Sunday, January 31, 2010

Scripture Fulfilled in Your Hearing

Sheepscott Community Church January 31, 2010

Jeremiah 1: 4-10

1 Corinthians 13: 1-13

Luke 4: 21-30

Scripture Fulfilled in Your Hearing

When I was listening to the lead-up to the State of the Union Address this last week, I couldn’t help but make a parallel between the scene at the synagogue in this week’s gospel and the scene in the House chamber the night of the President’s address. In both cases, those in attendance were interested and eager to hear what the speaker had to say. That’s as far as I’ll take that parallel, but even that little bit might help you to imagine the tension and excitement in the room that Sabbath day in Nazareth, the setting for today’s gospel.

I offer you a bit of historical orientation about the town of Nazareth. It was no backwater, as some may think. It was called a polis, which is a town or city of perhaps 20,000 souls, bigger than most of the towns and villages in this part of Maine. Nazareth’s location in Galilee meant that Jesus was brought up in a town in the sight of history and with the traffic of the world almost at its doors. Galilee itself, which was in an area of the north of Palestine and was about 50 miles long and 25 miles wide, was encircled by non-Jewish nations. Consequently new influences always played upon Galilee and it was the most forward-looking and least conservative part of Palestine, open to hearing something new, especially from one of their own.

At this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus had been out in the Galilean countryside before returning to his home town for this visit. This part of his public life, following his baptism by John and his time in the desert, was called the Galilean springtime. It is so-called because, yes, it was the beginning, but even more it is because he was a breath of fresh air. Everything he said and did was being received with joy and excitement, the way a new and hopeful message is usually received, at least initially. Also, opposition to Jesus had not yet begun to crystallize, and he was the toast of the countryside. So here was an audience of his fellow townsmen sitting on the edge of their seats with eager anticipation to hear what he would have to say.

It was the first time that Jesus had spoken in his home synagogue since he began his public life. By his own announcement when he appropriated the words of the prophet Isaiah, God had anointed him to bring Good News to the poor. He wasn’t bringing the bad news that John the Baptist had brought of the coming wrath, of the tree that didn’t bear good fruit being cut down and thrown into the fire. No. He was bringing the good news, the gospel, sent to proclaim freedom for prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. A very different message from that of his cousin John.

Further on in Luke, when John’s emissaries have come to Jesus to ask if he was indeed the one who was to come or should they look for someone else, Jesus told them what he had been doing: curing sicknesses and driving out evil spirits and giving sight to the blind––good news indeed, and very existential, as in, I am what I do. They left to bring that news back to John, and Jesus said to those gathered there, “I tell you, among those born of women, there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” And I believe we can understand Jesus to be saying that he is preaching and living the kingdom of God. Who would believe in him and his message of good news would be greater even than the widely recognized prophet, John the Baptist, who had now fulfilled his role of prophet or herald of the way, which Jesus had come to teach.

Back to the scene in the synagogue. The president of the assembly would have called forward seven men to read the scripture at the worship service on the day that the gospel describes. If you recall, while the Temple in Jerusalem was for sacrifice, the local synagogue was for teaching, and on that day, Jesus was the teacher. He stood to read the scroll of Isaiah, and then, as was the custom for the teacher, handed the scroll back, and sat down to teach. This sitting down to teach was akin to a professor’s chair in a university discipline.

What did he say? “Today this scripture”––Isaiah’s prophesy about God’s anointed one––”is fulfilled in your hearing.” That must have really raised that level of anticipation even more. There was some murmuring in the congregation about the words of grace that came from his mouth, and it was said with some pride, “Is this not the son of Joseph?” He was one of them, and by his speech burnished their idea of themselves, their own reputations, in their relation to him and his family. Everyone likes to be close to a celebrity, close to what they perceive as power, even back then.

But then Jesus began to elaborate, suggesting they might quote the proverb, “Physician heal thyself,” and this in regard to him doing in his own hometown what they heard he had done in the countryside, the healing and deliverance, the raising up. His reputation had preceded him. But Jesus sought to quickly disabuse them of their idea of who he was and what he would do. He reminded them that no prophet is accepted in his own home country. Uh, oh. Why would they not possibly accept him? Weren't they already in his thrall? Before they could recover, he was reminding them that the prophet Elijah was not sent to a widow in Israel during the great famine, but he was sent to Zarephath, to a widow of Sidon. And, he continued, although there were plenty of lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, he was not sent to them but to Syria, where he healed the leper Naaman.

Jesus has come as the fulfillment of the promise in Isaiah, and of John’s prophecy about the one who was to come after him who was before him and whose sandal strap he was not worthy to loose. Jesus with his message of good news fulfills the promise of both of those prophets who came before him. Doesn’t that sound like good news? Not to those gathered in the synagogue. They became incensed, and rose up as a body to muscle him to a precipice on the outskirts of town where they planned to push him over the edge. The sentiment of the crowd had turned on a dime. But it was not Jesus’ time yet and they could not finally touch him. They went from acclaiming him as Joseph’s son to condemning him with the same words, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Who does he think he is?”

