The Deliverance of Wisdom

Picture of the Sun in a blue sky with the text, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem on January 3, 2021

Our country promises: “all men are created equal.” It is a promise articulated by our forefathers in our Declaration of Independence – and one which is based on our particular understanding of the Christian religion. I have faith in these words. Words which reveal one part of how our fore parents chose to live out their faith when they remembered that God created all people and in this act of Creation, we are all created equal. However, this promise that everyone is equal and should be treated equally was not enough; for, people with African heritages were not considered whole people – with full rights. Yes, their rights would begin to come – eventually. Eventually when Lincoln abolished slavery and civil rights activists like Martin Luther King JR. lived his faith of equality in the 60’s. Yet, King did something more: he also taught his Faith of equality when he put his faith not in the structures of human hands alone, but in God’s hands and inspired generations to come.

Now, I know there are other issues in our world today. Issues (like politics, schools, and vaccines) which are heavy on our hearts as we turn the corner of a New Year. Issues which many of us struggle with as our trust in the government, the system, the other political party dwindles. But that trust in the human structures of society is failing more often than not because our foundation – our foundational Faith in God that ALL people are created equal – is not as solid as it could be. For, Faith requires more than just belief – more than just living that belief – Faith in the equality of Creation requires us to reveal our Faith by teaching that truth every day of our lives.  

And we see this failure of Faith because people are still being treated worse and better in this country due to their essentialness in society, due to the side of the aisle they sit upon and especially, due to the color of their skin. We witness a lack of faith in the Equality of Creation every time a person is murdered for their skin color or given benefits because of their skin color. Either reasoning is a form of racism which fails to believe, live, and teach our Faith in God who created ALL people – equally.

Equality though does not mean sameness – does not mean your thoughts, feelings, or heritage are or should be the same as anyone else – We are all created equally UNIQUE and this truth is the Faith in God which is lacking every time we give greater or lesser value to one person over another person. For, each person is a valued Creation – essential – and equal in the eyes of God. But this idea is only a belief – only a belief until we live and teach its Wisdom to the world – only then will it become our Faith in God’s Wisdom which brings ALL people deliverance.

Let us pray:

Holy One, who creates and recreates us as whole beings – recreate us this day with Your Holy Wisdom. Let us witness the world as You do – witness the beauty of each unique individual and celebrate all Creation as equal under You. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You God.

Now beloved, I know most, if not all of you, already believe in God as our Creator. Believe that God has created humankind and all of Creation. For your belief, I am grateful. Yet, I take this belief further in that I believe God is and continues to recreate each of us daily; for, I am different today than I was yesterday. This belief is where I begin. A belief of faith that God is recreating and working through each of us to make the world better for all – better than the last year, the last generation, or the last 400 plus years of racism in North America. Yet, that faith in God’s equality of Creation becomes shaken – shaken when we do not see an immediate reward for our faithfulness which is a common issue for us as humans. For, humans tend to see the world through a perception of rewards: one must be good – work hard – do what’s right and your reward will be that good things will happen for you. So, when we do not see the reward for our faithfulness – that faith in God is shaken, questioned, or simply lost.

Mind you, this human perception of reward from God for good deeds is not new. The ancient Israelites used a similar trope in our reading from the Wisdom of Solomon this week. Where it recounts the “Parting of the Red Sea” story from Exodus according to the theologian Michael Kolarcik with a clear shift to a moral determination. For, our passage describes the Israelites as holy, blameless, and righteous. Because of these qualities the Israelites are provided “reward of their labors.” Rewards such as being guided, sheltered, and brought over the Red Sea. In contrast, the enemies of the Israelites are drowned and plundered.

Sadly, passages like this throughout the Bible which are meant as metaphors to encourage faith actually work against the true Faith in God. It sets up the believer to ask the age-old question: if I am being good, why do bad things happen to me – to the blameless – to the righteous? If God is good, why do bad people get rewarded? In theology we call this question – theodicy. It is a question which cannot be answered as no human can truly conceive the reasoning behind God’s actions.

That said, there is Good News – here in the Wisdom of Solomon. The Good news that the divine does not operate on these human structures of rewards. Yes, the author of this scripture tells that the Israelites were rewarded for their faithfulness; but they were not delivered from oppression until “they sang hymns… and praised” God. It was not until they lived their Faith through song and praise that God delivered them and opened “the mouths of those who were mute and made the tongues of infants speak clearly.” Opened their mouths to share and teach each and every generation to come how to be faithful. And beloved, I believe this is God’s Good News because it tells us that you cannot buy deliverance – you will not be rewarded for good deeds – you are no closer to the kin-dom of Heaven because of what you do, have, or are. Deliverance is found only through faith in God and equally available to all people. Therefore, the Egyptians were not drowned because they opposed the Israelites but because they lacked faith in God. 

This Good News is even more clearly explained in our scripture from the Gospel according to John when the author tells of when Christ Jesus came to his own people. Yet, those people – the Israelites – did not accept him. They turned away from Jesus and were lost. In the next breath, the author also tells of all of us who receive Jesus – who believe – who have faith and will become the children of God which is a gift to all people. An equally offered gift to everyone which does not rely on blood – flesh – or heritage; it is freely given to all people who are born of – have faith in – believe in God as our Creator. This message, beloved, is the Good News throughout scripture and what we fail to remember every time we place even one person above or below another person due to any human identity structure – but especially structures like the color of one’s skin.

Now, beloved, I will share my own naivety – my own assumption – my own idealistic view that each of you who are here listening to me now already believe in God – in the equal and unique Creation of all people through God. I pray that I am correct and that each of you witness the person before you, beside you, behind you as equally important – equally loved – equally beautiful as you in the eyes of God. However, belief is only one part of faith. Belief alone is like knowing that there is racism in our country and not learning about how people are treated differently due to skin color – choosing to not listen with your heart to the trauma many people of color face every day – or blindly accepting solutions to end racism without discerning the depth of the outcome. Faith in God as the Creator who made us all equally means we not only believe but live into the divine reality where identities like skin color do not shape our decisions on how we treat one another. 

