Monday, September 27, 2010
Sunday, September 26, 2010
Sheepscott Community Church September 26, 2010
Amos 6: 1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6: 6-19
Luke 16: 19-31
Hiding in Plain Sight
Lazarus, the poor man, the beggar of today’s gospel parable lies on the front step of the rich man’s house, hiding in plain sight. Just so do the poor in our society––panhandlers on the streets of Cambridge, MA, in the shadow of Harvard University; the homeless on the streets of Portland; the hungry in Augusta and on the backroads of Pemaquid––just so do they hide in plain sight. They’re not deliberately hiding, you understand, we simply choose not to see them.
Incidentally the rich man is traditionally named Dives, a word meaning “wealth,” while Lazarus, on the other hand, means “God helps.” The rich man does not really see, does not look at the beggar Lazarus, who disgusts him with his open sores licked by dogs, considered unclean animals in Jesus’ time. The rich man does not seem like a particularly bad man, and in a reality of suspended disbelief, might readily give of his riches to a charity that could benefit the likes of Lazarus and his kind. But look at Lazarus? Look at him and really see him as another man like himself? Highly unlikely.
And it is just that refusal to see, so absorbed in himself and in his affairs as he was, that led Dives to be condemned. He refused to see Lazarus’ loneliness, his flashes of insight and conscience and longing for God, so much like his own. His was the refusal to see this poor man as emanating from the same source and heading for the same place as he himself was; it was entirely out of the realm of consideration. Absurd. Or was it?
The contrast of the archetypal rich man Dives with another literary character, Shakespeare’s King Lear, is potentially enlightening. When tragedy overtook the once noble but benighted king, and he himself stood ruined on the heath, suffering enabled him to imagine how it was for the poor ragged folk who were exposed to the same terrible storm:
O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.”
King Lear, Act III, scene 4.
If we prolong this comparative parable, we can imagine that after death, the character of Lear might find himself in Abraham’s bosom, resting between Lazarus the beggar and indeed the wretches who would freeze and die on the heath. And they would have conversation with each other and sweet peace, as they rested there in the knowledge that they all come, that we all come from the same fountainhead, the same source.
Lear milked the wisdom out of his wretched circumstance to recognize the bonds of human family, whereas, even after death, when there is that great chasm fixed between the rich man and Abraham and Lazarus in this morning’s gospel, even then the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus over with some water for him. He continues to view Lazarus’ role in relation to him and his needs, not as if Lazarus himself has a role for himself that has nothing to do with the rich man. As the parable is drawing to a close, the rich man still doesn’t get it.
His final appeal, that Abraham allow Lazarus to go back and warn his brothers, the members of his family still living, of what awaits them after death unless they change their ways, is met with Abraham’s refusal. He says simply that they have Moses and the prophets to guide them, just as the rich man himself had. There are multiple interpretations of that last part of the parable, none of which I will consider because what I would rather focus on is the power of the parable to effect change in a person’s life. One such person was Albert Schweitzer, who after hearing this parable read at church, concluded that the continent of Africa was the beggar lying on Europe’s doorstep. He went off and founded the Lamberene Hospital in Gabon, on the West coast of equatorial Africa, in 1913, and spent the rest of hs life in service. It still operates today under the name of the Albert Schweitzer Hospital. Google it for pictures.
Let’s go back to the disgust we can imagine someone like the rich man would have for the figure of Lazarus, covered with sores and lying on his front steps. How different would it be from the victims of the AIDS epidemic during the mid-’80s, especially in the advanced stages of that disease, when those suffering would be covered with sores? Or lepers in the ancient world or in medieval times or banned to the Island of Molokai in Hawaii or Carville, LA, in our own times––Carville, where the National Hansen’s Disease Clinical Center was located, and later moved to Baton Rouge? Not that different. When we turn away from what in another human being disgusts us, makes our stomachs turn over, it is not an overstatement to say that we turn away from Christ. When we do not recognize Christ in the drug addict, in the drunk, in the incarcerated, in our Muslim neighbors, in an estranged family member, in our bitterest enemy, we are refusing to recognize Christ, no less than the character of the rich man in this morning’s gospel.
