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Sermons

Listed below are sermons, recent and not so recent, preached at First Congregational United Church of Christ. Click on the sermon title to read the text or listen. If the name of the preacher is listed, click on it to learn more about him or her.

Jesus on the Jukebox

Jesus on the Jukebox

Date Preached: Sunday, May 13, 2018
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Proclaimed in Every Way

Proclaimed in Every Way

Date Preached: Sunday, May 6, 2018
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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Waiting at the Window

Waiting at the Window

Date Preached: Sunday, April 29, 2018
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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When Christians Get Together

When Christians Get Together

Date Preached: Sunday, April 22, 2018
Preached by: Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Masterworks in Worship: Jubilate Deo

Masterworks in Worship: Jubilate Deo

Date Preached: Sunday, April 22, 2018
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Prove It

Prove It

Date Preached: Sunday, April 8, 2018
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
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
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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A Crucifixion at the High School

A Crucifixion at the High School

Date Preached: Thursday, March 29, 2018
Preached by: Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Savides

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In the Darkness, in the Breaking

In the Darkness, in the Breaking

Date Preached: Sunday, March 25, 2018
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
Preached by: Rev. Nicholas Hatch

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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
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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