for nothing more than competent reporting. It calls for clarity, objectivity, and humility. The Good News of the Resurrection is not to be spun into a form more appealing, more popular, or more palatable. It is not to be used to reinforce a political slant or reshaped to shore up an institution’s power. Easter Sunday calls for faithful reporting. Nothing more, nothing less.

That’s my responsibility this morning. But you have one well as well: even if you get a reliable reporter, there must be faithful and attentive listeners.

When Wellington fought Napoleon in the decisive battle at Waterloo, all England waited breathlessly for the news. In those days, the news had to come across the English Channel by sailboat to southern England and then be signaled by semaphore to London. When the battle was over, the results of the battle were carried by boat and then semaphore. Another semaphore, this one high atop Winchester Cathedral, began to spell out the message letter by letter: W-E-L-L-I-N-G-T-O-N (Wellington)-D-E-F-E-A-T-E-D (Defeated)…

It was just at that moment that a dense fog settled over the city. The semaphore could no longer be seen. The message, “Wellington Defeated,” filled the people of London with dread. But then the fog suddenly lifted, and the semaphore could be seen as it flashed the rest of the message: “Wellington Defeated T-H-E E-N-E-M-Y the Enemy.” The completed report transformed the gloom into gladness.

So this morning I will try to be a faithful reporter if you will try to be patient listeners, waiting for the full message to be transmitted. That’s all that Easter Sunday requires. We don’t have to reshape this message, spin in, or pretty it up. We need to simply speak it and hear it. Then it can change our lives.

So, here’s the report: a stone has been moved from Jesus’ tomb which sends Mary racing to Simon Peter and John, the Beloved Disciple, with a story of body snatching. And this news sends Peter and John on their crazy race to the tomb, rumbling and stumbling and bumbling. We’re told who got their first, who entered first, who first saw the graveclothes, and who was the first to believe. And after witnessing these amazing, astounding events, Peter and John immediately… go back home, presumably to resume their interrupted sleep.

I’m imagining that’s what some of those attending the Sunrise service this morning are doing with the rest of their Easter morning.

Anyway… back to the Gospel: just as John and Peter are settling back into bed, Mary returns to the tomb and plays a game of mistaken identity with our resurrected Lord whom she presumes, beyond all reason, to be the gardener.

This has gotta be true. I mean, who can make this stuff up?

And then, even when John the Gospel Writer finally arrives at the report we’ve all been waiting for – Mary recognizes the Resurrected Jesus as he speaks her name! – he gives us what, to me, is the most curious and confounding detail of the whole resurrection account: Jesus says to Mary, “Do not hold me.” Just at the moment when the music should swell and Mary’s spirit rise in joy, Jesus stops her and us cold with, “Do not hold me.”

What do you think that means?

The Gospel adds a postscript that helps us begin to understand: “Do not hold me… for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” Were Mary to hold on to Jesus, she would halt his ascent, prevent him from completing his journey back to God. And so Mary cannot and should not hold him. She must let him complete his mission and destiny.

When this portion of the report – Jesus saying, “Do not hold me” – come to us today, two thousand years after his first resurrection appearance, perhaps they are meant to remind us that we too try to hold Jesus. Don’t we as individual Christians, as churches and religions try to mold Jesus into our own image, domesticate him to our own understanding and purposes?

  •  Those who claim they have the one true faith or the one true church – don’t they try to hold or hold onto the Christ?
  • Those who put chains on the righteous, who try to rule through tyranny and injustice – don’t they try to hold or hold back the Christ?
  • Those who approach Jesus Christ with an agenda, a list of what they will or will not sacrifice in his name – don’t they try to hold or hold out on the Christ?

Rather being than faithful reporters of the Gospel, of the Good News of the Resurrection, they try to hold onto Jesus, mold his person and message to their own liking.

But today Jesus Christ still defies our holding, our attempts to set limits as to who he is and how he should be followed. The Resurrection comes whether we like it or not, whether we are ready for it or not. We must simply receive it and pass it on without editorial comment. It is not ours to hold. It is not ours to control.