This divine goal though does not mean culture or heritage does not matter, in fact quite the contrary. Faith in God through action means that culture does matter – each person’s unique perception – identity – and culture matters as much as yours – as much as mine. For, it is only through all voices being spoken and heard – through this blessing of our beliefs be witnessed in action – through acceptance and love of other children of God can we then start the blessed teaching of God’s deliverance through Wisdom. This teaching, beloved, is not only how we reveal our Faith in God’s Equal Creation of All, but also how we grow in our own Faith as disciples teaching of God’s love for ALL. And the education of one another is an important part of Faith; for, it helps people see the human rewards – the person of color witness allies – you witness the places where you are still failing to embrace the Faith in God’s equal Creation of All people. 

So, I pray that each and every one of you who believe that God Created all people equally unique will seek out one action – one story – one issue of racism in our country this week and teach that lesson to someone else. Learn from the lesson of that one story – even if it makes you uncomfortable – for, this continuing process of Faith in God is the deliverance of Wisdom -teaching us the places we still need to grow as disciples. May you always believe, live, and teach your Faith in God’s equally unique Creation of All people as we strive to be better disciples than we were last year. Amen.

Salvation of a Child

Presented to the First Congregational Church in Salem December 24, 2020

Each year, many Christians share a worship service much like ours on Christmas Eve, the service of lessons and carols. During this blessed time, we share the story of Jesus’ birth through the reading of scripture and the joyous sharing of song. For me, this service is like a beautifully wrapped gift that we can only open together. Perhaps that is why I found it so important to share this present with you; even though we had the opportunity to do something innovative with worship this year because we could not sing or gather due to the pandemic. Yet for some reason, this traditional service of our lessons and carols seemed right – seemed like it needed to be shared – seemed like the perfect present for our community this year. 

From the story itself which is worth repeating year after year to the many musical gifts of our fellowship shared this day. From the sharing of scripture, prayer, and liturgy by so many voices to the decorations of our beautiful sanctuary provided by so many hands. Yes, this service – this blessed gift of Christmas – is a present because it reveals all of the beautiful ways, we are in fellowship together and so much more. 

Now mind you this service is not like the traditional Christmas gift of a yummy fruit cake from Grammy which also has the added benefit of holding down paper in hurricane force winds or the wonderful present from Aunt Lou that helped you secure first place in the ugly sweater contest this year. No, this sharing of our Christmas story is a gift of our community which I pray you each enjoyed for it tells of another present – one which you already possess, even though the wrapping paper is still upon it. This story tells of a present which is already ours, even though Christmas morning is not yet here. This story of the child’s birth and the way we are sharing the story is the blessed gift of our salvation even though our Christ has not returned – yet. 

As we start to unwrap our present though, would you pray with me?

Gracious God – recreate our lives this night and set our hearts alight with the blessed teachings of our Christ, Your Son. Reveal in us, O God, the present of Your salvation through the eyes of the child who sees all people as one. May the words from my lips and our joyous hearts ever resound in praise and be a blessing to You.

Now beloved, this gift of salvation has so many facets that if I were to share them all right now it would be Easter before we could finally explain the whole present – So instead, let us just talk about one part of salvation – the salvation of a child – the present that Jesus brought us when he showed us the Way to salvation through the eyes of a child. 

And even though I am sure you have all prepared your hearts for the coming light of Christ over the advent season and are all squarely on the nice list – not the naughty list of God’s faithful servant, St. Nick. I wonder – I wonder: are there times when you forget – when you slide onto the naughty list by hurting someone’s feelings? Was there a time when you received a gift and reflected on it as a paperweight instead of being grateful that Grammy made it for you – is there ever a time when you do not walk in Jesus’ footsteps as a child – innocent and loving of ALL people. No – well then, this message is not for you. 

For the rest of us there are times we all slip up and do not walk as Jesus did – are ungrateful or hurt one another. Generally, by accident and sometimes because it seems impossible for us to do otherwise while remaining faithful disciples. Because God did make us as disciples who are called to live a just and kind life – yet, sometimes these areas do not always seem to match – sometimes when we are just to one person, we are not always kind to another. Sometimes kindness to yourself may not seem to be just for a neighbor. We do our best and that is all that God truly asks of us – do your best to be kind, just, and walk like Jesus. See the world as Jesus does. Live as a child in the light of hope – love – joy – and peace of God. Let the scripture guide you in your discernment of how to always be a disciple of Christ. Still, we slip up and fail at times and I wonder if that is because we forget the story of the baby who came into the world with salvation for ALL people.

For, beloved, that is one of the miracles of Christmas – the message from The Letter of Paul to Titus. The message shared with us when the author explains the gift of salvation – the present of Christ Jesus’ life for all of Creation is that “salvation is for all (people).” This Good News, beloved, is the core of our Christmas story which invites us to be like that babe in a manger – innocent – welcoming and loving of all people. Grateful for the gift of the manger and unaware of its ugliness. See the world as our Christ does in the manger that night so long ago – simply loving all people without judgement. Sadly, when we forget this beautiful lesson of salvation through the eyes of a child, we start to slip up – are ungrateful – fail to walk as Jesus walked.

Still, the Good News beloved also reminds us how to correct ourselves and continue to follow Christ. It is why we recall Jesus’ teachings each year on Christmas Eve. It is so we do not forget. The author of this letter explains the Good News of scripture is there for us so, we will be trained to be disciples who are “zealous for good deeds.” So, we will remember that Jesus came for all people – all people are important, and all voices are a gift to be heard.

