Sermon: Bearing Fruit

Bearing Fruit

A Sermon for The Plymouth Church of Framingham

March 24, 2019 (Third Sunday in Lent)

Audio File:

 

Text:

Luke 13:1-9 

1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ “

 

 

Sermon

 

God gives that fruitless fig tree one more year. In all things God is merciful.

~

God may be merciful, but, that’s no reason to waste your life.

~

God’s mercy still demands fruitfulness of each of us.

~

There it is, that’s my sermon in a nutshell. For those of you who would like to tune out the remainder, you may now pick up your pew Bibles and begin to study.

 

Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “Christians in America would like to believe in a God without wrath that saves a world without sin through a Christ without the cross.”   No fruit produced there. Dietrich Boenhoeffer considered this kind of faith, “cheap grace.”

 

So, we come on this third Sunday of Lent, to the question of sin, suffering, and repentance.

 

There are at least two ways of looking at suffering.

 

One is to say, it was caused by something. By someone’s actions. A popular variant on that theme is, if you sin, bad things will happen to you, in order to punish you for your sin, or bad things will happen to people you love, as part of God’s punishment of you. There are two corollaries, for those who believe this: If something bad happens to someone, they must have sinned to cause it. And, if you are good, good things will happen to you, because you deserve them.

 

Jesus blows that set of beliefs right out of the water, when he says: “”Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you…”

 

So Jesus seems to support the opposite view of suffering: God doesn’t send suffering as punishment for sin. Sometimes bad things just happen, without explanation. God’s judgment of sin is not the cause of all calamity. As the New Interpreter’s Bible says, “life is uncertain, death is capricious…” (NIB 270) Jesus says, there’s no simple explanation here. God is not an arbitrary punisher, but rather one who judges with compassion; one who is merciful in all things. One who gives even unfruitful fig trees more chances.

 

This, generally speaking, is the mainline, UCC view of suffering: we may not understand it, but we don’t blame God for it. God is merciful, God loves us, God is love, God offers grace to all.

 

But in the same breath as Jesus says, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you…,” Jesus also says, “but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

 

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “In the South, this is what we call giving with one hand and taking away with the other. No, Jesus says, there is no connection between the suffering and the sin. Whew. But unless you repent, you are going to lose some blood too. Oh.”1

 

God loves you, God is merciful, God eye is on the sparrow and you know God watches you, God would even have mercy on an unfruitful fig tree.

 

But that does not free you from responsibility.

 

In our 21st century mainline Christian lives, we seem to get off easy. We get to focus on the institution of Christianity, rather than the Christian life. When our work as Christians – either that institutional life, or our own soul searching – gets too hard, we can say, I’m not doing that any more. It’s too hard. I want an easier, more peaceful, more fun, more convenient Christian life. I’d really prefer not to teach Sunday School more than twice a decade, thanks, and don’t even talk to me about tithing, that’s evangelical stuff. Doing more work for church, so that we can be serving the community in God’s name – sorry, no time. Also, I come to church on Sunday morning for peace and refreshment and then I will go back to my real life. Doesn’t matter what I do there, you know, because God is merciful.

 

Well, that’s bogus. Let’s speak the truth, even the dissonant truth of Lent.

 

Yes, the Christian message is hopeful, comforting, resurrection-filled. But it is also challenging, calling us to bear the cross, carry the load, shovel the compost, and produce a harvest-full of fruit.

 

The world is not a better place because you’ve come to church this morning. In fact, you’re not a better person because you’ve come to church this morning.

 

Maybe, just maybe, the world will be a better place because you take your faith out into it. Maybe, just maybe, you will be a better person because God’s mercy causes you to bear fruit. But it’s not gonna happen unless you seek to bear God’s fruit. You’ve got to put God’s call to you first, regardless of the difficulty.

 

Lent ought to feel hard. Lent ought to make you squirm in your seat. It ought to make you stare sheepishly down at your shoes and try to avoid God’s eyes. It ought to make you take out your wallet and look deeper into it, wondering where all your money goes. It ought to make you look deeper in your life, wondering where all your time goes. It ought to make you look deeper into your relationships, wondering where all your love goes. And it ought to make you change something.

 

Jesus’ parable declares: God is a just judge and merciful creator. The two are in balance. God doesn’t send earthquakes, or cruel Roman governors. God sends a Messiah and messages of love and resurrection. But God still has demands of us: that we bear fruit.

 

 

This image, of fruit worthy of the divine gardener’s efforts, runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian testament.

 

In the first chapter of Genesis, God tells people to bear fruit.

 

Jesus says, we will be able to recognize righteous prophets “by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16) and he says, The kingdom will be “given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Matthew 21: 43

 

But, God is not just the gardener, separate from the plants. Think about John 15 in which Jesus gives us another gardening lesson:

 

1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…5 I am the vine, you are the branches.

 

There is something about being one fig tree, in a vineyard with many others, on a farm full of plants, all rooted in good earth, all tended by the great gardener, that ought to give us comfort. We are not alone. We live in God’s world. We are part of God’s good garden. Christ is the vine, and we are the branches, and we can bear good fruit.

 

~

Our family friend, John Henry, had been in recovery a year or two. Someone unexpected had invited him to his first meeting, dragged him there, really, insisted that it was time for AA. It probably shouldn’t have worked – I know it doesn’t work when you drag someone – but somehow it did, thank God, and he sat at a recovery banquet and found a new life. He was starving, at least spiritually and emotionally, and there he found food. He started to rebuild, or he started to be rebuilt. He connected, or reconnected, to God, who pruned and watered and spread good compost on John Henry’s roots until he bore good fruit. And when his own fig tree was growing well once again, John Henry started tending the rest of the garden. He started a business, a strange and humble thing: a packing and shipping service, tucked into the back of a mini-mall. For a certain period of time in Nashville, if you mail-ordered candies from small-batch makers, John Henry’s company was responsible for the bubble wrap and the box the candy safely traveled in. And the folks who worked there? They were pretty much all in early stages of recovery. It probably shouldn’t have worked, but that business succeeded, in all senses of the word. That business turned a profit, and helped turn lives around. Someone looked at John Henry’s fig tree and said, one more year. A little more rain and sunshine and compost. Someone loved on him. And having grown into new life, he made it his business to invite more folks to tend the other fig trees in the vineyard to new life and new fruitfulness.