Why did they get so upset? It was because Jesus put the Gentiles in a positive light, the light of God’s love, reminding the people that it was to those Gentiles that God had sent his prophets Elijah and Elisha on those missions. The Jews identified themselves as God’s chosen people, which they were, but Jesus was opening wider the door of that chosenness with what he was saying. He was teaching something new, expanding on the meaning of the Word, preaching as though the Gentiles were specially favored by God as well, and that, to the Jews in Nazareth that day, was an intolerable message. The elitist outlook of the Jews of the time as the chosen people was modified and qualified that day, when Jesus read the scroll of Isaiah and claimed the fulfillment of it in him and through him, and that that fulfillment was to benefit all the people.

All the people. In our own time and place that includes Native Americans, African-Americans, Europena- and Asian-Americans, gay and transgendered people, the elderly, the poor and disenfranchised, the abused, thieves and murderers, the mentally challenged, the discriminated against for whatever reason––all of the above are the chosen people, and all are called, no less than Jeremiah the prophet, John the Baptist, Jesus, the Christ. And us, yes, us. We are called in the same way. As Tony read from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born, I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

Whether or not any one of us is called to be a prophet, all of us are called to work for the betterment of the community, whatever form that work takes, and to love one another into life. And I borrow John the Baptist’s language when I say, Woe to you if you work against that community that God is forming in our midst, our own church and local community, our national community, our world community. We need to watch how we speak to each other and about each other, refraining from the inflammatory rhetoric of hate speech so much in vogue these days, which is utterly destructive of community, but thinking for ourselves, coming to our own conclusions, aware of ourselves as part of the same Body of Christ, all children of the same God, loved equally by that God. Can you handle that?

In creating community, in working for the betterment of community, and as we are willing to think for ourselves, sometimes it helps to let go of creeds and dogmas we have clung to that separate us, and to let the Spirit of God teach us about divine matters. And God will, along with and sometimes through the built-in check of a community of faith, which is the Body of Christ. It’s an odd thing about creeds. The beliefs can be very beautiful, and they have faith-filled history behind them and in them, and yet, they can become obstacles to our awakening to new understandings. Think Copernicus and Galileo. There is always something new to learn. We are evolving individually and as a species and we don’t at any point know it all. I would also add that when we are free of any bondage around creed and dogma, we can freely choose which among those creeds is true for us. We can ask ourselves, What do I really believe? When we are acting out of conviction about what we believe, we can act with commitment. Does that kind of questioning feel threatening? Challenging? Exciting? Which among those creeds and dogmas have we have seen bear fruit in our lives? Those are the ones we can readopt freely, or choose as we will, to enrich our faith life and to give structure to it, if that better enables us in the pursuit of truth and holiness in our individual lives.

Jesus is encouraging those assembled in the synagogue to hear and learn something new: that he is anointed to preach the good news to all the poor, all the prisoners, all the blind and all the oppressed, and we don’t need a lot of imagination to know that we ourselves can be poor and needy in many ways besides in lack of money; that some of us are prisoners of our past, or of mental or physical malady, no less than some are prisoners of present acts under lock and key in institutions; that we are blind to the truth that is right in front of us at times because becoming seeing means being willing to see another’s position in a different way––easier to remain blind in our own position, our own prejudice; and that we are oppressed by habits and our humdrum, day-to-day lives, that we feel unable to escape from, cannot see the grace that is hidden in our reality just as it is.

God help us. Jesus, anointed by the Spirit of the Lord, preach the good news to us, free us from our prisons, give us sight, release us from oppression, whatever form it takes. Then surely, you will proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor on our behalf.

The year of the Lord’s favor. Here we are on the last day of January. Remember what your resolutions were a month ago. Know yourselves renewed in those resolutions and able because of your connection with the living Christ, not excluded from the chosen, but included because he said so, know yourselves his prophets, his healers, his visitors to the sick of body and mind, his raisers up. Know yourselves the very Christ in the world, giving and receiving. Amen

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Long Reach of the Arm of Christ

Sheepscott Community CHurch January 24, 2010

Nehemiah 8: 1-3; 5-6; 8-10

1 Cor. 12: 12-31a

Luke 4: 14-21

The Long Reach of the Arm of Christ

I was talking with a friend this past week, and she told me that she and her daughter and her granddaughter had gone to the mall, among other things to shop and get their nails done. In my mind I immediately juxtaposed that activity with the pictures and the stories I have heard and seen coming out of Haiti. Haiti, Haiti: that’s been the wallpaper on my mind for the past two weeks. Last week we prayed for Haiti here at church and collected about $120 to send to that country via the United Methodist Church’s channel for donations. The disaster, the calamity has not gone anywhere. We continue to see the images and hear the terrible statistics of the dead, the wounded, the homeless, the hungry and the thirsty, plus a 6.0 aftershock, and the promise of more aftershocks.