Perhaps this good news is why our worship of lessons and carols is so important – why the service itself shares the Good News of salvation for all people – why this present is so important this year when we are so far away from one another. Because this service does reveal the Good News of salvation, beloved, when we share it together with all people. When we seek out different authors of scripture who share the story of Jesus’ birth and bring them to life once again through the people of this community who shared their voices with us tonight. When we seek out the multitude of composers who add their words and music to tell this story of Jesus while we bring to life the gift of salvation through the voices of our community in song – flute – organ – piano and guitar. When we seek out liturgists to share their prayers or the words which call us into worship together. What a blessing – what a blessing this Good News is beloved that we cannot only hear that Christ came to save us all; but through this blessed worship service we can witness the Good News that salvation is for all people and all people are important to experience the salvation which Christ brings. 

Now beloved, this Good News of Christmas is your present – a light of Christ which will help guide each of us through the darkness until Christ returns. The Good News is of Jesus’ teachings to remind us; voices to reveal salvation through our fellowship and the blessed voices of all people throughout Creation. This gift of the Good News, beloved, is yours – has been yours – and will always be yours whenever you witness the world as a child who came to save all people no matter who they are, where they are on life’s journey, or where they are in the world. May your eyes always witness one another as our Christ child did when he came loving all people on Christmas Day. In God’s eternal Love for us all, we pray. Amen

Perceptions of Peace

Advent candle of peace with the text "peace".

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem December 20, 2020

Advent is a time of joy – love – hope and peace; but, not for everyone – even in the best of years. 

Cookies, decorations, presents, carols, and cards are ways we share God’s peace; but, not for everyone – even in the best of years.

This season of waiting is when families come together in peace to celebrate the birth of Christ – the coming Lord; but not for everyone – even in the best of years.

Even in the best of years, there are people who feel advent and Christmas is also a time of isolation – and anxiety. And, beloved, those feelings are common. Many Christians feel the crippling darkness of these feelings which lead to holiday depression each year at or around Christmas. During this time where so many of us are enjoying the beautiful season, there are people – neighbors – friends who are being torn asunder by the feelings of anxiety and isolation. And that, beloved, is in the best of years.

In this year of 2020, we have had our fill of anxiety and isolation. Our fill of these feelings which are causing more and more people to spiral towards holiday depression. Our fill of the anxiety and isolation perpetuating our lives from covid-19 – social unrest – and political controversies fed by the news and social media. And that was all before those dark tendrils of holiday depression started to creep towards our hearts. So, please – please know that if you are feeling depression of any sort – holiday, seasonal, or chronic – I am here to listen and guide you to the help you need. I believe we are all here to listen and help you find ways to deal with these destructive feelings. Please reach out for you are not alone, there is nothing wrong with you. We all have every reason in the world to feel many forms of depression. Depression which is so crippling that it can tear you apart from the inside. Tear apart families and relationships – tear apart the world and fill it with a darkness that leaves no room for God’s light of peace. So, if you need a kind ear please reach out and let us help you find Peace.

That said, today, I would like to share a few ways to help – not the only ways – but some ways to help push away the isolation and the anxiety of our world. Some ways to move away from holiday depression by changing our perception and preparing our hearts for that light of God’s divine Peace.

Before we go too far – would you pray with me:

God of Peace let Your light shine upon our lives once more as You push out the darkness – the isolation – the anxiety of the world. Ignite in us the spark of Peace so our lives can become beacons for all people – all of Creation. May our hearts sing of Your Peace and my lips be guided by Your Word this day, O’ God, and all the days to come.

Now beloved, like I said chronic depression itself is a serious issue which affected 9.3 % of the US population in 2019 according to the Center for Disease Control. These numbers increased in 2020 by 62% over last year’s totals just in the months from January through September. Added to these numbers, we are also seeing increases in seasonal and holiday depression so please if you have any feelings of depression no matter how minor they seem, reach out and let us all be there for you. 

For these feelings of depression are increased by anxiety and isolation. Feelings we have all become too aware of in this last year – grown too used too and become too comfortable with, through the pandemic. For, the more we get used to these feelings the lonelier we feel; but what if we stopped – right now; and changed our perception of the world today – what if for just a few minutes we stepped away from the swirling depression and changed our perception – stopped focusing on the anxiety of the season and the isolation of our Covid world – just for a few moments by breathing out those feelings and witnessing the world in a different light.

Breathe out those feelings that I imagine King David was feeling in our scripture from Second Samuel this week. Feelings of anxiety because he had not provided God with the same understanding of peace from Jewish society. For, peace by Jewish standards at that time seems to be a “rest from enemies” and a “house of cedar” – a place to rest peacefully – a home. Yet, David is conflicted in this passage for he has not provided God a home. Rather, God “stays in a tent.” This understanding of peace for the Jewish society is confirmed by the theologian Bruce Birch who says that the first few verses of this chapter designate that the “(Jewish) kingdom is at peace.” I would also argue that the prophet Nathan’s original acceptance of David’s plan also reveals the society’s understanding that a “house of cedar” is core to being at peace. So, here we begin to witness the anxiety – anxiety that David has yet to fulfill for God society’s perception of peace.  

What we see though is that a “house of cedar” – or a temple – is not what God wanted – not how she understood peace. Not what he had asked for from David. In this conflict I can only imagine that there was anxiety for David. Anxiety in a conflict between how society saw peace and what God understands as peace. How similar is that for us today – we feel anxiety about isolation because society tells us it is good to be with family – a couple – other people, yet – God says you are amazing, and you are never alone. We feel anxiety that things are not the traditional way of society; yet, God says Christmas will come and reveals thousands of ways to celebrate the coming Light through each and every person on earth. We feel anxiety of shopping for the perfect present; yet God says my Son is the present, the grace, the gift to the whole world and all you have to do is accept him into your life. That beloved is the core of our holiday depression – a difference in perceptions of reality – an increase in anxiety and feelings of isolation between the way society or our own beliefs says it should be and the way God reveals it is. Yet, there is Good News in the story of Mary where we witness the perception of divine peace when she sees the world not as society; but accepts the impossibility which God reveals.