The OBGYN doc was late when our last child started coming in the middle of the night. The contractions came on quickly, and we raced through the darkness from our home in the country to the hospital 30 minutes away. But the doc was late, busy with another delivery in the next town over. So the nurse, with I’m sure was a good heart and noble intentions, said to my wife, “Just hold on to that baby until the doctor gets here.”

Those of you who know my partner know her as a kind and gentle soul with soft, sympathetic eyes, and never a harsh word spoken. But at that moment the look she gave that nurse was deadly and the words that came out of her mouth cannot be repeated from the pulpit.

Sooner can you hold back a freight train than you could hold back our youngest from bursting into this world. The doc arrived about thirty minutes later; fifteen minutes AFTER the baby.

It can’t be done. It simply can’t be done. You can’t hold back a birth. And that’s only the beginning, of course. The life of a parent is pretty much a constant experience of “ready or not, here it comes!”

It’s patently absurd to think that you can hold back a birth. And it’s even more absurd to think you can hold back a rebirth. When the resurrection first occurred, Pilate couldn’t hold it back, the religious authorities couldn’t hold it back, the faithlessness of Jesus’ closest friends and followers couldn’t hold it back, even a huge stone sitting right in front of the tomb couldn’t hold it back. When the resurrection occurs for us, when the Risen Christ continues to appear to us today in our homes, churches, families, communities; as we work, play, and rest;  wherever and whenever Christ comes, WE CANNOT HOLD HIM BACK!

We can’t hold Christ. The resurrection is isn’t about us holding on to Jesus as if he was our personal property, our own little Messiah to bring out whenever and however we choose. The resurrection is out of our control. It is simply to be received and passed on without editorial comment.

That’s the unvarnished truth. That’s the faithful report.

Does that seem like good news to you? That we can’t and won’t hold Christ? Then here’s the really Good News that is the flip side of that truth: We cannot hold Christ because He will hold us.

That’s what the resurrection is about. Christ will hold us.

  • He will hold us when we are oppressed, when we are broken-hearted, when we are aching in body and spirit. He will hold us with the Good News of God’s triumph over the powers of evil.
  •  He will hold us when we are grieving, when we are wracked with tears and sick with sorrow. He will hold us with a healing power that reaches all the way from head to soul.
  • He will hold us even as we are lying on our death beds. He will give us the miraculous word of a rest that comes after tribulation, a life that comes after death, a heaven that comes after our earthly days are over.
  • He will hold us day by day when we are adrift and confused, holding us in God’s ways, the new covenant sealed in his sacrifice, the new path of righteousness seen in his loving example.

“Do not hold me,” the Risen Christ says to Mary and still says to us today. “Do not hold me.” We may not hold Jesus because, through Jesus, God will hold us.

God will hold us. That’s what the resurrection is about. God’s rule has broken into our world, has broken the hold of tyrannical powers and principalities, broken our own hold on God, broken even the power of death itself! So now God can and will hold us.

That’s the news on this Easter morning. Alleluia… Alleluia… Alleluia… Let the people say “Amen.”

On the Outside

On the Outside

Date Preached: Sunday, April 1, 2018 10:30
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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Meditation given by Rev. Nicholas Hatch at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on April 1, 2018 at 10:30 AM.

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A Crucifixion at the High School

A Crucifixion at the High School

Date Preached: Thursday, March 29, 2018 10:30
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Meditation given by Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on March 29, 2018 at 10:30 AM.

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In the Darkness, in the Breaking

In the Darkness, in the Breaking

Date Preached: Sunday, March 25, 2018 10:30
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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In the Gospels of Mark and Luke and Matthew, immediately after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus cleanses the temple, overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and denounces a religious hierarchy more interested in control and profit than in offering the full reach of gospel grace. It’s then that the plot to kill Jesus begins in earnest. In John’s Gospel, the cleansing of the temple happens a year earlier – we hear that the entry into Jerusalem and the plot to kill Jesus is tied not to the cleansing but to the raising of Lazarus. In this way, the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in John is tied to the cosmic struggle between life and death, light and darkness.