 

May whatever we do, as individuals, or as a congregation, bear fruit in God’s orchard.

Amen.


1  “Life Giving Fear” by Barbara Brown Taylor. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 4, 1998, page 229.

Sermon: Leaning Forward Into the Vision of God

 

Leaning Forward Into the Vision of God

A Sermon for The Plymouth Church of Framingham, UCC

March 17, 2019

 

Audio File:

 

Friends, in light of the terrible attacks on the mosques in New Zealand, I want to say something before the scripture reading and my sermon.   First and foremost, let it be said from this pulpit that we offer support and love to our Muslim neighbors near and far. In the words of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, “We weep with those who weep. We rebuke those who choose the path of division and violence. We vow our solidarity with our Muslim neighbors and our prayers for the grieving and the dead.”  I have written letters of sympathy and solidarity to send to the Islamic Society of Framingham and the Islamic Society of Wayland that you may add your name to after worship.

 

We have a tradition at Plymouth Church of focusing in worship on the same scripture that Faith Workshop is studying, so I have known today’s passage would be from Genesis 15 for weeks.   But it seems good and worthy and perhaps even Spirit-led that our text today focuses on Abraham – the spiritual ancestor of three faiths, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. All three of our faiths draw from Abraham.

 

Our passage comes from the time before Abraham gets his new name.  To set Genesis 15 context: in the first 10 chapters of Genesis we hear a cosmic history, and we hear promises made to all of creation. In the eleventh chapter, we move from the cosmic to the individual, from all of creation to one – seemingly random – man and his family. Yet God’s call to Abram, and God’s covenant, are, we are told, will make this family a blessing to all nations (Genesis 22:18), – in them, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Abraham’s story lasts many chapters but our focus today is on the promise God makes to Abram in chapter 15, that his descendents would be as many as the stars.  Listen, for the word of blessing God has for us, in this morning’s scripture passage.

 

Text: Genesis 15:1-12; 17-18

 

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

7Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

12As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

 

17When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…”

 

Prayer:

Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire and enlighten us with your celestial fire for if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters.  Be with us, we pray in the name your Beloved, Amen. (A prayer often offered by Barbara Brown Taylor before her sermons)

 

Sermon:

 

That night, Abram must have feel like the Psalmist:

 

3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;

4what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  (Psalm 8)

 

We can trace our spiritual lineage all the way back to Abraham.

 

We are proof of the promises made to Abram on that starry night a few thousand years ago, that his family would grow and grow, to be as many as the stars visible on a clear night, standing outside Abram’s tent.  We, members of the Christian tradition, the Jewish tradition, and the Muslim tradition, our faiths have been nurtured by the assurance and promise God made to to this particular person.

 

This one particular person, Abram, that God cares for.  God, who in Abram’s faith spoke worlds into being, God who cast the stars into the sky, God loves Abram so much to that to him God makes a promise, unlike any made before.

 

This is part of the mystery of our faith, that God, the creative force in the universe, the one who transcends time and space, that God is our God.  God cares for each individual one of us the way a mother hen gathers each of her chicks under her wing; the shepherd who counts all of the sheep; the psalms tell us God knows every hair on our heads.

 

~~

 

The promises you just made to Juliette are as concrete, as specific, as tender as those God made to Abram.  We walked her down the aisle and showed her the people who will raise her up not to be afraid. Who will give her the stars – or at least a galaxy of love.  Who will journey with her her, wherever life leads.

 

We, as the church, promised to care for this child. We promised to help her hold fast to that which is good and to return to no one evil for evil. We will love her and show her with our lives how Christians live. We proclaimed that by this affirmation we are inseparably bound with her.

 

You made these promises to her sister a few years ago, also.

 

And to countless others who have come before, children and adults, you have made promises on the days of their baptism. God had a beautiful and personal bond with one person, Abram – that became a beautiful and personal bond with every child who came after. You have this kind of beautiful and personal bond with each person here. I have seen you uphold these promises, even in the short time I have been among you.

You have given the same care to those who have not been baptized yet and you have cared for people to the end of their earthly days according to those loving promises.

The ritual of baptism, even more than a moment for a community to make promises, is about repeating and rehearsing and re-living the promises God has made to this child, and to each one of us.

 

Those promises echo God’s assurance to Abram:

Don’t be afraid.

I love you.

I will be with you, and those you love, now and forever.

Your future is one of great hope.

 

Those promises are as tender as the moment God puts an arm around Abram’s shoulder and led him out into the still midnight, tilts his chin up to look at the sky, and asks him to count his children as the stars.  

 

In Abram’s story, we see the relationship between God and one particular person.  We have gone from God’s universal relationship – Adam is an archetype for all people; the rainbow covenant is with all the earth – to God’s relationship with individual people.  And that one relationship foretells God’s relationship with each one of Her beloved children. This covenant that God makes with Abram brings into being God’s relationship with individual people as numerous as the stars.  And that brings the story to Juliette. And that brings the story to each one of our stories. For not only are we among the daughters and sons of Abraham who number like the stars, we are, each one of us, a beloved child of God.

~~

 

Lest we think Abram’s story is one of a perfect person of perfect faith – and therefore a story our own story cannot resemble – let’s talk for a moment about this man.

 

If I were picking people to whom to make such promise, I am not entirely sure I would have chosen Abram and Sarai. Abram has Sarai pretend to be his sister in order to pull a fast one on a foreign ruler. Later in the story, Sarai co-opts a family slave into bearing Abraham’s child and then casts her and the child out. And neither one of them believes God when God first says: you will have descendents more numerous than the stars.  Abram questions God’s promise. To put it mildly, Abram is flawed and Sarai is doubtful. And they are the people to whom God chooses to present this promise. God chose Abram and Sarai, flawed people, to be on the receiving end of a covenant. That says something about God. It says, God can use anyone for good. Sometimes you’ll hear folks talk about the strong faith of Abraham, and he was faithful: but also flawed, and God chose him, anyway. Which is good news for me, at least, as another flawed human being – and maybe good news for you, too? God calls and chooses and covenants with people not based on their worthiness, but based on God’s love. This is the first and most important identity we are given: beloved child of God, receivers of the most beautiful and tender promises imaginable.