I have been asking myself, How does life go on as usual for those not directly affected by a disaster, whatever form the disaster might take, including earthquake leading to death, to multiple deaths, to 200,000 deaths? How does one align getting one’s nails done and disaster in Haiti? How can we eat, drink, sleep, walk, study, write, talk on the phone, email, play with the kids and the dogs while all this unspeakable suffering is happening in Haiti? People sleeping in the streets under plastic sheeting, recycling gutter water to drink, languishing without food for days, not having the strength to fend off rats, dying. Never mind getting nails done, what about the everyday activities of our own lives? How do we keep on with those activities when our brothers and sisters in Haiti are suffering so?

Our brothers and sisters in Haiti? Yes, our brothers and sisters in Haiti. We are indeed all children of the same Father-Mother God, el Shaddai, emanating from that One as so many distinct rays of light. We can also perhaps more easily and understandably appropriate the metaphor of the body, as St. Paul uses it in this morning’s reading from First Corinthians. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.” These parts ”should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it...Now you are the body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it.”

Okay, I think we get that. All part of one body. But if part of that body is suffering, how do I think about getting my nails done? How do I think about going forward with the ordinary things of my life? If you recall what I was trying to say to the children at last Sunday’s service without frightening them, but at the same time talking with them about Haiti, the Christ whom we have so recently honored by celebrating his birth and whom we beheld in the play-acting form of a doll in the manger, that same Christ represented is no longer around to be seen. The manger is empty. Where did Jesus go? On high? Below? Still disintegrating in a tomb somewhere in the Holy Land? Where did Jesus go?

The quick and easy answer is the true answer, viz., that he has not gone anywhere. He is here in our midst. he is within us. As he himself said, “The kingdom of God is within.” The Quakers embrace that position with their encoded belief that the light of God is within each person. Yes. We all share the spirit of Christ, and this is bigger than some flitty idea, as in, Oh, isn’t it nice? We all share the same spirit. Fact: We do all share the same Spirit, but there’s nothing nice about it. It’s nitty-gritty stuff. We share the suffering of the Haitian people because we share the same Spirit. With them we long for water and food, distributed by a member of the Red Cross, who is the hand and eye of Christ. We long for healing by the embodied compassion of the Christ, which is that of a doctor without borders. We long for companionship as we die, and yet people hurry by.

One who did not hurry by is Paul Kendrick of Freeport, whom I read about in the Maine Sunday Telegram last week. He was in Haiti for a different humanitarian reason when the earthquake struck Port-Au-Prince about 85 miles from where he was. News of the quake traveled fast and everyone in the countryside it seemed had family or friends there. Although Haiti is a country of 9,000,000 souls, it is like a big family. There was a photograph in the paper of Kendrick grasping the shoulder of a man who was missing five people in his family. He wished he could have done more than “catch the grieving as he saw them fall,” as Bill Nemitz who reported the story put it. “’There’s nothing much more that you can say except, ‘I’m sorry,’” Kendrick said, “and ‘How can I help?’”

If we can’t directly alleviate suffering in Haiti, primarily because of geographical distance, but also for want of skills or equipment or logistics, we can alleviate the terrible fears of someone anxious for his family, as Kendrick did, or hold the hand of someone on the brink between death and life. Such acts of human kindness are perhaps the deepest expression of what it means to be one as the body of Christ and in the body of Christ. That we can do here in Maine. There’s always plenty of suffering around us, if we are willing to look at it and see where and how we can alleviate it.

I suggested to the kids last week, and I suggest the same to us that caring prayer and the conscious willed oneness with the suffering Haitians can make a difference, whether or not we can be there in the flesh. This is where the infant Jesus, the grown, mature Jesus has gone: his spirit is in each one of us. As we are increasingly willing to open to that reality, our consciousness becomes increasingly one with Christ’s and we know ourselves inextricably joined with all others in this human endeavor of trying to make the world a better place. It’s not simply about us––you and me––it’s about all of us, together in Christ.

