Sunday, September 5, 2010

Life as Grace

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.

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