 

It must also be said: it takes Abram a minute, to get to the place where he can trust God’s promise.  First he’s got to ask, really? But our text says he does get to that place of trust – “he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  

 

It might take us more than a minute to get there, and that is okay. When we are full of question and doubt sometimes what we have to do, even in the moments of questioning and fear, is to turn to another one of God’s beloved children and embody the promise for them, even so. Even in our own doubts, speak tenderly to our sisters and brothers.  Turn to the children who are here in this place, and say to them: Do not be afraid. There is hope. Turn to the neighbors down the road and across the ocean and say to them: you are beloved, you are my sibling, I stand next to you.

 

We have to lean “forward into the vision of God for the world even when the horizon extends far beyond our own lives.” (W. Dennis Tucker, workingpreacher.org)

 

As Psalm 27 testifies, we believe that we shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let our hearts take courage; wait for the LORD!

 

Amen.

 

Sermon: Transfigured

Transfigured
A Sermon for the Plymouth Church of Framingham, UCC
March 3, 2019

Audio File (Sermon Only):

Luke 9:28-36

 

28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

 

Prayer

Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire and enlighten us with your celestial fire for if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters.  Be with us, we pray in the name your Beloved, Amen. (A prayer often offered by Barbara Brown Taylor before her sermons)

 

Sermon

 

When I was 19, I had a religious experience.

The very first night I was back on my college campus, a wild storm came up of the sort that only happens in summer, in flat lands, prairie and big sky places, such as southern Minnesota. I lived that year in a dorm that overlooked the soccer fields, and beyond them, the Carleton Arboretum. The storm rolled slowly and mightily across the sky, lightning building and flashing in small pockets of mile-wide clouds, thunder almost continuously booming. I have never before or since seen a storm like that one. Even so I have no excuse for my completely stupid action: I ran out into the storm. I stumbled down the hill and out to the middle of the soccer fields, which I had entirely to myself, and I laid down on the field and watched the sky and I jumped up and danced in the rain. I was sure I could touch heaven.  And I could see the dazzling glory of God.

I came back into the dorm, soaked, amazed. My roommate gave me a talking to as only a Texan with her back up can do, and I never ever again danced in the thunderstorm, so please do not hear this story as advice for experiencing the presence of the divine.

But, let me tell you, God’s surprising and awe-invoking presence in that one stunning moment helped carry me through a very tough year.

~~

At the top of the mountain, Jesus was at the pivot point of his life. Born for a purpose, baptized with water and Spirit, he had been teaching and healing all around Galilee. His close friend Peter had seen him, seen his true nature: not just a prophet, but the Messiah. And for the Messiah, there was more to do than preach. So now, Jesus had turned his focus toward Jerusalem.

Imagine, what this moment was like for Jesus.

Maybe, just maybe he wasn’t so sure of himself. Look at the people that gathered close to him. They were confused. They made odd choices. Peter, sweet Peter, bless his heart, he could see Jesus was the Messiah but he didn’t know what it meant. And there were James and John, who wanted to be first more than they wanted to serve. And as many people who were healed, just as many rejected Jesus. Maybe Jesus was doubting that he could make it to Jerusalem. Maybe he, fully human we are told, did not feel strong enough. Maybe he got like we do, so deep within the day to do that he needed perspective.

So, he went up the mountain.

Jesus had a prayer practice made plain by Luke’s gospel. He went away to pray. Sometimes alone, sometimes in a boat, sometimes with friends, sometimes up a mountain.

This mountain, traditionally thought to be Mount Tabor – is 1886 feet high, is in Lower Galilee and stands above everything around it. From it Jesus could see clearly the flat lands nearby. But he could not see to Jerusalem, so far to the south. He could not see all the way to the Mount of Olives, his next mountain. So he prayed.

And the text tells us he was transfigured, he became dazzling.

What a gift God gave to Jesus that day, to surround Her son with such a glory.

To put next to him two ancestors who had followed their own challenging calls.

To confirm his power and his path.  To give him strength for the journey to the next mountain.

Jesus could remember the words the dove whispered in his ear or roared from the sky on the day of his baptism, you are my beloved son.

And now the cloud enclosed them, and the voice, “This is my son, my chosen! Listen to him!”

Yes, it was for Peter and James and John, a call to follow.

But for Jesus, heart already turning toward Jerusalem, what must it have meant, to hear one more time:

My Son. My beloved. My chosen. The one I have sent. The one to listen to. You are my son. My beloved. My chosen.

On the mountain, a soul revived & sent.

~~

It turns out, dazzling and glorious mountaintop moments are rare.  We can’t force them to occur. The most dramatic ones are once in a lifetime gifts.  But, encountering God’s loving presence does not have to be so rare.

Our own experience of transcendence begins

with pausing to pray,

climbing the mountain,

retreating from the crowd,

gathering our friends,

listening.

 

Maybe it is simply

breath caught again after racing,

clarity of reflection,

an opening to gratitude,

a feeling of belovedness,

a strengthening of resolve,

a quiet rest,

a glimpse of glory,

 the peace which passes all understanding.

Or maybe it is a dazzling mystery that astonishes us. That could happen, too.

Often it is the end of this passage that we focus on – when Jesus and his friends came down the mountain to continue preaching, healing, and calling for justice. We are indeed called down from the mountain to minister in his name. But today I want to invite you to be open to encounters with the holy, to holy and mysterious moments. To be open to mountaintop moments.

We go up the mountain for perspective and vision. We go up the mountain so we can believe, when we are in the valley, that the world might not be completely stuck, unchangeable, doomed.  Moments of glory strengthen us – in a letter ascribed to Peter himself, we are told: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Peter 1:19)  Holy moments make it more possible that we can believe that there is a power outside of ourselves, shining in glory, speaking to us Her children: you are chosen, but you are not sent alone. She is strengthening the world for change. And we do not carry the world alone on our shoulders. We go up the mountain to witness the glory of the Lord, so that we may know we are not alone. We live in God’s world.

So that we may know: we are not alone.  We live in God’s world.

~~

This week, pouring over the this scriptural piece of mystery and wonder, I have also been praying for our neighbors in the United Methodist Church.  It is the denomination of my childhood and I feel deep ties to its theology and worship and great love for many friends who are hurting over a decision against LGBT inclusion in the global United Methodist Church.  We would say these words regularly in the church of my childhood: We are not alone. We live in God’s world. My prayer for queer and ally members of the UMC is that in this hard moment, they have some mountaintop moment to draw strength from.  Holy and divine moments in which they tangibly experienced God’s glory and God’s love. Transformative times with courageous mentors and lifegiving partners. I pray they remember hearing God saying to them: You are my chosen, my beloved. I give thanks for the UMC pastors, congregations and seminaries that are saying so clearly: You are not alone. You live in God’s world.  You are beloved, and chosen.