By consciously not turning away from Haiti and thereby denying it in our thinking, we keep alive a communion with the people of Haiti. We can play with our own kids and the dogs, get a haircut, go to work, make dinner, allowing disparate human experiences in our consciousness at the same time without being undone. The Spirit of Christ does that in us. Openness to not denying our own pain or the pain of others is a great means of God’s grace into the world. Prayer at such a time, when we might feel helpless and wonder what the good of it can be, prayer at such a time reminds us that God’s comfort and help are already present, in Haiti, for instance, even as rescue workers are making an enormous relief effort. Prayer for the safety of the rescuers, for intelligence in planning and executing their tasks, can support their efforts

I am reminded of another tragedy, not on the same scale as Haiti, except for the family who lived it. Devastation is devastation, regardless of scale, emotionally and otherwise. We prayed for a woman late last fall, whose young son had committed suicide. I recently heard from her and she is doing very well, all things considered. She is a person who is not denying her own pain and the pain of her family resulting from this sad act. She told me that she and her husband joined a grief support group, and there she a met a woman whose young son had also died in the same month as hers. The woman, who had no faith or belief and was struggling deeply to make meaning out of this tragedy, could easily see how much better my friend was doing while she herself was close to despair. The two women have become friends, and because of all the grief work my friend has been doing around the loss of her son, because of her own faith and the prayer support and practical support from other members of the body of Christ, my friend is able and more than willing to help the other woman, her new friend, into a place of deeper and possibly even productive acceptance of what has happened.

Which brings me to the gospel for today. Jesus is in his home synagogue in Nazareth, and has read the scroll of Isaiah for the day, which contains the lines, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

I think it is true of my friend whose son committed suicide that the Spirit of the Lord who has comforted her is likewise on her to preach the good news of release and recovery, from the oppression of seemingly meaningless and tragic death, to this new friend who is suffering as she herself did. She was willing to receive help and accept what God sent to her by way of help and then to pass it on. Isn’t that the Twelfth Step? To pass on the healing? And then, what seems to be the irony of ironies, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. How could that possibly reflect God’s favor: the death of two young men? I don’t think those deaths are God’s favor, but it is what came out of the deaths––healing and deepened faith from great graces appropriated and shared out of a belief not so much stated as lived: that we are all one body in Christ. Her story is a reminder that death and destruction do not have the last word. Something greater and more positive will have the final say. Think Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

On the larger scale, for our part in thinking about Haiti, conscious prayer awakens thought to God’s preservation and restoration of humanity again and again, through wars, and natural disasters, through countless episodes of man’s inhumanity to man, from ancient times to the present, including in our own life experience.

If I may return to the manicure for a moment with a p.s. Not only is it not to feel guilty about having a manicure or any of those other activities of our everyday living, it is to be grateful that we can freely do those things, have those things, but at the same time not forget those of our human family who do not have or can not do freely by a long shot, to remember them and respond as the Spirit of God leads. Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Annual Meeting Liveblog

Board members present, Cindy, Bill, Karen, Lee, Bruce, Joanne, Sonnie, CJ

1100 -- Food, yummy food.
1125 -- Judith prays us in.
1126 -- Jon outlines the success of the building committee; ramp, mailbox, parking lots, walkways and a need for paint on the Valley Church.
1128 -- Bev from the Hospitality Committee: Christmas Lessons and Carols' success; grateful for Sonny and Bill for their continued coffee providing; Easter Breakfast next--usually run by the "men of the church." Tony volunteered to chair, has done it before. Bean suppers and four coffee hours per year.
1131 -- Sunday School, Chrissie says she still enjoys it. Next fall traveling schedule will require more support.
1135 -- Sonnie's cookbook report. "Mentioning campaign" has worked. Fewer than 50 left to sell. From 560 to under 50. Louis Doe, Cottage Gardens and Eleanor and Anita's have sold them for us. Never too early to think about the Yard Sale, tentatively third Saturday in June.
1138 -- Music: Caroll, speaking on behalf of the choir, "Everyone is so faithful...come hell or high water...don't mind staying." It is outreach for the community. Planning and Easter Cantata Good Friday evening, Lenten Cantata--Seven Last Words of Christ. Will have an organist so Carol can "get up and wave [my] arms." Bev Sperry: bring a friend.
1141 -- Mission Committee, Jan and Tony: "Community Supper has been a tremendous success." Sally and Steve Bush help always and bring other people. Tony: "We show up...We're a part of the meal." The Heifer Project, over 1,000 "arks" in Chile. Consider a Heifer Project contribution.
1146 -- Minister's report, Judith, State of the Church: very good. Solvent. That's good news. Greater visibility; "we are an entity." Need greater visibility. Karin's donation of the piano. Will supply notes as part of the days' blog.
1200 -- Treasurer's report, Bill Robb. Click for last year's budget. 2010 budget attached here.
1205 -- Revised bylaws with Cindy Leavitt, to be attached. Internal control changes to be attached. Bruce Ulrich moved to accept the revised by-laws, Joanne seconded. Unanimously approved.
1215 -- Cindy thanks current board. Bruce and Sonnie will leave the board. Cindy and the board thanked them both. Chrissy Wajer and Cindi Brinkler are proposed new members. Sonnie moved to approve proposed board, Joanne seconded. Approved unanimously.
1219 -- Call for new business. Karen moves to adjourn, Cindy seconds, unanimously approved.
1220 -- Judith closed with prayer.