I can imagine you might have already turned down the volume at this point so you can’t hear me anymore. It’s like, lighten up, Judith. You’re stretching a little too far here. No, no I’m not. “Whatever you do unto these, the least of my brethren, you do unto me.” Jesus speaking. The Christ speaking, calling us to witness his presence in the world, everywhere in every person, the light of Christ, perhaps burning very dimly, but burning, and needing our oxygen, our very breath of the Spirit of God in the world, to make that flame burn high and bright again. That oxygen may take the form of a kind word, a shared lunch, a community supper, a long-delayed phone call, an accompanying walk in the park, a letter that reaches into years past to seek or offer forgiveness.
My son Patrick, who is a movie buff and consequently a fan of the movie critic Roger Ebert, of Siskel and Ebert fame years ago, printed up a blog entry of Ebert’s from July. As some of you may know, Ebert has had cancer of the salivary glands, which has resulted in him being unable to speak and being somewhat grotesquely disfigured by the surgery necessary to eliminate the cancer. Yes, his audible speech is gone, but his written speech, his writing itself has improved, he says, and gained for him whole new audiences on line. That’s all pretty much irrelevant to what I want to say about him, but just an FYI for no extra charge.
In the referenced blog entry, Ebert said he has been in Alcoholics Anonymous since 1979, and talks at length about what the organization has meant and continues to mean to him. What spoke to me on the blog was this wonderful line, apparently one of AA’s rules: “Don’t take anyone else’s inventory.” Isn’t that great? I find that relevant to this morning’s gospel and this sermon. We have no idea what life has thrown at people that has brought them to this or that point, and we don’t have to speculate. It doesn’t matter. What matters is to go out on the front step, and whoever is lying there, bring them in. Yes, bring them right into the house. You know I’m speaking metaphorically, but I can as well be speaking literally. You never know what or who is going to appear on the front step, to be the phone call or life-changing letter in the mailbox on any given day.
How can you possibly be ready for that, you might wonder. Practice. While with us faulty humans practice may not make perfect, it will predispose us to act in a certain way if and when a situation takes us by surprise. I’ve talked before about a habit of virtue. That can be as simple as avoiding vice. And by the way, what’s vice for you is not necessarily vice for me, and visa-versa. It all depends on attitude. There’s a great few lines in Romans 14. “The man who will eat anything must not ridicule him who abstains from certain foods; the man who abstains must not sit in judgment on him who eats. After all, God himself has made him welcome.”
And further on, “If a man eats when his conscience has misgivings about eating, he is already condemned, because he is not acting in accordance with what he believes. Whatever does not accord with one’s belief is sinful.” Acting against our own conscience is sinful. And further, “Accept one another then, as Christ accepted you, for the glory of God.” Have a look at Romans 14 and 15 if you have a problem with overeating or undereating or judging others or yourself in that department. It’s enlightening and encouraging.
And before we leave scripture, in 1 Timothy, which Jan read, in verse 13 the writer of the epistle cites “Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession.” What I think he is referring to is Jesus’ response to the question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” to which he replied, in effect, “That’s right.” There he was the King of the Jews, the Messiah, and he went unrecognized but for a few. He was Lazarus on the doorstep, i.e., the word of God made flesh, the Spirit of God in a man who surrendered himself entirely to the will of God, even as it meant death at the end. Recall the quotation from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 53, which Christian interpreters have appropriated as anticipating Jesus as the Messiah.
“Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him./ He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering./ Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not.” And so on. Do you see what I mean? Jesus was despised. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him. Artists and theologians have dressed him in magnificent robes, have made him a king before whom we easily and readily now bend the knee. I don’t know if Jesus is there. I think he is still out at the gate begging for a handout.