This Good News is revealed through the miracle of Mary’s pregnancy from our story of Christ’s birth in the Gospel according to Luke. For, it is told that Mary was a virgin who had not lived with a man and was not yet married. Both of these points reveal a different perception from societal standards or reality for the Jewish culture, a different perception of building a family peacefully in that society. This conflict would, of course, create anxiety for Mary, Joseph and their families. There is even another theory amongst theologians that Mary was not a virgin but simply too young to bear a child like Elizabeth was too old to conceive. And even when we take this understanding – we still must imagine that Mary, Joseph and their families had anxiety for what they ‘knew’ to be true was in conflict with the way God revealed the birth of Jesus. They either had to change their perceptions of what was possible or live-in anxiety over what was happening. The Good News is revealed when Mary accepts the will of God and says, “let it be.” Let it be as it is, beloved, accept the way the world is being revealed – the way we are celebrating Christmas – the isolation we must endure right now – accept and be at peace – let go of the things we cannot make as society has told us – but accept the advent season as it comes. This beloved is the good news of how we let go of anxiety and prepare our heart for the light of peace.

Still this acceptance does not mean we can absolutely do it alone and by no means will this be the only way to alleviate the destructive force of depression. However, it is a step – a way to help shift away from the darkness of holiday depression. Acceptance of the way the world is begins by voicing those conflicts of anxiety – sharing them with someone you trust, with those of us who you know will not judge you. Perhaps through the practice of prayer.

I believe Nathan shows us through prayer that he is able to come to peace over David’s anxieties; Mary definitely finds peace while praying on the anxieties of life; and maybe this practice of prayer – of speaking to God will help each of us find peace when we have anxiety. However, prayer is not simply the Lord’s prayer; it can also be a spiritual practice like walking – engaging with family via phone or even knitting. Anything that will provide you a moment to stop – to step away – and to let go of the anxiety. Anything from reading to singing which will help you let go of the anxiety long enough to hear the will of God and shift perceptions from the way the world should be to the way God is revealing the world. In this movement of perception, beloved, we may each release our anxieties and prepare our hearts for the Light of Peace coming into our lives and into our world. May you take time this week to set aside the anxieties of the way the world should be to see the way the world is through God. So, you may make a place for the Light of peace in your hearts during this blessed advent season. In God’s eternal Peace, we pray. Amen.

Joy throughout the Generations

Advent candle with the text "Joy"

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem December 13, 2020

The other night, my sister and her family got all bundled up and went into the cool Georgia air to cut down their Christmas tree. Her family tradition reminded me of when my sister and I were young. How we would get all bundled up and go into the cool Michigan air to cut down our Christmas tree. On those nights, my father would carry the old rusty tree saw. The one he used only once per year and we would all go to the tree farm together as a family. There we would joyfully search for the perfect tree – the one which was tall – but not too tall. Full and green without too many holes. At least not more holes than you can hide in the back. The tree had to be exactly right; so obviously, it took hours to find. Sometimes we would even sing Christmas carols as we wandered through the rows of trees. Finally, we would choose one that we all liked and that one was always perfect, because we would bring it home to be part of our Christmas celebration that year. Afterwards, we would have hot chocolate with the little marshmallows to warm up. Now, when I heard my sister is still maintaining that joyful tradition with her family, it brought a smile to my heart and the concerns of the world seemed to be so much farther away for the Joy I knew as a child was being passed down to another generation.

Then, I thought about our theme for this year. Our theme of caring for the environment and I wondered if this tradition passed down to me from my parents’ generation is moral. Is it ethical to continue this practice of cutting down trees for Christmas in a world which is struggling to survive? Although not specifically, this question is being asked by our younger generation as they lead the way to environmental care.

In this between place, I found my heart wanting to embrace the joy of the generation before while living into the just and ethical innovations of the younger generation. It seemed to be an impossibility – but, beloved, through God all things are possible – there is a third way – a Way through the middle to the divine light of Christ – a way we can prepare our hearts for the light of Joy through embracing the blessings of all our generations.  

Before we begin, would you pray with me,

Holy Creator who created in all Creation – life – Let us be witness to the Joy you bring through the generations – allow our hearts to question and our lives to be faithful as we discern the ways to celebrate this Christmas with You. May our hearts listen to the soul of one another as our words speak of Your truth.

Now beloved, I bring this issue up for over the last few years many Christians have felt that our faith is being attacked – Christmas itself is under assault – with everything from the use of “Happy Holidays” in order to be more inclusive to cancelling the cartoon “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” due to the bullying overtones in the story. If you have not heard about these controversies, I invite you to listen with your soul to the generation which is speaking. The generation called the ‘millennials’ which has found their voice and is bringing up awareness of justice which many of us in older generations did not consider. This awareness though is not just around Christmas. We have received a slew of innovative ideas which are challenging many of our traditional ways from democratic socialism to pro-choice being racist. Ideas which range the spectrum and invite us to engage them as a people of faith. Many of these ideas we will discuss in the years to come. However, today, let us focus on the joy we discover while cutting down the Christmas tree and the reality that this may not be ethical considering our faith which calls us to care for our environment.

That said, this thought of the ethicality of the Christmas tree never crossed my mind. I never considered this issue may not be best for the environment – that this tree’s life is ending while I walked through the snow with my family. Rather, I just enjoy the beauty of the tree with lights, garland, and a star – on top. But it is true that even though we grow these trees specifically for Christmas in all 50 states; we are killing them. We are taking them away from a long life of providing oxygen for us to breath – and homes for the many critters of the world. I witness this new generation’s awareness and do not wish to destroy our environment. I want my life to be faithful and just for all of Creation.

Yet – I also do not want to stop having a tree at Christmas – I enjoy those memories from my parent’s generation. So, where does this leave me? Somewhere stuck in the middle, I am afraid. Somewhere, that we cannot act – and thereby become aimless – letting the guilt or frustration fill our heart. When this happens, beloved, there is no room for Joy in our hearts. No room for the light of joy which is coming. For, we are stuck in a generational quandary between morality or joyful traditions.