Sunday, January 17, 2010



SUNDAY JANUARY 24, 2010 11:15 a.m.


All members of the church are encouraged to attend and hear what has happened with the church during the last year and to vote on changes in the by laws of the church, which will be reviewed at the meeting. Members of the Board will be elected. Coffee and baked goods available. Bring an appetite and your interest. Non-members who are interested are most welcome to attend but will be unable to vote.

Water to Wine

Sheepscott Community Church January 17, 2010

Isaiah 62: 1-5

1 Corinthians 12: 1-11

John 2: 1-11

Water to Wine

Last week I talked about the German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was part of a resistance movement to assassinate Hitler. He was imprisoned for suspicious behavior, and after being held in German prisons for two years, was executed by hanging, shortly before the liberation of the camps at the end of World War II. Dietrich Bonhoeffer laid down his life after the model of Jesus, whom he called and saw as “the man for others.”

This week, I would like to talk a bit about Martin Luther King Jr. as cut from that same cloth. He was only 26 years old, a recent graduate of Boston University School of Theology, when he was called to his first parish in Montgomery, AL. On December 1, 1963, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, and there began the Civil Rights Movement in earnest. King was drafted to lead the protest committee and the very next day addressed the already aroused community with stirring words: “As you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression...If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong! If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a Utopian dreamer and never came down to Earth! If we are wrong, justice is a lie!”

I think both of these men were prophets, called by God to stand against injustice. For Bonhoeffer, it was witnessing against the evil that Hitler represented in what he was doing. To not rise up in protest, however clandestinely, was to not stand against that evil. Bonhoeffer’s radicalization, if you will, was not a sudden thing. A lifelong pacifist, he had come to believe that the crisis of the times in Germany and abroad was so grave as to require that certain Christians willingly compromise their purity of conscience for the sake of others. He felt he could no longer escape into piety and became part of a plot to do away with Hitler.

King on the other hand overcame––as in “We Shall Overcome”––through nonviolent resistance, a political strategy he had learned from Ghandi, and from Jesus. Planned violence and nonviolent resistance. Different circumstances, different people, different strategies, both open to the Spirit of God and yet hearing in different ways in different times.

Where did these two men find the strength and courage to do what they did? Something we all wonder about: Would we be able to act courageously at the possible cost of our own lives if the occasion arose when we would be tested? Paul writes in Romans, “It is rare that anyone should lay down his life for a just man, but it is barely possible that for a good man someone may have the courage to die. It is precisely in this that God proves his love for us: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

In answer to my own question, Where did these two men find the strength and courage to do what they did? The answer: the Spirit of God, also known as the Holy Spirit, who is Jesus in the world.

With Bonhoeffer, as I indicated earlier, the move from complete pacifism to active resistance was a drawn-out process of prayer and of thought and analysis of the national and world situation, of what he was watching unfold before his own eyes. This did not happen overnight, but when he came to his conclusions, there was no denying the call to leave the safety of family and fiancee for the unknown, of participating in this group that would actively oppose the evil that Hitler did and was.

King was also caught up, you might even say swept off his feet by the momentum of his historical moment. After his first speech following Rosa Parks’ arrest, he faced violence and hatred, but it was a death threat to his family in 1957 that brought him to the limit of his strength. He went into the kitchen and sat at the table with a cup of coffee and turned himself over to God. As King himself reported, “Almost out of nowhere I heard a voice. ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’” Afterward, he said, “I was ready to face anything.” And he did.

I asked earlier where these men found the strength and courage, and answered my own question, which I believe would still be answered the same way: Jesus in the world, the Holy Spirit of God. Martin Luther King was a baptized Christian, but it was the further step of sanctification that happened that night at the kitchen table. That was when he gave his life over to God and God in return gave his Spirit to this young preacher that all might be accomplished through him.

We heard Carroll read from First Corinthians this morning about the gifts of the Spirit. “To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one the Spirit gives wisdom in discourse, to another the power to express knowledge. Through the Spirit, one receives faith; by the same Spirit another is given the gift of healing and still another miraculous powers. Prophecy is given to one; to another the power to distinguish one spirit from another.”