~~

This is my prayer for you, as well:

Whatever strength you need for the journey;

Whatever moment of transformation and wholeness you need to get through the tough times;

Whatever religious experience you need to get through Lent,

May it be yours this Transfiguration Sunday.

Amen.

 

Benediction

 

Go forth

radiant with the holiness of God

transfigured by the glory of Jesus Christ

shining with the exuberance of the Holy Spirit

and strengthened for the Lenten Journey ahead.  Amen

 

Sermon: Blessed

Blessed

A Sermon for Plymouth Church in Framingham, UCC

February 17, 2019

Audio File (Sermon Only):

 

Introduction to the Gospel Reading

 

This morning we hear a text that is both familiar and surprising.  It includes Luke’s Beatitudes which the Lectionary only includes in the years when the Epiphany Season lasts longer than usual – in fact the Lectionary hasn’t included Luke’s beatitudes in almost a decade.  While they start off sounding much like Matthew’s very familiar beatitudes, I invite you to listen with fresh ears for Luke’s particular interpretation of who is blessed. These beatitudes have an edge and a challenge.  Listen for God’s word to you in Luke 6.

 

Text:

Luke 6:17-26

17He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

 

Prayer:

 

Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire and enlighten us with your celestial fire for if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters.  Be with us, we pray in the name your Beloved, Amen. (A prayer often offered by Barbara Brown Taylor before her sermons)

 

Sermon

 

Pastor Will made an excellent point last week, highlighting the back story that led to Simon, James and John choosing to drop everything and follow Jesus.

 

There’s a backstory to Jesus’ words, Blessed are you who are poor.

 

The writer of Luke wanted us to know, Jesus cared for the poorest and most marginalized folks.

 

You can trace it all the way back to before his birth, when Mary rejoices in God’s care for the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed.

 

You know it from the people who heard the good news first, poor shepherds on the hillside.

 

You can hear it in Jesus’ reading of the scroll of Isaiah, the first time he preached in the synagogue where he grew up:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

You can tell from the people he healed and liberated in the early parts of this gospel:

There was a man with a demon – we would say a man struggling with mental illness, most certainly on the margins of the synagogue and community – whom Jesus looked upon with compassion and healed.  A woman, Simon’s mother in law, Luke doesn’t even give her a name but Jesus raised her up from fever. A leper, most certainly poor and struggling – skin ailments in the first century were often a side effect of poverty. A paralyzed man, rich in friends but poor in health and wealth. And on the other end of the spectrum, tax collectors and sinners who through his compassion repented and began anew.  Luke wants us to know that Jesus ministered to and with the poor, the hungry, the folks on the outside, the folks who were rejected, the folks who had reason to weep.

 

He knew these folks.

 

He’d been walking around, from town to town, for a little while by then.  This preacher had earned their trust at the bedside.

 

Some of them, there on the plain, were people he’d already met and healed, who chose to follow him, who chose to bring their neighbors and their family to be healed.

 

So when he said, you are blessed, he was speaking directly to people he knew, people he had already blessed.

 

There is another part of the backstory, one we sometimes overlook but that matters an awful lot.

 

Jesus himself was poor.  

 

I spent some time this week with the wisdom of Howard Thurman, who wrote in 1949, “Jesus was a poor Jew….The economic predicament with which he as identified in birth placed him initially with the great mass of men on the earth. The masses of the earth are poor….in his poverty he was more truly Son of man than he would have been if the incident of family or birth had made him a rich son of Israel.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 7)  Writing just two years ago, the co-leader of the new Poor People’s Campaign said it similarly: “Jesus comes to his ministry from his own earthly poverty: from his experience of the severe dispossession and subjugation of the Roman Empire….[he is] a savior of the poor who is poor himself.” (Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor by Liz Theoharis. pages 76, 77)  Not only was he poor, but 70-90% of the folks around him were poor, under the Roman Empire. (Theoharis, pages 83-84)  Think about that percentage – we’re going to come back there.

 

It matters, don’t you think, that Jesus was speaking to people whose experience he understood because their experience was his, also.  It matters that God’s child not only became human but lived as a poor and marginalized person. When he preached, Jesus was not just saying to them, I am here for you – he was saying, I am one of you. He wasn’t as much preaching to them, as preaching among them.

 

He’d taken a retreat, on the hillside, with some of his disciples.  And then he led them down the hillside, onto a level place, into the midst of the people, to show these who would minister in his name what his commitments were.

 

Perhaps he found there, waiting on the plain, interspersed among the crowd,

Simon’s mother in law and a man who could once again walk and another whose demons were quieted.

 

And to them he said,

 

Blessed are you who are poor…

 

You.

 

Perhaps as he said it, he was making eye contact with the one whose skin was clear, and to someone who saw that overflowing net of fish.   

 

They turned to each other and nodded.  They knew it was true.

 

Blessed are you who are hungry…

 

You.

 

Perhaps as he said it, he made eye contact with the tax collectors and sinners who had eaten with him just the other day.

 

They turned to each other and nodded.  They knew it was true.

 

Blessed are you who weep…

 

You.

 

Five friends, one of whom they had carried to Jesus, turned to each other and nodded.  They knew it was true.