You have probably heard how during the Great Depression hobos, drifters would mark a gate or door or wall with a coded mark or sign that indicated to other hungry passersby that a kind woman lived in that house. To say that she was a soft touch, which in fact that mark communicated, did not indicate that the drifters were taking advantage of her, but that she simply saw and knew the Christ in those drifters. Whether or not she called it that, she looked at and recognized their common humanity with hers, as Lear did, and the bag of sandwiches and fruit, and perhaps a few cookies, was as surely communion as what we will share next Sunday. The unshaven faces, the felt hats pulled down, the worn overcoats with missing buttons, there is the Christ, not in raiment gold, but in raiment old and soiled and smelling of the earth.
I’ll conclude with a poem of mine I may have read to you before, “The Men of Lincoln Square.” Lincoln Square was that area in the North End of Worcester, which, before route 190 was built, included a market, a five and dime, the Boys Club on the far side of the rotary, which was centered around the tallest of flagpoles, from a child’s perspective. But what really stood out to me were the bars and hallways of buildings between the bars because we would often see the denizens of that neighborhood when we were on our way to the Plymouth Theater for the Sunday matinee. Two features, a cartoon and a newsreel for a quarter What a bargain.
The Men at Lincoln Square
and could blow their noses
between thumb and index finger
over the gutter neat as can be.
I tried it but it didn’t work for me.
The lucky ones had cigarettes
a felt hat
a pint in the pocket.
They hung in hallways
like bats against the walls.
Sometimes they smiled as we children
made our way past them to matinees.
I wanted to take their winter hands
in mine and bring them inside the theater
to spend my candy money on them.
I wanted to hear them laugh out loud
at cartoons, Martin and Lewis, newsreels
anything to bring them alive in the bright darkness
that for long moments
walled judgment outside.
In poverty of spirit we are all the men of Lincoln Square, and the children walking to the theater, and the minister in the church I passed by, whose son I would one day marry. We are the ticket seller at the theater and the usher with his flashlight, all walking through our days in this dark world, lit by the recognition that we are all related in the family of God, all equally loved, one no more than another. Our brother the Christ is hiding in plain sight among us, in each of us. Amen.
Sunday, September 19, 2010
Sheepscott Community Church September 19, 2010
Jeremiah 8: 18-9: 1
Luke 16: 1-13
The Little Way
Jeremiah 31: 31-34: “The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah./ It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, even though I was a husband to them./ This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people./ No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.”
What a wonderful promise. A new covenant. And it’s for us, each one of us individually and for us as a church. Why would we want to be associated with a church, to work for a church, if God is not our God and we are not God’s people, and God’s law is not written on our hearts? When we do know that God is our God, that we are God’s people, and God’s law is written on our hearts, we are filled with joy and want to pour out our lives for God. That’s not just evangelical rhetoric; it’s a true thing. I think of this prophecy in Jeremiah of a new covenant as the gospel before this morning’s gospel, where Jesus shows us a new way to live out that new covenant, to realize that God among us.
The bridge between the two positions of the new covenant established––knowing God is our God, knowing we are God’s people, and knowing the law of God written on our hearts––the bridge between that position and the other position of Jesus showing us the way to live that new covenant––that bridge connecting the two is the living Spirit of God, a.k.a. the Holy Spirit. It is that One, who makes the work of living the new covenant a work of joy in the fulfillment, not a work done out of religious or social duty, guilt, or simply for humanitarian ends, all of which are valid reasons for the work, but none of which give the profound joy that can only come from doing the work of the new covenant for God’s sake. I dare say it is only the work motivated by the Spirit, and the church filled with people motivated by the Spirit that will last. By becoming nothing in surrender, we become everything in Christ, and there is joy, not simply fulfillment .of duty in the work.
When Jesus is kept at more than arm’s length by making him divinely inaccessible, life would seem to be easier because the demands on us are not so great. I mean, if Jesus is God after all, who can possibly think of being on a par with God, of doing what God does? But when the lineaments of the portrait of that One who has been called the Son of God become clear, and we see him as the Son of Man, and what he did with that humanity by surrendering it, we are challenged to look at and consider what we too might do with a surrendered humanity, particularly surrendering it in the manner that Jesus did. Thy will be done.