You may recognize one or more f your own gifts in this list, but for my purposes this morning, I’ll focus on the gift of prophecy. I have noted in earlier sermons that prophecy does not necessarily mean foretelling the future, although that can be part of what the messenger of God may communicate. That function and purpose, viz., being the messenger of God is what is important. How do we know that a person is speaking for God and not simply for him- or herself? I think there are at least two criteria for answering that question. In the moment, do we resonate with what we are hearing? Does it speak to our souls? It is reported that when the young Dr. King said to the people of Montgomery, as I quoted earlier, “As you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.” When he said those words, the church erupted in applause, and cries of “Yes!” rang out. Those words resonated with the experience of his listeners. God knew their experience, knew their centuries of suffering and pain in families being asseverated, in brutal beatings, in chains on auction blocks, in lynchings. God knew it all, and in the fullness of time raised up his prophet, Martin Luther King, to speak God’s life, the living Word, back into the people, to show them the way to the promised land.

King was a prophet in the truest biblical sense, who proclaimed to his generation the justice and mercy of God, remaining true to his mission, even to the laying down of his life. In 1965, just three years before he died, he said in speaking of how long it takes for justice to be realized––and indeed there were those who asked How long, O Lord, how long?––Dr. King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In this time of the administration of the first African-American president, it’s worth quoting those words and considering that it was a mere 45 years ago that King spoke them.

He also said in a speech the night before he was killed, that like anyone else, he would like to live a long life. “Longevity has its place,” he said. “But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will... But I want you to know tonight,” he continued, “that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” It’s reminiscent of Moses, isn’t it? Moses was the prophet and leader God had chosen, but like King, he did not himself set foot in the promised land. He had only seen it from afar.

Let’s excerpt Dr. King’s line, “I just want to do God’s will.” That was true for both Bonhoeffer and King, but each of them had to discern the best he could what was God’s will for him in the situation. That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in again, with the gift of discernment. What is the practical application of that when we are trying to discern what to do, what decision to make? We use our reason, our common sense, ask for input from one or two trusted friends, our spouse perhaps, sleep on it, then make a decision and go with it. God will always bring good out of a decision thus made, the best decision we can make at any given time.

Worth noting about King in this context is something he said about himself. “I want you to know,” he said, “that I am a sinner like all God’s children. But I want to be a good man. And I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, ‘I take you in and I bless you, because you tried.’” King struggled to be more than his weakest self, and he challenges the church and all of us to do the same.

Fine for Dr. King, you say. Fine for Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These are extraordinary men in extraordinary times. I don’t deny the prophetic dimension of their lives and characters. Inspiring, yes, but that’s not me.

I encourage you to try thinking about today’s gospel in such a context. The water and the wine. To briefly review, Jesus and his friends are invited to a wedding in Cana. His mother Mary, who was also there, knew that they had run out of wine, and turned to Jesus. He said in essence, “What’s that got to do with me? It’s not my time yet.”

But Mary knew her son and told the waiters to do whatever Jesus told them. Which was to fill six water jars to the brim. When the master of the banquet sampled the water made wine, he chided the groom for not serving the best wine first. What I want to suggest out of this story is that we, you and I, are that water in the stone jar. Not by any action of Jesus––no magic wand, no powders dissolved, no dyes added––but by his word, the water becomes wine.

No less than we, no more than we, were Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. water in those jars. It was by the Spirit of God, the Living Word, Jesus the Christ, that they were changed into the finest wine and so were able to do what they did. They could not have done that on their own, but God called them forth to meet history head-on, and they agreed, they acquiesced, and they had everything they needed to do what they did, which was the Spirit of God. That Spirit that changes water into wine is with us also, always, as Jesus said he would be, until the end of time, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against.

They were able to become men for others, as Bonhoeffer characterized Jesus as “the man for others” The writer of the book of the prophet Hosea has God saying, “It is love or mercy that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts.” If God does not call us to be offering the blood of bulls and goats, of sheep and lambs on the altar of sacrifice, he nevertheless does call us to identify with Christ’s death to himself, his surrender of his will, that we may be able to offer our lives to God, a sacrifice in that sense.

Yes, God asks us to be a living sacrifice, to let him have all our powers, our gifts. This is the acceptable sacrifice to God, where the regenerated soul deliberately gives up its right to itself to Jesus, to the Spirit of God. Thereby does that soul identify itself entirely with God’s interest in others. We have these gifts of the Spirit in us. Why not lay them at the feet of God? If we hoard our gifts to ourselves, they will turn into spiritual dry rot. Let us give back to God what we have been given that it might be made a blessing for others. Thereby do we become the finest wine given to others to drink. Thereby do we become the finest wheat, the finest bread, broken and given to others to eat.

I was at a friend’s funeral yesterday, and one of the mourners offered the following quotation from George Bernard Shaw as a tribute to the one who had died. It seems fitting here.

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no "brief candle" for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

For some there is a fear of loss of personality if they ever do so surrender themselves, their lives with all their gifts. In fact irony is at work here because, as I have mentioned before, it is when we let go to God that we truly discover who we are and are empowered to create the most useful and beautiful life we can. John 12: 24: Amen, amen, I say to you”––Jesus speaking––”unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” If we die to ourselves. Amen.