 

~~~

Luke wants us to know, Jesus had a focus.  A focus and a calling to serve the poor, to re-center the outcast and to liberate the oppressed.  Jesus’ healings, and his teachings, were aimed toward liberation. He ministered on behalf of, and for the survival of a besieged people. (This idea comes from a group Bible & preaching study led by Richard Horseley in November 2018.)  When he said, yours is the kingdom of God, to a people without power in the Roman economy, he was granting power in God’s economy. To a people without dignity, he was blessing. He was turning the tables on Empire by declaring the already but not yet truth of God’s own reign.

 

What we learn in Luke’s beatitudes, according to Debie Thomas, is:  “If you want to know where God’s heart is…look to the world’s most reviled, wretched, starving, grieving, shamed and desperate people. They are the fortunate ones. They are the blessed ones on whom God’s promise of more and better rests….The very fact that Jesus prefaces this hard teaching by alleviating suffering in every way possible suggests that he does not valorize misery for its own sake. Pain in and of itself is neither holy nor redemptive in the Christian story, and in fact, Jesus’s ministry is all about healing, abundance, liberation, and joy….” ( Debie Thomas,  https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2089-blessings-and-woes )

~~

 

But then there are the woes.

 

I’m tempted here to do what Sweet Honey and the Rock do with the Beatitudes, which is to just wrap up on the Blesseds…. Hey, I’ve preached ten minutes already, I can sit on down now.

 

Because when he proclaims the woes, well, Jesus might just be making eye contact with me.  

 

Some folks in this room, not everyone, but some of us, might hear ourselves in these words: woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full now, woe to you who are laughing….for you will mourn and weep.

 

Friends, there is good news for those of us feeling uncomfortable with the second half of this text, and the good news for us also comes in the backstory.

 

It’s right there in Luke 5.  His name was Levi and he was a tax collector.  He was one of the people Jesus met who was part of the unjust economic system that had made 90% of the people in the Roman Empire poor.  And to Levi, Jesus made an invitation to discipleship. And Levi responded. In the first months of his ministry, Jesus healed the sick and liberated the oppressed; in the first months of his ministry, Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners and led them to new life, too.

 

It comes to us in Isaiah 40, the vision God has for the world:

 

4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.

 

This is good news for mountain and valley alike, and it is good news for us, the poor and the rich, for everyone who wants to be part of the kindom of God.

 

I am just getting to know you and to get to know Framingham.

But here are a couple of the things I’ve discovered so far.

 

In 2018 there were 20000 folks experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts and that was double the rate from 1990.  We had the largest increase in homelessness in 2018 of any state in the US.

 

I’ve discovered the poverty rate in Framingham is 11.5%.  That’s not the 90% rate of the Roman Empire, but it’s too much.

 

I’ve also discovered our Outreach group has deep relationships with the shelters and the organizations that are working with folks experiencing homelessness and poverty in Framingham. I’ve discovered that this church is part of good work liberating the poor here in this place and I am sure if you want to know more, people are ready to tell you.

 

Blessed to be a blessing is the phrase that comes to mind.

 

And if we turned our attention to places Jesus attention would also be in 2019 – racism, climate change, or homophobia – we would be able to name people and teams working for justice here, thanks be to God.

 

Friends we are called, poor or rich, hungry or fed, weeping or rejoicing, to be part of the already but not yet of God’s reign, lifting up every valley and blessing everyone who stands in need of liberation. If we are poor then let us rejoice that the already-but-not-yet, blessing and liberation of God’s own reign include us – and agitate for it just like that poor prophet did on the plain.  If we worry that Jesus’ woes are directed at us, then let us determine to be part of the building up of God’s own kindom.

 

Amen.  

 

 

Sermon: Wild

Wild
A Sermon for the Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
December 9, 2018
Audio Recording:

Scripture

Our gospel passages for this morning share pieces of the story of John the Baptist.  His parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were righteous and faithful people.  In their old age, Zechariah was visited by an angel who told him not to be afraid, and told him to expect a child.  Zechariah questioned the angel, and for his doubt was silenced until John’s birth.  From the first chapter of Luke, listen to the testimony Zechariah offered after the naming of John:

Luke 1:68-79 – The Benedictus of Zechariah

‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

Luke 3:1-6 – The Proclamation of John the Baptist
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

Prayer

Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire and lighten us with your celestial fire for if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters.  Be with us, we pray in the name your Beloved, Amen.  (A prayer often offered by Barbara Brown Taylor before her sermons)

Sermon

Preachers love this Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist week.

John was WILD! It is impossible to go over the top when describing John! I mean, this guy wore garments of camel’s hair. And I know some of you have bespoke blazers made out of camel’s hair, but that’s not what I mean.  He hung out in the wilderness.  Not, like, hiking the White Mountains like we do in the summer, John really lived in the middle of nowhere. Like an Appalachian Trail Thru-hiker on his gap year. John ate unpasteurized local honey, and I am not talking about the kind we all eat to inoculate us against regional spring pollen.  But the wildest part of all was his message. He jumped up on a rock in the middle of a desert and people came to listen and he said, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”  Radical. Then he starts talking about what the world will be like: The valleys shall be filled and the mountains made low.  And the people’s part in it: Bear good fruit, worthy of what God has given to you, John said. Out of the box thinking. And then, in a stunning development, people started listening to John, and they asked him to make it plain. What shall we do? (this part’s technically a little further along in Luke.)   John had the audacity to tell them to share. I mean this guy was out of control! If you’ve got two coats, give one away, and if you have more food than you need, bring someone new to the table. And he looked right at the tax collectors who had come to him to be baptized and he. Said. to. Them. Only collect the amount you are supposed to collect. To the soldiers, oh, he had a word for them. Don’t rob people. This guy was wild, I tell you.

To every one of them, he preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He put before them a chance at redemption. He put before them a new and different future, a possibility of change, a vision of a fairer and more just world.

Woah. This guy, how in the world did he get away with these wild, out of control, radical ideas?

He didn’t, actually.  Herod killed him.

I met John the Baptist once.
In 2012,
During the presidency of Barack Obama,
In the time when Geoffrey Black was the head of the United Church of Christ,
In the time when Fred Krupp headed the Environmental Defense Fund,
And near the end of Thomas Menino’s last term as Mayor of Boston,
I met John the Baptist on the Boston City Hall Plaza just as a hurricane swept in.

I met him that Fall, at a Climate vigil.  He rode onto Boston City Hall Plaza on a bicycle, hauling a trailer made from salvaged parts. It had just enough room for him to slide into and sleep, out of the wind and rain. His hair was long and wild, and he had a lumberjack’s beard.  Henry David Thoreau quotes were glued to the sides of his trailer. He played music on a homemade guitar and he ate raw kale. He stood off to the side a lot, watching, with a little bit of a wry smile.

Hurricane Sandy was on track for Boston, and the vigil organizers who had intended to stay on the plaza 24/7 closed down the vigil a day early so that people could get to safety.

He stayed. He huddled in his trailer and his witness continued and he made it through safely. I wondered at his determination, this prophet in our midst.

[Sage – his name is actually Sage – has left the hurricanes behind and seems to be studying climate science these days, although I am sure his prophetic voice continues to speak.]

~~

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius,
the most powerful person in the Roman world,
the word did not come to the Emperor.
When Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
