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Sermons

Listed below are sermons from recent to 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.

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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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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