Board Meeting Notes

Initial Agenda: to be adjusted
1) To ask what the Board wants to do vis-a-vis the by-laws. Is it
enough for you, Cindy, (or me) to read the changes to those assembled?
The revised by-laws had been available for any interested members of
the congregation to read earlier in 2009 at the back of church.

2) To get the Board's opinion/feedback about several different ideas
for a Lenten series of talks.

3) To inform about Easter plans: Maundy Thursday Communion Service;
Good Friday evening cantata presented by Carroll and the choir: "The
Seven Last Words of Christ;" Sunday sunrise service, breakfast,
regular service.

4) Other?

Attendees: Sonnie, Bill, Donna, Cindy, Bev, Lee, Judith and John

I. Approval of November Minutes
Bill; Donna Second. Minutes approved

II. Agenda Additions
A. Coffee maker--blows fuse; use long wall outlet

III. Old Business - None

IV. Minister's Report

A. Education/Presentation
1. Thursday Morning Ladies' Circle (not to be called Ladies' Circle)
a. What do people want?
B. Easter
1. Maundy Thursday Communion, 1. April. 2010
2. Cantata, Good Friday, 2. April. 2010

V. Committee Reports
A. Building Committee
1. Ethan has done a great job with the copious snow.
2. Sonnie asked about an exterior light
3. Bill said heat had been too warm upstairs; keep one downstairs vent open
4. Furnace has been serviced
B. Finance Committee
1. In the black - see attached. Donna moves to accept report; Sonny seconds.
C. Hospitality Committee
1. Easter Breakfast -- Ted Smith has been volunteered to organize.
D. Cookbooks
1. Sonnie: 50 cookbooks left, market saturated; keep it up.

VI. New Business
A. Annual Meeting - draft agenda;
1. Judith asked about order of bylaw changes and new board members
a. New bylaws say one member each from the two constituent groups and the other four members of the church. (Bylaws formerly called for two per grouping.)
B. New Bylaws
1. Will post new bylaws on blog.
2. Judith and Cindy read changes; see link/attached.

VII. Adjournment
A. Sonnie moves to approve; Donna seconds.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Two-Pronged Faith

Sheepscott Community Church January 10, 2010

Jeremiah 31: 7-14

Ephesians 1: 3-14

John 1: 1-18

A Two-Pronged Faith

My husband Jon has a facility for reproducing the introductions and advertisements of the radio shows of the 1940s, before there was television or computer. People were more challenged then than now, to use their imaginations to create the scenes that went with the dramatic words they heard on radio. That audial generation is a generation of readers as well, who also could picture what they were reading about without needing the prompts of multiple illustrations, valuable as those are.

Some of you have heard Jon “doing” the introduction to “Sky King” or Sergeant Preston and his mighty dog, Yukon King, doing their best in Canada to serve the Queen of England. “Well, King, it looks like this case is closed.” “Rrff! Rrrff!” But my favorite of Jon’s radio reproductions from memory is “The Romance of Helen Trent.” When the seas of life drive her against the cliffs of despair, she fights back bravely, successfully, proving what every woman longs to prove––that romance in life need not be over at 35 and even be-yond!”

Now her thread of hope, what kept her going, was her belief that romance was possible at 35, and especially beyond. Now, get ready to make a leap with me over an abyss of most tenuous connection: Helen Trent has that faith and hope in romance and it did sustain that fictional figure when she was thrown against the walls of despair, again and again, keeping her looking toward tomorrow. What can we say of ourselves, those who are trying to practice a Christianity, trying to live it out when we too are thrown against real, not fictional cliffs of despair erected only for entertainment’s sake? Despair may be a little strong, although I don’t doubt that there are people who feel it, possibly in this very congregation today, but you’d never guess it. Over a lifetime people become very adept at hiding those feelings beneath a smiling countenance.

No less than Helen Trent with her faith and hope in romance to sustain her, do we need such a faith. But given what we encounter––job loss, angry and unforgiving feelings in households over betrayal by infidelity, bouts of drunkenness, violence exacerbated by drunkenness, descent into drugs, depression, seasonal affective disorder, no regular paycheck with mounting bills resulting, an overwhelm of credit-card debt––is that enough? I think so. These are causes for despair, but I would offer our two-pronged faith in incarnation and resurrection as an antidote for despair. Helen Trent has her fictional romance to sustain her. We have our faith in the Christ to sustain us, and it’s real, not fiction.

At this time of the year, we are particularly concerned with the first prong––incarnation. What are we to make of that? It is worth reviewing that basic tenet of Christianity, as we have just concluded this season of the birth of Christ. The writer of the gospel of John treats the subject of incarnation in this morning’s gospel in a poetic way. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.” Jesus is understood as that preexisting Word. He was with God in the beginning and through him all things were made...In him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Verse 14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, or otherwise translated, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, who came from the Father full of grace and truth.”