Our hero, Bud Brigman, is the foreman of an oil platform that rests at the bottom of the ocean. His recently estranged wife, Lindsey, our heroine and the designer of the rig, is called below to lend her expertise in a time of crisis. This is the set-up for a truly harrowing scene in the movie, The Abyss.

One thing after another happens and they find themselves alone in a foundering underwater craft, about a thousand feet down and hundreds of yards from the rig. Water is seeping into the cabin of the craft and they have only one diving suit between them.

Now, they can’t use the buddy system, passing the air mask between them as they swim. The person without the suit would freeze to death as the temperature of the water at these depths is near zero. They can’t repair the craft. In fact, water is rapidly filling the cabin. “You’re the smart one,” Bud says to Lindsey. “Think of a plan!”

It’s here that this predictable scene stops being predictable: Lindsey says to her husband, “This is the plan – I drown.”

“Are you crazy? That isn’t a plan!” her husband shouts.

“No, no, listen – I drown and you tow my body back to the rig. With the water this cold, it will go into hypothermic shock and you might still be able to revive me after maybe twenty minutes.”

“No way!” Bud protests. But the water is rising and no choice is left to them. Bud puts on his mask and holds his wife in his arms as she struggles and then, horribly, drowns. He screams in agony. Then he begins swimming. In the darkness, you see this man, fully clad in deep-sea diving gear, frantically pulling his way through the way while holding the lifeless body of his wife.

“This is the plan – I drown.”

Fresh off his triumphant march into Jerusalem marking the beginning of the great Festival of Passover, some Greeks – gentiles – wanted to meet the one over whom all the fuss had been made. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” they said to Philip, the disciple. Then Philip tells Andrew; then Andrew and Philip tell Jesus, and Jesus answers their request to see him, but he answers it in a strange and surprising way: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

What? Those Greeks must have been thinking. Weren’t you already glorified in the great Passover parade?

” Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

This is the plan, Jesus was telling them: I die. And if you really want to see me, if you really want to understand me, you must see me in my death. In this way, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is less “I Love a Parade” than “Dead Man Walking;” less “King for a Day” than “Notes from the Underground;” the “Abyss” of death.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Imagine this saying from a wheat grain’s perspective:

This is the plan: we’re going to dig a hole, put you in it, and then cover you over with dirt until everything is totally dark. Then, in the darkness, your body is going to break apart; well, explode, really. After a while, something new is going to peek out from the ruins of your body, something soft and white. This tender little arm will dig its way out of the dirt, break through the ground, and then we’re going to subject it to fierce winds, burning heat, and drenching rains. Then you will turn into something wonderful.”

If you were that grain of wheat, how would that plan sound to you? I know how I might react – NO WAY!! GIMME A BREAK! I’M ALREADY JUST A LITTLE GRAIN. NOW YOU WANT ME TO GIVE UP MY ONLY PROTECTION FROM THE REST OF THE WORLD?! YOU WANT TO BURY ME IN THE GROUND?! NO WAY!!

It is a dark and dangerous passage that faces that little grain of wheat. But this is the path of faith. This is the path of hope. This is the path of new life. This is the path of Jesus. That is what you must see if you would see Jesus.

Elsewhere in the Gospel, Jesus tells a parable with similar themes that gives some assurance to all of us little seeds and grains:

“The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself…”

This short but surprisingly deep parable provides us with both humility and assurance. The growth, the transformation, the changing of seed into grain, of grain into fruit, is a mystery beyond our control and even our understanding. It is in God’s good care as are we, Jesus seems to be saying.

We moved into our first home in September of 1988. Our first child was born in late March just about seven months later. Because she was born prematurely, she needed to stay in the hospital for a while to gain weight and strength. As you can imagine, those were nervous times for us new parents. But something happened that Spring that was strangely and, I think, miraculously reassuring to us.

As this small baby was growing in the hospital, something was happening in our garden. We hadn’t even cleared the weeds and dead grasses out of it, much less planted anything, but suddenly flowers began to come up; wave after wave of Spring flowers. We hadn’t planted them. We hadn’t even known they were there, lying dormant in the earth, awaiting the warming touch of the change of seasons. But they arose.