This type of aimlessness was happening to the people of Thessalonica. They had been taught by the generation before, specifically Paul, that joy would come to the people during their lifetime when Christ returned to the world; yet the Thessalonians were dying, and this belief of joy to come was being challenged. Now, this issue is why the apostle wrote The First letter of Paul to the Thessalonians around 44-51 AD according to the theologian David Horrell. The letter though does not speak of false teaching or immoral conduct which is common amongst the other Pauline epistles. Rather Paul continually speaks of this community’s faith and Joy; his concern for their loss of joy; and many instructions on how to remain joyful and faithful when there are quandaries in life.

And this passage is the good news – beloved – the good news of instruction which teaches us how to push away the aimlessness, guilt, and frustration in life and prepare our hearts for the light of Joy which will come – no matter what the quandary may be. Paul reminds us to rejoice always. Rejoice in God by not quench(ing) the Spirit. What a profound and prophetic instruction that teaches us joy can be found when we do not destroy the Spirit in others. In other words, listen – not just with your ears but with your soul to the joy discovered by one generation and the moral quandary revealed by another generation. Listen with your soul; so, you may discern how to live as a joyful disciple living a just life.  It means hearing the needs of one generation to protect the environment and the joy discovered when the generation before took us out on to the tree farm. Hear them both, without silencing – without cancelling – without ignoring – hear them so their Spirit will not be quenched.

Paul goes on to offer the beautiful and clear instruction – do not despise the words of the prophets – Hear the words of the Bible – the generations who came before – the traditions of our past. Hear these words and let them guide your discernment. But also test those traditions, test everything – question everything like the younger generations. Ask how cutting down a tree at Christmas helps the environment – bring to light those conflicts you see but balance them against scripture.

finally, Paul gives us the solid, simple instruction on how to remain joyful: “hold fast to everything which is good and abstain from everything which is evil.” What a beautiful instruction – simple and encouraging. A blessed phrase that we can each carry today and every day to come as we discern these struggles between generations – between tradition and innovation – between the joy we remember as a youth and the just faith we are called to live into today. Discern that which brought you joy and is good.

For me, those excursions for our tree were joyful because it was a time of family, caroling, and decorating of the tree. It was the hot chocolate and the lights which brought me joy. But the joy – for me- was not in the actual cutting of the tree. So, wait maybe that is the way – maybe the good news is right there – abstain from those things which we consider evil, unnecessary, or unjust like the actual cutting of the tree. Not that I am saying that cutting a tree is evil; rather, I am suggesting that in light of our knowledge – our awareness of the environment revealed through the millennial generation – maybe cutting trees down for Christmas is unnecessary as there are artificial trees.

This good news, beloved, is what Paul brought to us as a way – an instruction – a teaching of Christ Jesus that joy is discovered throughout the generations – through the traditions of our parents and the innovations of our children calling us to find the way in the middle. This good news is how we will prepare our hearts for the light of joy not just today with this quandary around our Christmas trees. But it is a teaching we can carry into every part of our lives.

So, as we live into this advent season, let us take time to listen with our souls to the generations of people – the traditions and the innovations. Do not quench the Spirit of any but hear these generations speaking and then discern the good – the joy – the just ways and leave behind the evil or unnecessary ways. This middle way beloved is the way of the divine – the way God is calling us too – the way which will push away our aimlessness, guilt, and frustration; thereby, preparing us for the light of Joy to come into our hearts throughout the generations. May every day of this Advent season allow you to hear with your soul the cries of the generations as we discern the way to prepare our hearts for the light of Joy together. In the name of God’s divine Joy, we pray. Amen.

Making the Way Straight

PIcture of advent candle with the text "Love"

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH on December 6, 2020.

The other night, I was driving home from a fellow parishioner’s house along some twisty road and my heart went out to all of you who share your time – your energy – your love with each other. Although there are many ways, we share our love, on this night, I was particularly struck by the love many of you have shared with each other by delivering the advent packages. I was struck by this thought because the road is not always straight here in New Hampshire or anywhere in New England. And sometimes a trip which is only a few miles away by the crow fly can take quite a bit more time. So, as I thought about your generosity and love, it became a God moment for me. So, thank you – thank you for lifting my heart each and every time you share your love with one another – however you can – regardless of the twists in the road.

Now, I wish that I could help take away some of those twists and make your path quicker. However, most of those twists and turns on our New England roads are there because of our fore parents. For when they built the roads and came across a large rock, a tree, or a mountain in the way, they took the easy approach. They decided to just twist around the obstacle and continue building the road. This practice made building the road easier; but it takes us a bit more time to travel. How nice it would have been today, if those barriers had just been removed in the first place.

As I was driving, I thought about this idea in relation to our times of advent – of waiting – of preparing; and, I wondered how have we built the roads into our hearts – the path for the light of the world – the Way for the Love of Christ? Are our roads full of twists and turns or have we removed the barriers and made the Way straight for the Light of Love?

As we ponder this thought, let us pray:

Holy one – make us whole with your Love and the light which you will bring back into the world – prepare our hearts by freeing us of the barriers which block our love and the Love You reflect in the relationships we have with one another. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You God.

Beloved, preparing in Advent is not just about being ready; but, it is also about making a choice – a choice to make the Way quicker for God to come into our hearts or to leave the barriers in our life like the mountains of greed – oceans of loneliness – or rocks of judgment. For, yes, we can get rid of those barriers on the road between God and us. And yes, God can make it around these barriers on the road we create for Christ’s Love, but that way will become the twisty turns of our New England roads. Roads which though easier to build take longer to travel. 

Or – or, we can do the hard work and remove these barriers from our life – we can make the road straight – straight for God, Christ, and the relationships of love to fill our hearts this day and all the days to come as we travel along the Way to the kin-dom. 