the Roman ruler in situ,
the authority and power in that region,
the word did not come to the governor.

When Herod was ruler of Galilee, tetrarch of an occupied quarter,
the word did not come to the tetrarch.

During the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
Jewish ritual leaders controlling the temple,
controlled by the Romans,
the word did not come to the high priests.

The word of God in the wilderness,
The territory the people traveled when they made their Exodus,
And when they returned from exile in Babylon.

The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth,
Wild and marginal son of a humble, righteous old couple.

This is the way Luke tells every tale: it is the humble who are lifted up, the outsiders who challenge the system. The last shall be first, starting from the first moment of Luke’s gospel.

It is the unknown who make known the good news for all the world. It is the nobodies who share salvation with all people.

John had no power but the power of the Spirit.
John had no power but the power of God’s message.
John had no power but the power of wilderness.
John had no power but the power to point to the one to come.
John had no power but the power to set aside power.
John had no power but the power of water washing away sinfulness.
John had no power but the power of his word, the power of God’s word to him to the people.
But John’s power threatened the Powers.

~~

God’s prophets are an interesting kind of people. They are almost always outsiders, whether because they have always walked the margins or their message has pushed them outward. Their message is specific to a time and a place and a community, but it resonates universally.  They point to a source far greater than themselves. They call for change from the ways of the past and the present.  But most of them also preach hope and possibility for the future, aligned with that great source.  The prophets that have no vision of the future, who cannot see beyond the problems of the moment to a future redemption, who are not pointing up, actually get into trouble with the source of their message. When the prophet Jonah refused to acknowledge Nineveh’s repentance and reconcile with them – God had a word for Jonah.

John, though, has a vision of a hopeful future right in his opening words, drawn from Isaiah:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

He may have eaten locusts and worn hair shirts and spoken a wild word that the powers and principalities could not tolerate – but he also preached a better future.

Now, we are not John the Baptist.  We are not called out into the wilderness to eat bugs and put our hands in bees’ nests, to stop showering and shaving for the sake of a prophetic word.  We are not even called to build our own bike trailer and sleep in it through a hurricane. Most of us are not even called to prophesy alone.[1] Building compassionate and inclusive and justice-oriented community and creating space for people to come when they have been in the wilderness is our communal call.

But we are called to the prophetic word.  In this particular time, in this specific place, we are called to prophesy welcome and inclusion, compassion and justice, creation care and neighbor care. We are called to envision and embody the kin-dom of God and to invite people into a community of hospitality and justice.  We are called to prophetic and hopeful honesty, called to prepare the way of the Lord, called to see the people in the valleys and lift them up, called to flatten the mountains of inequality, called make a pathway for our God, to proclaim as loudly and wildly as John, the kin-dom of God is near!

One preacher says it this way: “Just as the birth of John restored the voice of his father… this season of preparation [may] restore the prophetic voice of the church.  This is our work, to go out into the wilderness, to proclaim to a weary world that hunger, poverty, inequity as we know it will not have the final word….The valley of the shadow of death will be filled; it will be lifted up. The mountains of struggle, pain and poverty will be made low. God entrusts this message to the church and charges us to make it plain.”[2]

Zechariah looked down at his little baby boy and recognized that this tiny child had a role to play in the renewal of the world.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare God’s ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

And what more amazing calling could we possibly have, than to be modern day John the Baptists: to prepare the way of our God, to make room for this community, and this city, and this state, and this country, and this world to know salvation, forgiveness, and hope –  to wake one morning by the tender mercy of our God to the dawn from on high breaking upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

At the end of the second year of the first term of the 45th president of the United States,
who is preaching to people in the wilderness, or the margins, at the border?
At the end of the first year of the first term of the first woman mayor of Newton,
Who is lifting up those in the valleys of Newton Corner?
As the ninth national leader of the UCC is nominated to a second term, who is building the kin-dom of God for the people of progressive faith?
In 2018, who is pointing to the Coming One and preparing the way?
I hope that we are.

Here is a piece of good news:
We are not lone voices in the wilderness. We are not alone.  We may be in the wilderness. We may be. Those who are also walking through the wilderness and those who are in the valleys need to hear our prophetic witness that holds both a call for change and a hope for a future marked by love, equality, equity and justice.

John had no power but the power of the Spirit.  But it was enough to get the message across.  And it’s enough for us, too.

Amen.

[1]  I am indebted here to a preacher Will Green, on The Word Is Resistance podcast of December 7, 2018 for this insight: in 2018 we do not have to be solo peacemakers and justice seekers.

[2]  Liz Myer Boulton, Christian Century, December 1, 2009.

Sermon: This IS The Day That The Lord Has Made

This IS the Day That the Lord Has Made
A Sermon for The Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
Rev. Reebee Girash
November 18, 2018

Audio Recording:

1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”

Philippians 4:4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Prayer

Sermon

In the first chapter of Samuel, we hear her story:
They lived in the hill country of Ephraim, fifteen or twenty miles out of Shiloh, the place where the people had so carefully placed the ark of the covenant in the tent of meeting. They lived in the hill country, Hannah and her household. It was an age of polygamy and she was one of two wives of Elkanah.  Perhaps he loved her more, but with Peninnah he had sons. When they went to Shiloh to make sacrifices, Hannah received double portion of the feast for herself, but each of Peninnah and her children received a portion. And Peninnah rubbed in, year after year. Hannah wept and fasted and would not be consoled. Elkanah offered strange comfort, asking her, aren’t I worth ten sons?

We hear in Hannah’s story, her struggle to conceive and have children, the pain so many experience with infertility. The longing to parent, the love for children, these formed Hannah’s sadness. But there was more: in an age of bare subsistence, and in an age of polygamy, Hannah’s very survival depended on her ability to bear sons. When Elkanah was gone, only her sons could take care of her. Men had multiple wives to increase their number of children; women who could not have children were at risk of destitution. No, Elkanah’s love was not worth ten sons.

But then the text says: “Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up.”

She stood up. The Hebrew is quwm (“koom”), meaning she rose up, she became powerful, she persisted.[1]  In the face of infertility, provoked by her rival and on the edge of survival, she stood up. We don’t know what prompted her to move from weeping and fasting to standing up and taking charge. Maybe, as one preacher says, since they were in Shiloh, which was the seat and center of Hebrew worship at the time, maybe an encounter with the spirit of God is what plucked her [up], gave her a fresh read and a new lease, and made her aware of the redemptive power of God and the resilience of the human spirit. Whatever, Hannah stood up. She prayed to the Lord.”

(Rev. Paul Roberts http://day1.org/6372-a_fresh_read/comments)

She stood up, walked to the Lord’s House, and prayed hard. This was a mighty prayer, I think.  Hannah laid it on the line with God. Still weeping, she said, God, this is it. I’m going to have a baby. You’re going to help me and I’m going to dedicate him to your service. She was so determined in her prayer that the priest, Eli, thought she was drunk. But she was not drunk, she was powerful.  She poured her soul out to the Lord.

Modern folks have multiple ways of addressing infertility. We have medical science and we have sperm donors and we have adoption. As an adoptee I know the beauty of creating a family in this way. But Hannah: Hannah, whose infertility put her very life at risk, Hannah had only the power of rising up, and pouring out her soul before the Lord.