In fact it’s easier for us if we follow his lead. We join ourselves to him. We don’t have to break new ground. Keep setting our foot down in the track that he has made and eventually that will be our own track, divinely transformed by our choice to set our foot there and by the action of the Spirit of God who led the way in the person of Jesus. Think of St. Andrew’s Church here in Newcastle, or St. Patrick’s. But for Jesus, to whose star they attached their wagons, Andrew, brother of Peter and one of the original apostles, and Patrick, a missionary to the pagan peoples of what would later be called Ireland, but for Jesus, those men would most likely be unknown, except to their families and a few friends of their time. Their choice to associate themselves with Jesus has given them an unexpected celebrity, their names attached to places of worship. Again, they simply attached their wagons to Jesus’ star, led by the same Spirit which led Jesus into the desert, out into his public life, up the Mount of Transfiguration and then the Mount of Calvary, and finally to Easter.
Was it really the same Spirit? Yes, unequivocally, yes. And indeed it is the same Spirit that moved you to not roll over and go back to sleep this morning, but to come here and worship God in fellowship with other men and women yes for your own sake but more for the glory of God. To worship God for God’s sake.
Was that all in the gospel? I think so. At least it was for me. Let’s look a little more closely and see what else is there for all of us.
I would note that today’s story of the unjust steward is just that––a story, a parable. Jesus told parables, not allegories. In an allegory, the characters can be identified with a specific person or series of persons, characteristics or situations. In a parable, however, imperfect people, like the unjust steward of today’s gospel, are employed to teach us more about ourselves, if we have ears to hear.
First consider the word “steward.” The original meaning of the word was a ward of the sty, a keeper of pigs, indicating the simple order of life: man as God’s agent to govern earthly life. Mind you, we are stewards, not owners. This is God’s world and it has been given over into our charge as stewards. Our job is not the hoarding of wealth or fencing it in for our own pleasure, but the proper circulation of it in God’s sight. For us that can mean taking care of our own families and the larger human family by contributing when and where we can.
And that attitude relates to stewardship across the board. If we treat forests as our own, and not as responsible stewards of creation might, we would have erosion, dust storms, and in the extreme, new deserts. Likewise, as a person is a steward of the earth and his or her own wealth, that person is also a steward of his or her own gifts. Those gifts lay on the person a greater measure of responsibility for their use, for sharing them with the community. I know you have heard this from me countless times, but here it is again in this context. Why I bring it up again and again is because Jesus brings it up again and again. If you have a gift, use the gift for the common good. Share the gift: That is the common good.
Consider the word “commonwealth,” as in Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The commonwealth is the general good, the body politic or state viewed as a body in which the whole people have a voice or an interest. It is our sharing of our gifts and of our wealth, even if that wealth amounts to a halfpenny, the copper coin of the woman Jesus singled out for her generosity because it was all she had to give. It’s all about attitude in the exercise of stewardship. That’s where the good or evil names itself and makes its home, how we think about things within ourselves, and then how we flesh .out thought in action.
The point I would like to focus on this morning is the importance of being faithful in small things, as it is in verse 10 of the gospel: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.” This saying may in fact have been a proverb current in Jesus’ time. Even if it was, that does not necessarily eliminate it as a saying of Jesus because scripture shows that he would often employ the proverbially rich language of the people, but would give an edge or a twist to the proverb that deepened the meaning and brought it home. This particular saying is also characteristic of Jesus’ teaching, where he stressed the importance of apparently trivial things––the cup of cold water, the single talent, the need to become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of God.
It’s our human nature to think that bigger is better, that more is better. At our house we had what our kids called defensive eating as they were growing up. If there were a desirable morsel––fresh ear of corn, freshly baked oatmeal cookies, blueberry pancakes, a newly opened bag of potato chips, the understanding was to get as much as soon as possible to ensure that you got some at all. There was not one ascetic abstainer in our household. Anyway, we seem to think in terms of me and mine and now and big and more. This is antithetical to Jesus’ approach. As I just said, he stressed the importance of trivial things, the crucial nature of little things.