Now, I mention all of this as over the last number of years many relationships have been destroyed – not just in the noticeable divisiveness of political positions – which is heart wrenching, but also on Facebook as friend and family relationships became silenced – in our struggles around racial inequality – or stances on the Covid-19 reactions – in the many conflicts we are experiencing. But none of this is new. Conflict has been around since the beginning of time, since Adam and Eve walked upon the Earth – conflict happened and will continue to happen.

The problem is not that there is conflict but that reconciliation – healing – Love is not happening. People are not trying to do the hard work of removing those barriers of the conflicts and making the Way straight for love – for healing – and for reconciliation.

This problem reminds me of our Gospel reading this week. Not the actual reading, mind you, but the Gospel according to Mark itself. For, our fore parents – the first disciples – were left alone – twice, when Jesus had been crucified and again when Christ became one with God. I imagine these first disciples were confronted with many barriers in their relationships and the building of our faith. Some of which we witness in the Book of Acts. Barriers which were anything from judgement that their way is better to isolation after being left alone. I suspect the barriers in their relationships included things like greed – aimlessness – envy etc. But in reality, the conflicts they faced could be any number of the multitude of sins which create barriers in our relationships. And although these conflicts seem to be within their relationships, the conflict is not the question. Conflict existed then as they do today. 

Rather, we see the result of these destroyed relationships in that this Gospel was not written until 70 A.D. by most estimations. That means that – yes, yes, we did get here – did create our faith – did write our first scripture; yet it took a long time. A long time down a twisty path to get the author of this Gospel to not only write about Jesus’ life but also find a way for these words to be accepted as scripture by the majority of Christ’s followers. A long time after Jesus was crucified, Christ became one with God, and many of his first disciples had passed from this Earth.

Still the words were written down and amongst those first few verses, we witness the Good News of Advent. The Good News that there is a Way to make the path straight – a way of reconciliation for all people and all relationships – a Way to prepare our hearts for the light of God’s eternal Love. That Way is shared through our reading when it combines the teachings of Isaiah who said “prepare the Way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” along with John the Baptist who preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” In other words, the author of this Gospel is sharing how to make the path straight through the seeking of forgiveness. This passage is the Good news beloved – the Good news which shows us the Way to prepare our Hearts for the light of Love coming back into the world.

Now, many may argue that John the Baptist was baptizing, and this sacrament is vastly different from a cleansing of sin. You may even say that one cannot cleanse yourself from sin – remove barriers from the path – reconcile through a simple washing of water; and you would be right. In fact, a renowned Jewish theologian named Josephus argued that the soul cannot be cleansed through the washing of the body, which was a traditional Jewish custom. He argued that John the Baptist was strongly encouraging people to “an inner moral reform that was (only) symbolized in the external ritual.” Encouraging people to inner moral reform – to repent – to ask forgiveness – to accept their part in a conflict – even. This type of understanding though does not sound like the sacrament of Baptism; it sounds like our Prayer of Confession. Our prayer which we do each month as a way of preparing ourselves for the sacrament of Communion. 

But what would happen if we prepared ourselves each week, each day, each time we fumble – become broken – sin. What if we recognize our faults each time and do the work of removing the barriers? Would the path be straighter for God’s light? What if we did this practice each time, we had a conflict with another human being by accepting our faults – seeking forgiveness for our actions or inactions – and removing the barriers in our relationships? Would the relationships be stronger, healthier, more loving because we were able to come back together sooner? Would we create a straighter path for God’s love to shine by removing the barriers from the relationships of Love we enjoy every day? I believe it would and I pray that we each choose to remove those barriers and make a straighter path for God’s Love in this advent season.

That said, reconciliation with one another cannot be done alone. Sometimes the conflict cannot be easily resolved – the other person may be unwilling to accept their part and seek forgiveness from you. Sadly, there is nothing we can do to force reconciliation with another person. And that is ok – difficult – but ok as long as we are doing everything we can to remove those barriers blocking our relationships and the paths of Love to God. For, seeking forgiveness is not really about the other person, it is about you doing your best to make the Way straight for God’s Love by removing the barriers in your relationships. May every day of your life be full of God’s Eternal Love as we strive to make the Way straight for the Light of the world by repenting, seeking forgiveness, and pursuing reconciliation with one another each time we fall. Amen.

Preparing for the Light of Hope

Lit advent candle of hope with the text "Hope".

This sermon was presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH on November 29, 2020

This morning, our sanctuary appears a little different. Transformed almost overnight by new vestments on the communion table, by the placement of our traditional nativity scene, by the addition of our community Advent candles. A transformation which marks the beginning – the beautiful beginning of our Advent season. The season where we learn about, celebrate, and experience – waiting…

Waiting… what an interesting concept – this year – this year where we had to wait in lines to get in grocery stores, wait for stimulus checks, wait for racial justice, wait for environmental insights, wait for election results, vaccines, school closures and semi-openings. We have had a year of waiting. And I suspect most of us do not think of waiting as a celebration.

But waiting is just that – a celebration in our season of Advent. A season of the Christian calendar dedicated to active waiting. A season which begins the four weeks before Christmas and invites each of us to explore waiting in a deeper way. For, waiting through Advent is not just about Christmas; this season is also a way for us to explore our lives as we wait for Christ, who is coming again. 

That said, do we really understand how to wait – how Christ calls us to wait – how to prepare our hearts in the same way we have already begun preparing our sanctuary? If you have then this season is already a celebration for you. If not, let us discover together what Advent is about as we prepare for the light of hope coming into the world.

Would you pray with me?

Holy Creator recreate our hearts this day – prepared to welcome your light of Hope – so, we may be Your Hope for all the world. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to you God.

Now, when I was a small child, I admit that waiting in Advent seemed like torture; much like this year has seemed like torture for many people throughout our world. For, my family celebrated with advent calendars; but, we could only open one package per day – Christmas presents were placed under the tree; but, we could not open them until Christmas morning – the stockings were hung; but, we had to wait for Santa Claus to fill them before we could discover what we had received. Yes, in my young and privileged perception waiting felt like torture because I was only focused on Christmas – on the end. Much like I suspect it has felt for many people as we waited for everything to get back to normal; waited for the world to figure out a solution before understanding the social issue; waited for a vaccine before engaging in any social gatherings. 