“… the seed would sprout and grow, she does not know how. The earth produces of itself …”

We know how babies are made, but in our child’s earliest days we were given a sign that life comes not from us but as a gift from God.

Every one of us here this morning has been faced with such fearful times. Every one of us has found ourselves in the darkness, breaking apart. If someone offered us the choice in advance of going through it, we would have answered it just like that little grain of wheat, just like Bud Brigman speaking out of The Abyss – NO WAY! Every one of us would have offered the same prayer Jesus offered in the Garden – “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me.” Father God, I don’t like this plan. Mother God, show me another way.

Those are the moments when we, like those gentiles at the Festival of Passover, would see Jesus, when we NEED to see Jesus! Those are the times when the example of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, of Jesus’ faithful choices in the shadow of the cross, when these are our best thoughts, our last hope, our only salvation. In the darkness, in the breaking.

Those are the moments when only faith in the God of Jesus Christ will do. In the darkness, in the breaking.

Those are the moments when we cast aside the empty promises made to us by those who offer an easy life, of growth without pain. Instead, we embrace the radical faith of Jesus Christ. In the darkness, in the breaking.

Those are the moments when we must have faith in a light that shines in the darkness, a life beyond our brokenness, a hope beyond death.

The names of the dead were read at Pierce Park yesterday morning:

the name of a victim from the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high School in Parkland, Florida;
the name of a victim from the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado;
the name of a victim from the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut;
the name of a victim from the shooting at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando, Florida;
the name of a victim from the shooting at the country music concert in Las Vegas;
the name of Trayvon Martin, the victim of a police shooting in Sanford, Florida;
the name of a victim from the shooting at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin;
the name of a victim from a domestic shooting in Harrison, Wisconsin;
the name of a victim from the shooting on the Trestle Trail Bridge in Menasha, Wisconsin.
Closer and closer and closer to us came the names; closer and closer and closer came the shadow of death. These names were on the lips of an Appleton High School student. She was one of those who led and organized yesterday’s March for Our Lives. My guess is there were about 40 or 50 of us there from our church among the more than 1000 marchers.

It was remarkable to listen to the speakers, four local high school students, speak out about those who had died. They spoke about the darkness they face as they engage in live shooter drills at school. They spoke about the brokenness they feel when they’re told to fear for their lives at school.

It was their march. The hundreds of us who marched with them marched in loving support, but we understood that it was their march. For they, like the survivors of the Parkland shooting, believe that something can come from the deaths they have witnessed. They believe that change can come from those who cry out, “Not one more!’ They believe that out of the darkness, out of the breaking, the fruit of peace can emerge.

We were so proud of our young people yesterday; so proud of their courage, determination, and fearlessness. But I think we were also sad; sad that those so young must march through the valley of the shadow of death in search of a nation’s redemption from violence and fear. We were sad that they have come to know death.

“For we would see Jesus,” those gentile Greeks tell the disciple Philip. When word of their request reaches Jesus, Jesus tells them to look for his death. For that’s where Jesus will be seen; in the darkness, the breaking, in the cross, and in the empty tomb.

“… if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.” Those are words I often say at a service of committal, as we inter the body or the ashes into a grave, into the dark ground. I say those words to remind us of the promise that even in the darkness and the breaking of death, new life is possible.

“… if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.” Did you know that those words of the Apostle Paul really aren’t about death but about baptism? They’re not about the end of life but about that moment when the seeds of our faith are first planted?

“… if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.” Those were the words used by the first Christians when new believers were baptized into the Christian faith. We don’t usually use them in this church, especially at infant baptisms, because nobody wants to talk about death when they’re holding one so young and innocent.

“… if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.” Those were the words that occurred to me as looked up at our High School students, seeking to wrest hope and change from the death they have seen and feared.

That’s what our faith is really all about, we who would see Jesus even in the darkness, even in the breaking. Our faith is about the radical hope and commitment shown by those high students and expressed in our baptismal confession: “… if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.” And did you know that the word we translate “die” in the original Greek really means “drown?”