Our lives are made up of such little things––small steps, small gestures of the hand, single, small breaths. I expect at the end of life, many of us will be saying, Darn. I missed it. That’s what it was about––the little things. The word of kindness, the smile, the hand on the shoulder, the refusal of meanness until that refusal of meanness becomes a habit, eye contact with another when listening to them. These are the small things that make a life, that are really the giving of alms to the poor. Jesus is no doubt speaking literally of money, as he does in the last verses of today’s gospel, but I think the alms of generosity and kindness he would not dispute. And we are all in need of the giving and receiving of those alms.
And we all need to be broken down from the heights of self-importance to the depths of the Christ-life in each of us. That life is hidden from view but pulsing there as surely as our heart is beating in us and waiting, waiting, waiting for that moment of yes, that moment of surrender to the Christ, where we do indeed put our foot in his footprint and stretch the other into the next print and walk that llittle way, the way he shows us. What a challenge, what an invitation, what a joy when we accept that invitation
I’m going to bring all that language down to one earthly application this morning, and I confess to having had this in mind from the first. My focus has been on the importance of small things as the way to live the Christ-life. I want to talk about the small things in relation to this church. As a community, we need to grab hold and take part in this church, participate, if we are to last as an entity and not just disappear or operate on the margins. That’s not enough.
What do I mean? In the big issues department, in December Bill Robb will be finishing his most recent three-year stint as treasurer for the church. It’s a huge job, and his work on behalf of all of us has been––as with everything Bill does––of the highest standard, and any expression of thanks is dwarfed by the measure and caliber of his work, but it is what we have to offer, our thanks. Carroll has left and we are searching for another organist. Sue Hunt has agreed to give us a few months, and on behalf of the church, I express my gratitude for her willingness to be with us over the weeks of the search. We currently have enquiries out to two churches to assist us in the community supper we cook and serve once a month. Jan and Clara, who are chair and back-up chair of that effort, are wearing down at the edges and need some relief. The coffee and cookie fellowship Jon has been faithful to do since April has made a real difference in our sense of community. Although we celebrate the Lord’s Supper ritually once a month, I feel and think that we have communion every week through and in this fellowship when we take time to talk and listen, to share with one another.
There’s also the Sunday School. Chrissy and Cindy, who are the co-directors, both have sons who are freshmen in college this semester. Both sons are athletes, and in these athletic families, where the members of the family are the chief fans, the moms will be traveling this fall and need help with coverage at Sunday School.
We have lost two of our lectors, so if anyone would like to be added to the lector list, to proclaim the word of God on a regular basis, please let me know, and I will gladly add you to the list. Also, we have our annual meeting in January, and at that time we will elect Board members. If anyone is interested in helping to shape this church for the future, to ensure that we have a fiuture, let Cindy Leavitt know. Cindy is chair of the Board.
So, we need a treasurer, come January; an organist or other musician and choir director; help with putting on the community supper; someone to occasionally sign up for the coffee and cookie fellowship; help with Sunday School; lectors, and bean supper helpers; and Board members.
That’s quite a list, but it’s a list of small things––well some small things and some bigger things––that we can all help out with. Some will say they don’t have the time, but in fact, in our own lives we all have the same amount of time; it’s a question of how we use it. We can bring that before God for parsing in prayer. If you can see your way clear to help out, it would be a relief to those who have carried so much of the work of the church for years. And mine and the church’s thanks for all that you all you do, from Virginia Carol greeting all comers, to members of the Board, to the choir and Sunday School teachers, cooks for the community supper and so on.
This is our church. We all need to recognize that we are part of this commonwealth, where our riches, whether that means time, money, talents, or all three, depending on what we understand in our own hearts as we come before God in prayer about the matter, those riches can be shared for the benefit of all. We are already rich in the membership of our church, and I hope that the membership will become an increasingly active one.