And she named her baby Samuel, which means, God hears.

And then she sang. “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.”

Her psalm became the psalm of a nation, and later, Mary’s psalm echoed Hannah’s, as Hannah’s echoed Miriam’s before her. “The God to whom Miriam, Hannah and Mary sing praise is faithful to the oppressed…This liberating God transforms impossibility into possibility.”[2]

Church you may wonder why I paired Hannah’s story with Paul’s words from Philippians. They don’t have much in common, at first glance.

Hannah’s song is among the suggested lectionary readings for today. And Paul’s invitation to rejoice in all times seems written for Thanksgiving Sunday. But it was not until I began pondering them together that I saw the parallels between Paul and Hannah’s stories.

Their contexts are both severe struggle and hardship. Paul, you know, was a Roman citizen and a member of the Jewish community who spent years persecuting Christians, until one day he was converted in a flash of light on the road to Damascus. Having never met Jesus, he was nonetheless responsible for founding many of the early churches. Then, the Romans came after Paul.

His letter to the congregation at Philippi was written from prison.

The early church was in a fragile state, still tiny and at risk of persecution from Rome. And Paul was in prison, punished for his efforts to spread a narrative counter to the empire’s.

Prison in the Roman empire was a harsh place.

The early church was undergoing growth in the same moment as persecution under Rome.

And Paul, if not in actual chains, was imprisoned.

I imagine him standing with his face seeking sunlight, pondering his own death – he predicted it at the beginning of this letter – and pondering the future of the Jesus movement.

To one of the congregations he founded, he sent a letter of encouragement, with his own commitment to hopefulness and joy. “What is remarkable is to hear this from an imprisoned man…This means his vision of joy and rejoicing is neither superficial nor short-lived; it is a kind firmly anchored in the lord for the long haul, despite obstacles.” [3]

He believed that no matter what happened to him, the church would thrive. He believed in God’s presence and support and because of it, he could face whatever came. From his prison cell he told them, “Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Certainly Paul had enough to be anxious about. Anxiety is not always a choice, it is often an unavoidable reality. Prison was a reality for Paul, and a threatened church.  Paul offered a choice of what to do in the face of.

In our readings this morning we find: praise and thanksgiving. Rejoicing and exultation. From a marginalized woman in a precarious situation, a song of praise. From a man imprisoned for his faith, a call to rejoice.

You might think them passive, naive, Pollyannas, Paul and Hannah. But they were they were assertive and brave. They had plenty to worry about but they chose to write their narrative from a place of courage and blessing. They chose to praise a liberating God. They chose a theology of abundance.

Church, these are your stories, too.  I know you face a moment of difficulty.

You, too, are waiting and wondering what is to come, feeling uncertain about this congregation’s future. Perhaps you are not in Hannah’s place, or Paul’s: wondering about survival. Or, perhaps some of you are.

And yet, like Hannah, you belong to a God of hope.Your strength is in God and there is no Rock like God. And yet, like Paul, you have much to be thankful for. The Lord is near.

You are blessed with resources to offer to God and to our neighbors. You are bold in prayer, and bolder in care and love.

You have the chance, in this season, to tell your story and to write your future.

You may also have come across this paragraph this week:

“I grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood, and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where an education can take you far. I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.” These words are from the newly published memoir of former first lady Michelle Obama. “I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.” 

It depends on the way you want to tell it, church.

The narrative we build becomes the story of our lives; for the church, the narrative of a congregation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are two possible Eliot Church narratives.
In this very room, a few weeks ago, I heard one:
Where are the people who once were here? This building is too big. Our budget is out of balance. In 2018, people don’t come to church.
But there is a different way of telling it, just as true: Look at the people who have found blessing here. We have a building in exquisite shape. We have enough money in reserve to back ministry we try. Think of the neighbors who don’t even know we are here: how can we bless them?

Here is the question, church.
Do you build a narrative of strife, scarcity and anxiety?
Or do you, moment by deliberate moment, build a narrative of joy, abundance, welcome, and hope?
Kelly Brown Douglas makes a good case for choosing a narrative of hope:

“We must dare to live proleptically, that is, as if, God’s promised future is already. The manner in which we conduct our living should be but a foretaste of God’s time…Even if these ways of acting are not the ways of our world, we must be daring enough to make them the way of our living.” [4]  

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
May it be so. Amen.

[1]https://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/hebrew/kjv/quwm.html

[2] Gail O’Day, “Singing Women’s Song: A Hermeneutic of Liberation”

[3] Troy Troftgruben, Commentary on Philippians 4:1-9, workingpreacher.org

[4] Kelly Brown Douglas,https://feminismandreligion.com/2014/01/21/how-is-it-that-god-speaks-by-kelly-brown-douglas/

Sermon: A Hermeneutic of Love

A Hermeneutic of Love
September 30, 2018
A Sermon for The Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
Audio Recording, Including Liturgist’s Reading:
Genesis 1:26-28  (translation: The Inclusive Bible)

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish in the sea, of the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that crawls on the ground.” Humankind was created as God’s reflection; in the divine image God created them, female and male God made them. God blessed them and said, “Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the earth – and be responsible for it! Watch over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things on the earth.”

Mark 10:42-45 (translation: New Revised Standard Version)
Jesus said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Prayer

Sermon

Words matter.  Translations matter.

And hermeneutics – the lens we deliberately use to interpret sacred texts – matter.
And so, today, on a day focused on our care for creation in the face of climate change, I want to begin by talking about the words of the creation narrative in Genesis 1:26-27.

The translation we read this morning, the Inclusive Bible, reads: “in the divine image God created them, female and male God made them.”

The New Revised Standard Version that we read most Sundays says, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.”

The translations familiar enough that we can recite them out loud gender God from the very first verses of our sacred text, and even an inclusive translation divides humanity into a binary of male and female. Implied in this verse at least is that the manner in which humanity is formed in God’s image is the manner of gender. Austen Hartke, a theologian who is transgender, breaks this open. “I’ve…concluded that this verse does not discredit other sexes or genders, any more than the verse about the separation of day from night rejects the existence of dawn and dusk.” Hartke takes the concept of the image of God back to John Wesley: “Wesley preached that people were made in God’s natural image….in God’s political image….and in God’s moral image (‘in righteousness and true holiness’ and ‘full of love’).”[1]

If we are made in God’s moral image, then we are made in the image of Love.  In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor on this same text, we are “made in the image of the First Lover, the Divine One….if that is true,
that we have been put here to live in that image,
then the only dominion we can possibly exercise is the dominion of love….we are here to love as God loves.”[2]

Of course, ‘dominion’ is the other translation from this Genesis text that trips us up.

If the way in which we categorize the earliest people matters to humanity today, so also matters the way we interpret God’s first instruction to them.

The Inclusive Bible Translation we heard today says, “‘Let them be stewards’…’Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the earth – and be responsible for it! Watch over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things on the earth.”

More familiar translations say: (NRSV)
“‘let them have dominion…God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’

Dominion over….