Who can accept this? Well, it’s gospel––literally. But, who can accept that God would become flesh, the living Word? We can be willing to make space in our belief or unbelief for such a tremendous possibility, but we cannot make ourselves believe. That is grace. But it does begin with our desire. Objection! Why should I desire that “opiate of the people,” as Karl Marx called it? I would rather trust in my own intellect and chosen, humane and humanitarian actions, which I can rise and fall by. Okay, try this.

The Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer of Germany, author of the classic text The Cost of Discipleship, was part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. A lifelong pacifist, he had come to believe that the crisis of the times in Germany and abroad was so grave as to require that certain Christians willingly compromise their purity of conscience for the sake of others. Bonhoeffer’s simplified description of Jesus as “the man for others” reflects that insight gained over time. It expresses the fundamental difference between the religious God who is all powerful, and the Christian God who suffers and is powerless; between a religious God who keeps mankind in despotic thrall, and a Christian God who exposes and judges men’s craving after power.

Bonhoeffer changed his position on pacifism as he continued to think through his place as one individual in history. He had begun to see pacifism for himself as an illegitimate escape, especially if it tempted him to withdraw from his increasing contacts with the responsible political and military leaders of the resistance to Hitler. He no longer saw any way of escape into some region of piety. His friend Eberhard Bethge, the editor of Letters and Papers from Prison, had never realized, until Bonhoeffer, that so much was involved in trying to be Christlike: One’s outlook on the world, one’s intellect, ethics and trials were all interwoven.

For Bonhoeffer, following Christ was a matter of being engaged in this world, “living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God,” he said, “taking seriously not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world––watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think is faith; that is metanoia,” or complete change. I submit that that is incarnation. That is the Christ realized in the world. For all its fragmentary nature, Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers continues to live in the reading of it because it brings to birth again, in our own generation, the joy of discovering the Christian nature of Christianity. And the Christmas season gives us the opportunity to talk about this incarnation business again.

Arrested in 1943 on the basis of suspicious activities related to the conspiracy to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer was writing to his parents on December 22 of that same year that he could, he hoped “bear all things ‘in faith,’ even my condemnation, and even the other consequences that I fear; but to be anxiously looking ahead wears one down.... I must be able to know for certain that I am in God’s hands, not in men’s. Then everything becomes easy, even the severest privation.” On April 9, 1945, at Flossenberg Camp in Germany, the 39-year-old Bonhoeffer suffered the ultimate punishment of death by hanging for the moral position he had arrived at after much thought and prayer, and the activities that grew out of that position. That is only one challenge to us when we consider the question of incarnation. How much room will we allow the Christ, the incarnate Word of God, to have his way in us, through us for the sake of the world, whatever small piece of that world we may have our hand on, may have our eye on?

God has spoken into time and the world the Living Word, who is Jesus––incarnation. The Word of God taking on flesh. God speaks this way not to be deliberately obscure, but because, unlike a word in the dictionary whose meaning is fixed, the meaning of the incarnate word, Jesus, is the meaning he has and is for the person he is spoken to in the context of a life. That meaning becomes clear, becomes something, someone we can commit to only when we ferret it out for ourselves, which happens by grace, and our fiat, our acquiescence, our yes.

I want to emphasize Bonhoeffer’s willingness, desire and need to throw himself on God’s mercy. His faith in that God who is in the midst of men, of human beings, was his sole source of hope. Not to trivialize but to remind that while the dramatic fictional character Helen Trent believed in romance, and that sustained her from day to day, Bonhoeffer, a real, flesh-and-blood human being, believed in love, in Jesus, the man for others, and that sustained him from day to day through death and into life, whatever that may prove to be on the other side.

That of course is the second prong of our forked faith: resurrection. But I’m not going to deal with that now because it is not the season. The hour is still that of our protracted Christmas. We have looked at Epiphany already, and today, on our first Communion Sunday of the new year, more of Bonhoeffer’s words are worth quoting. The following is taken from a letter to his family written on Christmas Eve, 1943. By that time he had been separated from all the people he loved for nine months and did not know when or where his ordeal would end. He wanted to say something that might help his family through those hard times. Listen carefully for how these words may speak to your own life.

“Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time, it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; He does not fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.”

We are full of the memories of moments in our lives, some good, some not good. By God’s grace we have loved and been loved and survived to be here to share communion today. I suggest that we consciously allow God’s presence in Christ to let us be one with those we love who are not here with us, separated by geography or illness or disagreement or even death, that the Spirit of God, incarnate in Jesus and remembered in this sacramental meal may further make us one in this church today. One in worship, one in purpose, one in Christ. Amen.