Okay, this is the plan of faith – you drown.

Not From Here

Not From Here

Date Preached: Sunday, March 18, 2018 10:30
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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Meditation given by Rev. Nicholas Hatch at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on March 18, 2018 at 10:30 AM.

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Wherever You Go: The Story of Ruth

Wherever You Go: The Story of Ruth

Date Preached: Sunday, March 11, 2018
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The Loyalty of Love

The Loyalty of Love

Date Preached: Sunday, March 11, 2018 10:30
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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There was a small village in Africa where the people would spend evening after evening gathered around their storyteller. Every night, that’s where they’d be. That’s what they’d be doing. Then one day a man brought the village its very first television set.

That evening everyone in the village gathered around that television, staring in wonder at this marvel of technology. The next evening was just the same as they watched program after program. This kept up for six nights. But on the seventh night the man was alone with his television. He went looking for the people of the village and found them gathering once more around their storyteller.

The man asked one of the elders of the village, “Why are you listening to your storyteller instead of watching the television? The television knows more stories.”

“Yes,” the elder said. “But the storyteller knows us.”

The Bible is our storyteller. It knows us, the kind of people we are and have always been; the kind of predicaments we find ourselves in; the ways our lives change and grow.

And the stories the Bible tells us are of a marvelous variety. Sometimes they are about heroic, larger-than-life characters taking part in events that are historic, momentous, miraculous. And sometimes they are about everyday people, making difficult, everyday kinds of decisions.

The latter kind of story is what our Old Testament Reading is like this morning. Naomi is nobody famous; just a woman who fell in love with someone from another country, married him and moved to his home, and they had children together, two boys. But then tragedy strikes. Her husband dies, then one of her sons dies, and then another. And a widow in those days without sons was doomed. She had no means of support and, seemingly, no future. All she had left were her two daughters-in-law. Out of loving concern for them, she told them to go away, to leave her, to find new husbands. And one of them obeyed her. But Ruth, her other daughter-in-law made another choice.

Do you hear what’s happening? Do you understand the choice Ruth is making? A choice made not for safety, but a choice made out of loyalty to her mother-in-law, a choice made out of love for Naomi?

Ruth stayed with Naomi out of the loyalty of love. She traveled with Naomi back to her hometown, Bethlehem. Makes you think of two other travelers who journey to Bethlehem, doesn’t it? And because Ruth and Naomi were so smart, so hard-working, such strong and wonderful women, they make a future together. And at the very end of the book of Ruth, this book about these ordinary women showing extraordinary courage, we find out something incredible: Ruth was the great-grandmother of David, David the King of Israel!

In this way we find out that Ruth’s choice, her loyalty of love, didn’t just change Naomi’s history – it changed the history of an entire nation.

An old woman named Mrs. McNeil walked miles and miles through the farmland of Ontario in the early 1900’s bringing Bibles and pamphlets and the Gospel to the families who lived in the open country there. An eleven-year-old girl named Ethel Nelson was so touched by Mrs. McNeil’s loving words, that she followed her to a revival meeting. There her life was changed. Ethel wanted to follow Jesus Christ the rest of her life.

Ethel began bringing her family to church and after she graduated school, she went to work at a Salvation Army mission in Toronto. Two important things happened to her there: she fell in love, and she felt a strong call to overseas Christian mission. The man Ethel was in love with didn’t really understand about her faith or about her calling. He wanted a conventional wife and a predictable life. So, she left him and went to work at an orphanage in Turkey. Before she left, she and every young woman going on that mission were forced to make one promise: while they were there, they would not fall in love with one of the so-called “natives.”

When Ethel arrived in Turkey, she had a language teacher there named Youvan, a young Greek man. Guess what happened? Yes – she fell in love with him and he loved her. Youvan was encouraged by the Congregationalist missionaries there to go to the United States, and off he went to Oberlin College in Ohio to study to be a minister. Ethel remained behind until people found out about the letters that she and Youvan were writing back and forth. They discovered that she had broken the rule – she had fallen in love with a native man. So, she was sent home. But instead of returning to Canada, she went to Oberlin, where she and Youvan were married. After he was ordained, the two of them served together as home missionaries in Racine, welcoming and looking after Eastern European workers being brought in to work in the factories of Southeastern Wisconsin.