~~~

I have to turn to the Gospel now, because I’m going to use Jesus’ words to James and John to form my hermeneutic, my interpretive lens, for Genesis 1.

“Jesus said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it overthem, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you.”

Jesus is responding to James and John, who have made a request of their teacher. Jesus has announced his imminent death at the hands of the powers and principalities. James and John have responded by asking to sit in the fancy chairs. They have asked for a special place at Jesus’ side. They are asking for dominion, for control, for power over. Jesus’ response is to lovingly, carefully say once again: real power is the power of love and of service. Because Jesus interprets everything through love.

Jesus defines a hermeneutic of love and service. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Jesus rejects dominion and domination.

These two concepts have defined power among us for a couple thousand years. When Christianity went from offering a countercultural narrative of resistance to empire, to being the religion of empire, our hermeneutic shifted from one of love and service to one of dominion.  And it has mattered for our relationship to people, animals, and the earth ever since. Some scientists call the era that we are in the Anthropocene, because of the profound impact of humanity upon the earth. In this era, the dominion of humans over the earth has taken root.  Melanie Harris, an ecowomanist theologian, draws connections and parallels between the treatment of the earth and the treatment of black women’s bodies. The logic of the domination of black women’s bodies is the same logic of domination of the earth.[3]

In this moment, in the face of

  • Climate change
  • The destruction of brown bodies
  • The tolerance of violence against women

We face a choice. Continuing in the Anthropocene, choosing to double down on a hermeneutic of dominion means this: Hierarchy is justified, the subjugation of people and creation is justified, unequal power and privilege is justified. Dominating and subduing the earth sounds like holy mandate.

The alternative vision starts from a hermeneutic of love. Love, in the image of the Divine Lover, is our calling. Mutuality, respect and dignity is justified. Equity and justice are lived out. The last are first and the most vulnerable are the priority. Service to the earth and all its creatures, humility in the presence of all our brothers and sisters is our mandate.

We are at a moment of existential crisis, in terms of climate change.  Hurricanes Maria, Irene, Sandy, Florence – Typhoons Haiyan, Bopha, Mangkhut – the Carr wildfire. These catastrophes have wiped out communities and have made clear that climate change is real, is here, and is already disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable people. There is no reasonable doubt that climate change is caused by human actions, human choices, human consumption. I say to you: on its deepest level, climate change is caused by a human hermeneutic of dominion over.

How then, can we human beings address climate change? How will be serve our brothers and sisters, our children and grandchildren, our neighbors around the world? How will we adapt to live in a changed climate?

This week I came across a piece on carbon capture and storage. This is one potentially very effective strategy to draw already released carbon out of the atmosphere. It’s emblematic of one approach to climate change, what I would call a technical approach. And I want you to hear me clearly: we have to do these things. We have to pursue technical approaches. We are past the point of prevention through lowering our carbon footprint. Scientific approaches to reversing climate change are crucial.

And yet, I worry that they come from the same hermeneutic of dominion. A human-centered model of control. Human beings have figured out how to control and consume the earth’s resources; this has caused ecological destruction but could also be the solution to climate change, continuing the cycle of lordship over people and the planet. But, the tools of the master’s house will never dismantle the master’s house.  (Audre Lorde)[4]

Here is something. People of privilege and wealth will be fine. We will always find high enough ground to stake our claim. But will we reflect the moral image of God, from that hill?

One of the most troubling ways I imagine our future is this.

We are James and John, and we get what we’ve asked for.

We are seated at the right and left of Jesus, in the fancy chairs.
And our view is of a crucified Christ, and a crucified earth.

But what if the way we adapt to climate change is more radical? What if our adaptation is grounded in transformation to a hermeneutic of love? What if the first step is that we deliberately decenter ourselves? We come down from the hill and out of the fancy chairs. We center the voices of, and honor the stories of, and follow the call of, indigenous water protectors; children suing for their very futures; women whose bodies have been violated, refugees scattered around the world. We recognize the value of every form of life; we see the dignity of every person as a reflection of God’s image. We serve and sacrifice in order to renew and restore creation, in order to protect our neighbors and our children.

“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

Amen.

[1] Austen Hartke, “God’s Unclassified World: Nonbinary Gender and the Beauty of Creation,” Christian Century: April 25, 2018.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Dominion of Love: Genesis 1:24-31; Matthew 5:43-48”  Sermon preached at Columbia Theological Seminary in 2007.  Published in Journal for Preachers.

[3] Melanie L. Harris, Ecowomanism: African  American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths. (Maryknowl, New York: Orbis,  2017).  22;  151.

[4]Audre Lorde. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007