That said, I commend all of you who have faithfully discerned how, or if, you would engage in anything over the last year, especially large gatherings like Thanksgiving. But I am curious: were you waiting passively – feeling like it was torture – through this last Thanksgiving – this last year – your entire life? Is waiting for the end goal torture for you like it was for me as a child or maybe not torture. Is waiting for you, just a simple passing of time – like waiting for that Christmas morning patiently when the world would one day return to normal – not experiencing life in the meantime – just waiting? 

I ask because Advent has come along, and we are confronted with a simple question: what if things never become normal again? What if the day of the Lord comes while we are waiting passively for the world to right itself? What will happen if we are asleep when the master returns? 

I believe everyone who reads our passage from the Gospel According to Mark this week may wish to consider this question. For, our passage describes the second coming of Christ through a parable – a moral lesson about the master going on a trip. This metaphor of the master is Christ Jesus. The servants who are left behind are therefore all of us. Thus, the author of this Gospel is sharing an eschatological, or end times, parable which is offered to remind all of us to remain watchful as no one, but the Creator knows when this time will come. Remain watchful, ever present to our call as disciples, actively engaging in the life which God gave us even while we are waiting. This lesson is the beautiful message from Mark. 

However, this message also comes with a warning to stay awake. Not a threat for we have no idea what will happen if – if we are asleep when the day of the Lord comes – if things do not return to normal and we have been passively waiting – if the loved ones we left alone on Thanksgiving are carried home to God before next year? We have no idea for sure. Yet, I suspect there will be fear, anxiety, regrets for any who are asleep on that day.

The theologian Pheme Perkins seems to lean toward the idea of regrets for all of us in the 21st century. He says, watchfulness may not seem significant to us today; but “we all know that human life is fleeting.” Therefore, how we engage each moment is precious on this earth and we are called to stay awake, be present, actively engaging in life; so, we will not live in regret when the day of the Lord comes along. This idea of sleeping while waiting though is not just for the end times. It is also about passively waiting for Christmas and not experiencing, celebrating, or learning about all the ways in which we can prepare our hearts for the light of hope, our Christ, which is coming again.

This passage from the Gospel also shares the Good News that the kin-dom will come – the end times not as some apocalyptic nightmare; but, it is a time of hope when suffering, pain, injustice will come to an end. That in some unknown future we will all be one with Christ as kin. However, this time is only known to the Father so we must continue to learn, to experience, and to celebrate life every day – creating a future of hope by living in the present as Christ’s disciples – today. 

We also witness the Good News of hope in Psalm 80. The Good News that God made us strong, gave us life and will save us as a people. As a Christian, I believe this saving comes to us all through Christ Jesus, the light of the world, the Hope for all humankind. This good news is another message of hope found throughout the Bible. We are reminded of this hope many times that God will save each of us; but are we prepared to be saved – have we prepared our hearts to receive that light in? Are we actively living our faith each day as we wait for the day when we all will be saved by Christ or are, we waiting passively for the day of the Lord and Christmas?

Only you can answer that question for yourself, beloved. Only you and God know what lies in your hearts; yet, from what I have seen, regrets – anxiety – fear cannot exist in the same heart as hope. These emotions seem to oppose one another in a way that does not allow them to coexist.

So, how do we actively wait – how do we go from the fear – anxiety – and regret into a disciple’s heart where we are prepared for the light of hope which may guide us through the darkness?

Well another theologian named Henri Nouwen once said, “Active waiting means (being) present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it.” That beloved is how we actively wait – not by hiding away and letting regrets for a normal which will never happen again rule our thoughts, not by letting anxiety guide every action because we did not find the right present nor by allowing fear to rule our discernments; but, we actively wait by being present fully to every moment of life and knowing that something is happening around you, within you, through you to make the world better. 

For me, today, it means being present to the world around me and living every moment in the promise of hope that this too shall end – engaging with people not with expectations of what we once experienced; but, in the new moment of every day of this blessed advent season – letting go of the what will come in a month and simply experiencing every moment I have with each of you – today. I believe hope is found in the now while we are actively waiting for the coming Christ.

This active waiting does not mean running out to engage in a gathering you feel is dangerous – it means learning what makes you feel uncomfortable and experience life as you can around those difficulties – it means reaching out to one another and exploring innovative ways to engage relationships – it means gathering in family groups to celebrate worship together – it means we keep living even while we are waiting for the Christ to come, the suffering to end, the vaccine to be developed. And we have already seen this community begin to experience Advent as a people who are actively waiting – We have seen Norma decorate the sanctuary so it will bring us hope even though we are semi-closed to in-person worship, Bridget and Cindy will be decorating the outside of the church bringing the people of Salem hope even amongst the rising covid-19 numbers, members of the worship, education and outreach teams have prepared advent care packages to bring you each hope and connection amongst the isolation. 

Still, God says do not fall asleep – even if you have been fully engaged all year. God reminds us to not fall asleep now. Help reach out to one another and engage in a crisp socially distanced walk – be God’s disciples here on earth by engaging in the reverse advent calendar – imagine new ways we can be in worship together and share them to bring hope to all people. For, when we continue to live our lives by actively waiting, by being fully present – by living every moment together we will continually make a place for hope in our hearts that the whole world will be able to witness. May this season of active waiting allow you to bring the hope of Christ into your life – now and always. In the name of Christ, we pray Amen.

Gratitude for the Shepherds

Fall harvest with the text "Let Us Give Thanks"

This sermon was presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH on November 22, 2020.

As of Friday, 399,806 people have been tested for coronavirus in New Hampshire; 16,797 people have tested positive; 12,201 people have recovered; 108 people are currently hospitalized; and 3,981 people are walking around today with Covid-19 amongst a population of 1,359,711 people in the state of New Hampshire. According to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human sources.