God wants a new covenant with us and the bridge to making that happen, to connecting us with God’s mind in Jesus, is the Holy Spirit of God, who is the source of joy in the work of the new covenant, which can be the life of this church as we know it, on steroids, on holy steroids. It can happen. It needs to happen if we’re going to continue as a viable church, and I am not speaking lightly. Amen.
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Sheepscott Community Church September 5, 2010
Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
Luke 14: 25-33
Life as Grace
Hanging over all my preparations for the liturgy today was the threat of Hurricane Earl. On Tuesday, as I began writing, all weather prognosticators were saying, Stay alert. We don’t know whether Earl will be hitting New England and Canada––or not. A slight deviation from the current track could change everything, and we might get whacked––or not. Just because Earl could wash out or blow out the Sunday service, that was no excuse for not preparing the service as carefully as if it were going to be the Sunday worship service in the front room of the heavenly household. We must forge ahead.
And that forging ahead is what I want to talk about today. It’s a watershed of a
day for this church on several fronts: First and foremost, as the first Sunday of the month, it is our Communion day, when we share the sacred meal with each other as Jesus shared with his disciples the night before he died. Which brings us to the next reason for its being a watershed. Just as Jesus’s meal was what came to be called the Last Supper, because it was the last he would share with his apostles, so this will be our last supper with Carroll and Ted Smith. They are moving on, and we will share this meal with them today––and a coffee fellowship afterwards––and wish them Godspeed and Godbless, wherever they may finally alight. The third aspect of watershed is that today marks the last day of our annual season of worship at the Hill Church, this house of worship built so long ago as the First Congregational Church of Newcastle. In this service, I ask you to be mindful of this church and its history and of its current situation, praying for wisdom for those who will decide how this church and the Sheepscott Community Church continue in their walk together.
These latter two elements of our departing choir director and organist and the migration of the congregation back to the Valley Church for the next three seasons, are an indication of the church in flux. At such a time feelings of anxiety and pain are normal. What will the future look like? Do we have a future? Yes, again we are a church in transition, but that doesn’t need to speak of fear or dread, but change. And where there is change, there is opportunity, there is hope when and where the Spirit of God is actively apparent. When water is stagnant, mold forms, bacteria grows. When there is the fresh, running water, which we saw yesterday in our driveways and over our roads post-Earl, that moving water is a symbol of change, new life, a contrast with stasis. Recall the words of Jesus in John 4:14: “Whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst. Indeed the water I give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” That is living, moving water in the physical and the spiritual sense, conducive to health.
What enables us to bear with and live through these sometimes exhausting periods of change is grace. In religion the word “grace” has two meanings, according to Carl Scovel, Unitarian minister retired from King’s Chapel, Boston. It may refer to God’s gracious and unmerited acts of love toward men and women and children––after all he owed us nothing and yet brought us into being out of love. Or the word grace may mean a short prayer which we offer at mealtime. These two meanings are closely related: we offer our spoken grace in response to his given grace. And these two meanings figure in our service today. With these migratory changes that take place this week––Carroll’s departure, and our own congregational departure for the Valley Church––we need to know that the grace of God will sustain us again, as it has in the past, and will lead us, even as it upholds us, in the way God would have us go. I believe that with all my heart, and invite you to believe that as well and to work for God’s will and way in this church.
How can I not bring up here Jesus’s exhortation from this morning’s gospel of Luke: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters––yes, even his own life––he cannot be my disciple.” A stern word. And the crowd that heard those words of Jesus thinned out pretty quickly. If you recall, in last week’s gospel, Jesus told the people not to invite to their dinners friends and relatives and those from whom they might expect a return invitation, but rather to invite the poor, the needy, the lame and the blind, from whom no invitation was expected.