You know who Ethel Nelson was? My grandmother. And the loyalty of love that she showed to God, and the loyalty of love that she and my grandfather showed each other, changed everything for my family.

What about you? How did your grandparents meet? Where in your family history was everything changed because of the loyalty of love?

The loyalty of love changes everything. It changes people too:

Mary Ann Bird grew up knowing that she was different, and she hated it. She was born with a cleft palate and her schoolmates would tease her about her misshapen lip, her crooked nose, lopsided teeth, and garbled speech. When her schoolmates asked her, “What happened to your lip?” she would tell them that she had fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. Mary Ann was convinced that no one outside her family could ever love her.

When she was in second grade, she had a teacher – Mrs. Leonard – that everyone adored. She was short, round, and happy; a sparkling lady.

Well, every year in school they would have a hearing test. Do you remember having a test like that in your school? Because of how she was born, Mary Ann was virtually deaf in one ear but every year she would only pretend to cover her good ear and, by cheating, would pass the test. That year Mrs. Leonard gave the hearing test to everyone else in class until finally it was Mary Ann’s turn.

She knew from past years how the test went. She would stand against the door, cover one ear, and the teacher sitting at her desk would whisper something that she had to repeat back. The teacher would say something like, “The sky is blue” or “Do you have new shoes?” and the student would say it back. Mary Ann waited there, pretending to cover her good ear, until she heard Mrs. Leonard whisper seven words; seven words that God must have put into her mouth; seven words that would change Mary Ann’s life. Mrs. Leonard whispered to Mary Ann, “I wish you were my little girl.”

And that changed everything. Mary Ann stopped thinking about herself as a damaged person, ashamed and second-rate. Instead, she started thinking of herself as someone worth loving. The loyalty of love that Mrs. Leonard showed Mary Ann stayed with her for her whole life.

What about you? When has someone showed you the loyalty of love? When has God’s love entered your heart and let you know that you were a beloved child of God? Who was the person God used to transmit that message?

Here’s my favorite Martin Luther quote:

“Faith, like light, should ever be simple and unbending; while love, like warmth, should beam forth on every side, and bend to every necessity…”

In 1981, when President Reagan chose then Judge Sandra Day O’Connor to be the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, a reporter from the Ladies’ Home Journal asked her husband John how he felt about playing a “supporting role” to his more famous wife. This is how he responded: “Sandra’s accomplishments don’t make me a lesser man.They make me a fuller man.”

Justice O’Connor retired in 2006 from the Supreme Court when the symptoms of her husband John’s Alzheimer’s Disease accelerated. A year later, in 2007, she let it be known that her husband had developed a romance with a fellow patient at his health care facility in Arizona.

Justice O’Connor and her husband showed a loyalty of love that amazes me. Over the long journey of their marriage, their love wasn’t confined to rigid roles defined by male and female. Their love bent to the necessities of change. In fact, because of John’s illness, the loyalty of their love wasn’t even confined by a traditional understanding of fidelity. But you and I would firmly agree that there was something wonderfully, marvelously loving about their marriage and about them.

“Faith, like light, should ever be simple and unbending; while love, like warmth, should beam forth on every side, and bend to every necessity…”

Through every changing circumstance, through every new necessity, the loyalty of love is the way that guides us on. Through age and infirmity, through changing times and rising tides, through every crisis, through each fresh challenge, love, like warmth, beams forth on every side and bends to every necessity.

Praise God for Ruth and Naomi, for Mrs. McNeill and Ethel Nelson, for Sandra Day and John O’Connor and all those who have shown us the loyalty of love.

Amen.

Who We Are and Who We Aren't

Who We Are and Who We Aren't

Date Preached: Sunday, March 4, 2018
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Meditation given by Rev. Kathryn Kuhn at First Congregational UCC, Appleton on March 4, 2018 at 10:30 AM.

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