Yet the day before, Time magazine released an article saying over 70,000 people have been hospitalized nationwide; hospitals are understaffed; and outside morgues are filling up with people. These two stories paint a very different picture as we enter into this week of Thanksgiving and the beginning of our Advent season.

Amongst these stories, we received word this week from the NH UCC conference recommending an end to in-person worship until the end of the year- not an order from the NH Governor but a recommendation from our fellowship in the UCC conference.

A recommendation which the shepherds of our worship team have discerned, and our Vision and leadership team are currently discerning. 

But this call of discernment is not just about in-person worship, it is also about Thanksgiving; about how do we remain in community; about how to not only survive but grow in faith; and it is about how each and every shepherd who is listening to me right now will discern how we will each engage the world over the next few months during this second wave of covid-19, during this second time of isolation. 

To all of you righteous shepherds of God, I offer my unending gratitude. 

Before we go too far let us pray,

Eternal Shepherd clear our minds of the clutter of a thousand voices speaking and open our souls to Your pasture of eternal Grace. Let Your teachings become ingrained within our beings as we guide – teach – and become an example of Your loving heart. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You, God.

Beloved, the shepherds I am thanking today are not only the known leaders – the health care professionals – the teachers – but also, every one of you. For although our scripture often uses the terms sheep and flock to describe our fellowship, God did not make “sheep” out of Her followers – God created us as shepherds who righteously care for one another daily. We heard this call of the shepherd when we joined this congregational type fellowship. We live this fellowship each time we share our voice or lead a team. We share this fellowship of shepherding discipleship every moment we live as an example for others. And for all of these beautiful ways, you reveal this call – I am grateful and wish to say thank you.

But today, we are confronted with the difficult discernment around this second wave of isolation and coronavirus, mask use and Thanksgiving, faith and school traditions; we are confronted by these and I wonder what is motivating each and every one of your discernments. This wondering came about when I was in the grocery store this week and I witnessed people walking this way and that – not wearing masks – leaning over one another to take something off the shelf. At that moment, I assumed these people do believe Covid-19 is real. That they only follow the rules as far as they have too; so, they may avoid some external shaming from others. Similarly, I know some souls who have not seen anyone since March – avoid even socially distanced interaction and I assume this choice is due to the fear of contracting this disease from some external source. I assume the motivations in both these cases but only God and you know your motivation for your choices in this life.

And external rewards from not being ashamed to not getting sick – from good grades to being paid – from socializing to alone time can all be great temporary motivators for our actions. These types of motivations are of the Earth though – temporary and not the long-lasting motivations which God calls us to embrace as righteous shepherds.

An idea I invite you to consider as we look at today in our Christian calendar – a day which marks the ascension of Christ. Consider the motivations of the disciples in those days after Jesus had died on the cross and Christ ascended into Heaven to become one with God. I imagine there was fear and loneliness in the isolation which they had known when Jesus died and felt again as Christ left the Earth – And in those days, our fore parents – the first disciples each had to make a choice on how to remain as one community, as one people of God, as one fellowship. Was their motivation based on some external markers of circumcision, of sacrifice, of ritual cleansing or was it some internal call of the righteous Shepherd which Jesus revealed through his life, death, and ascension? 

Personally, I believe their motivation was based on the internal call as revealed in our passage from the book according to Matthew, a book of the Gospel attributed to one of Jesus’ first disciples from those days when our fellowship felt isolation and discerned how to remain in community. In this passage, the author reveals the Good News that God is calling each of us to make discernments not because we feel that it will get us into the kin-dom, ahead in life, or because someone says it is right. Rather, our discernment comes from within, it comes from the heart, comes from our faith as Shepherds both individually and as a way to encourage our community.

This message is shared through the passage telling of not just sheep; but the sheep of the right hand – the righteous who are surprised when they discover they were good to Christ – not for some external benefit – not for a golden ticket into the kin-dom; but because they followed in Christ’s path and were kind to another human being when they fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and visited the isolated people who were sick or prisoners. 

Furthermore, when we help out the least of those amongst us – not due to some external source, like the NH UCC Conference; but because of the internal joy of helping one another through these difficult times -we become not just sheep but Shepherds and our whole lives become an example of Christ’s teachings guiding – leading – teaching other souls the Way of Christ. 

The theologian William Barclay explains the motivation of the righteous sheep as the “uncalculating reaction of the loving heart,” a discernment and choice made not from an external benefit but from the natural outpouring of Christian love we have for one another. And this call to help other people – for Christ within other people – for God within all Creation is what I see as the motivations of the righteous Shepherd. 

So, how are you motivated through this life – through times of isolation – through this second wave of Covid-19. Are you blindly following an external motivation or are you following the Way of Christ – the Eternal Shepherd?

Only you can answer that question; but I pray that you are all the righteous Shepherds of Christ. For, I cannot make these choices alone – we are a congregation and need to hear your innovative ideas of how we may remain in community – worship – and fellowship – together through this second wave of isolation. We need to know what brings you comfort, joy, and reassurance. How you are engaging faithfully in our traditions like Thanksgiving.

Through this gift of your voice – we as a congregation can discern how to engage our traditions, our comfort, our fellowship not as a knee jerk reaction of following as blind sheep – but as the righteous Shepherds who are looking at these events with a thoughtful manner and helping the souls who are the most susceptible to the deadlier strains of this virus – the people who need to work in order to keep a roof over their head – the people who have become prisoners in their own home. By embracing this Way of Christ, even if there are external motivators for our actions – we will become like the first disciples building an innovative church, an example of God’s loving heart for all people, and following God’s call for every one of us to live as the righteous Shepherd. Thanks be to God for each of you who walk this Way with me as we embrace fellowship amongst isolation. May God grant you each a week full of gratitude for the righteous Shepherds as you imagine, discern, and share the faithful Way for our beloved congregation. Amen