Jesus was not saying don’t invite your family. What he was saying was, don’t invite them exclusively. As I pointed out last week, he often used hyperbole, and this week he uses it again to make a point, and the people got the point, well, some of the people anyway. This week, we hear the word “hate” and are repelled by it. It’s a staggering word, and Jesus meant it to stagger. Its root, however, is an Aramaic word that means “to love less.” What the word meant, stern as it was, was that people were to act as if they hated loved ones whenever the claims of home came into conflict with the claims of Jesus. Although he did not despise natural ties, he demanded a primary and undivided allegiance. Think about that. Think about what Jesus is asking us for.
We will always have the grace to respond in a way that gives life, God’s life, but as always the power to respond rests solely with us and the disposition of our own human wills. The invitation that Barbara read this morning from Deuteronomy is at least as stern as Jesus’s paradoxical call to hate those whom we are expected to most love. Listen to these words again: “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life,” etcetera. I have always thrilled to those words and know by my sheer physiological response that they are true words and I darned well better pay attention.
Okay, so we have Jesus reiterating God’s invitation. But it really doesn’t sound like a good time. I don’t know. It sounds like work, thankless work. But those are stern words, and I do want to be responsive to God’s invitation. I just don’t know. I think I’ll get back on the fence and watch the water run by.
Okay, while you’re on the fence watching the water go by, some of us will be moving forward, led by the Spirit of God, first back to the Valley Church to discover week by week what God’s will and way are for us for survival as a church. I invite you to come along. The church needs you to listen with your inner ear, to hear your understanding of what God is saying to you. All of the understandings of the community listening, that is how we discern the way to go––without self-righteousness, without anger, without judgment, without self-importance. We discern by listening with a peaceful heart, with equanimity gained through fulfilling the demand of Deuteronomy: to love the Lord our God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws. The rewards are built in to the response and our response to the demand is made easier by being in each other’s company as a worshipping community, as a community of love and service. Do not be distracted from your purpose in having joined this community at all, but keep going forward. God sees and knows how we are trying to be a light on the hill, and God will bring the return, the harvest, the rewards, but in God’s time and God’s way. Who has the faith to hang on is invited to do so. You will not be sorry as rewards will be full and eternal.
What is going to make it more possible to accept that invitation, to respond to Jesus’s stern words and those of the writer in the passage of Deuteronomy? Grace. We started with grace; we will end with grace. If by the grace of God we have life at all, do you imagine that God will not provide grace in abundance to forge ahead in this work of the Sheepscott Community Church? Not a chance. God will provide. Watch and see, but while you’re watchIng, be about the work of the kingdom, however God is revealing that to you in your life.
So, grace. By the grace of God we have life. And by the wisdom, circumspect imagination, and especially the love of Jesus we have this sacramental supper to share today, which is a source of strength for us as a community and is a remembrance of the One who is the focus of the life of our community church. In anticipation of sharing the communion, the Lord’s Supper, a few more thoughts from Carl Scovel, the retired Unitarian minister I quoted earlier.
I have made clear the first meaning of grace, and that second meaning is that of the words spoken before a meal. It is no accident that wherever people gather to eat, they offer a word of gratitude for the food on the table. Food is more that simply fuel for the body. Each meal we share in true Christian fellowship becomes a sign of Providence, through whose love we were created and by whose grace we are sustained. We give thanks for food because it is the most natural thing in the world for a person to say “thank you.” We are the better for it and it would hurt us to withhold our gratitude. We tend to feel a little cold and less human if we don’t take the time to voice our thanksgiving.
With that in mind, join me if you will in saying a grace before our shared eucharistic meal. This grace was written by another Unitarian minister, who was Carl Scovel’s predecessor at King’s Chapel, and who later was instrumental in moving forward the project of this Sheepscott Community Church, which he joined on December 27, 1978: Rev. Joseph Barth. Let us recite his simple grace together, in gratitude for all the graces of this life, whether or not we see and understand them when they are bestowed, and in gratitude for the bread of heaven, which we are about to share:
We give thanks for Being,
We give thanks for being here,
We give thanks for being here together. Amen.