“Transformed on the Mountain”

Image of Jesus on the mountain with Moses and Elijah from Mark 9:2-9. Two of the disciples are in the foreground, one is fearful the other in prayerful praise.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH February 14, 2021

Beloved, Covid – 19 has and continues to bring many changes to our world. This reality is all around us from the way we share worship to our social interactions. And these changes feel like an open wound as the changing world groans in pain – right before our eyes. However, change does not have to be terrifying, it can be a loving transformation into the world God is calling us to become. It can be a transformation of love recreating the way we engage the world – our lives – and one another. We have witnessed this transforming love happen to us over the last year; but, have we lived into the breath of the Holy Spirit in our midst. We are following Jesus up the mountain; but are we listening to the transformation happening? The prophets are there on the top of the mountain and now is our time to choose: do we fear the change or live into the transformation on the mountain?  

As we begin would you pray with me:

Christ Jesus, lead and I will follow. Show us the way to your mountain so we may witness your transfiguration and welcome the transformation you bring within us. Show us the Way of love, God, the way to Love You – which we never knew was possible through Your Holy Spirit. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You God. 

Now beloved I do believe we have and are following Jesus up the mountain – faithfully. We are living into the faithful teachings which guide us as we struggle with this new world being created. So, well done. Yet, I also feel it is important to recognize that the past year has been a struggle for many people – many who are disenfranchised – many who feel trapped with abuse – many who feel silenced by politics – many who are starving for a hug – many who engage with virtual education – many of us who miss the physical presence of each other during worship. It is important to recognize these struggles; for each struggle reveals how we are resistant to the changes happening and not accepting of the transformation of the Spirit into God’s new Creation. Mind you, this resistance is not necessarily a bad thing – we could be discerning how to live into the transformation happening. Then again, we could also be fearful of the changes – so fearful that we miss the miracle of the transfiguration. 

Either way, many of us are struggling as a community who misses our sanctuary full of our beloved friends. I hear our prayers that we will all be together again soon, a prayer which I believe will come true soon; but, what if it does not. What if it is years before we can gather again safely. This conflict is the struggle many of us are feeling. And this is only one struggle; but it is one we are facing together as we climb the mountain of faith. 

Much like the disciples who were called to follow Jesus struggle with the transfiguration which is happening on the mountain in our reading from the Gospel according to Mark. Struggle when Jesus was transfigured from their teacher to the manifestation of … “divine power and glory,” according to theology professor Pheme Perkins. These disciples resist the manifestation though by continuing to call Jesus: “Rabbi” which is the Hebrew word for teacher. They also struggle with what is happening before them by offering to alter the world and build three dwellings – one for Jesus – one for Moses who is there to represent the Law Jesus fulfils – and one for Elijah who is there to represent the Prophets who came before. Instead of witnessing the loving vision before them, the disciples struggle with the meaning of the manifestation and the presence of Moses and Elijah. Thereby, resisting the transfiguration by offering to remake the mountain in human needs instead of living into the transfiguration of the New Creation before their very eyes.

To all of this, Jesus … “did not know what to say.” Imagine that beloved, Jesus did not know what to say. The disciples had followed Jesus up the mountain. He had been transfigured right before their eyes into clothes so dazzling white that no human hands could equal. His divine power and glory is further recognized in the presence of the Law and the Prophets. Yet, these three disciples could not comprehend what is being revealed to them and Jesus did not know what to say. 

Is this reality any different from all of us who are following the path of Jesus – who have witnessed a manifestation before us which we never imagined could happen, like our sanctuary being closed. Faithfully, many have embraced virtual worship. Yet, some of us still resist by either avoiding worship all together or anxiously awaiting the return of our hybrid worship service. I admit that I am amongst this latter group. I struggle with not being in worship physically with all of you and resist the transformation of a strictly virtual worship service. And Jesus did not know what to say…There is no teaching here from Jesus because we have not fully discerned the changes or comprehended what is being revealed. 

But there is Good News, Good News in the words of God who clearly shares the message of the transfiguration and through this message transforms the lives of those disciples on the mountain. God from within the manifestation of the Holy Spirit says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” She says listen – listen to Jesus – the vision before our eyes and witness the transfiguration happening because Jesus is my Son and with him is “(my) divine power and glory.” Sometimes the message from God is that clear and we only need to listen. Sometimes the simplest message of God’s love is all that we need to help us understand and be transformed by the transfiguration happening right before our eyes. 

So, what is the simple message today – what Good News did God bring us to help us become transformed by the altering of our sanctuary worship? Well God, through Jesus in the Gospel according to John says, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” In other words, beloved, there will come a time when worship will not be in any sanctuary, neither on the “mountain nor in Jerusalem.” When this coming kin-dom happens, we will all worship God in “spirit and truth” wherever we are in the world. But we are not there … yet. Though I believe we are being called to enter this transformation – into this way of worship through “spirit and truth.” Yet, we resist. So perhaps today, we need to witness the transfiguration happening and see Jesus’ words as an invitation that worship can and should happen throughout the world. Can and should be however and wherever we need to be in order to be at-one with God and each other in worship. Perhaps this transformation into the breath of both in this sanctuary and virtually is the transformation we are called to embrace. 

And I believe we have been faithful, so far. We have climbed the mountain and embraced ways to remain in worship together. “It is good to be here”; but is the place where you are worshipping, a spiritual place of God. Does it feel like the worship of “spirit and truth” – does it feel the same as when you are within this sanctuary when all of us are together or are, we just experiencing worship in this way until the day we can get back to “normal?” What about the souls who cannot experience worship virtually and it is dangerous for them to still be physically present? Are they able to be in worship with us through the “spirit and truth?” Are we transformed or simply resisting the transfiguration happening right before our eyes? Truth be told beloved; I do not know the answer to these questions. But I witness our resistance and know that God is calling us to a new Creation – a way to worship together that is spiritually fulfilling for all people. And I pray that each of us can help discover and be transformed by all the ways God is lovingly manifesting in the world today. 

To further these thoughts beloved, I would like to remind you that today we are celebrating the ministries of Horton Center. And these are blessed ministries. Ministries which I have personally had the privilege of witnessing firsthand when I joined a group of seekers on their confirmation weekend. I will share that when I went up the mountain to a place far away from the sanctuary of any church building, I felt us worshipping God in “spirit and truth.” I suspect anyone who has climbed the mountain of Horton Center can also testify to feeling God there on the mountain. Likewise, a member of this community has testified that while sitting on her porch this last fall and participating in worship, she felt the spirit of God present throughout the worship service. And many of us have felt that same “spirit and truth” each time we share worship at an Easter sunrise service or in this sanctuary.  That connection with the divine and one another through worship is what God is calling us to feel, again. In other words, the feeling of a transformed worship service which welcomes all people and all ways we worship in a sustainable way regardless of pandemic struggles. What this solution looks like is unclear, but it is the call God is inviting each of us to be involved in as we lovingly discover the new Creation of worship, embrace the invitation to be transformed on the mountain, and become closer to God in the kin-dom. May God use this invitation of the transfiguration to be a blessed transformation for each of us to not only be recreated in worship but also through all the struggles happening in our world, today. Amen.   

“What did we come to do?”

Picture of Jesus healing Simon's Mother-in-law from Mark 1:29-39. Many disciples and onlookers are present in the scene.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH February 7, 2021

From 1 Corinthians chapter 12: “There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ…If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.”

These words from the Bible strike to the heart of how I witness our discipleship as Christians. Words which speak of how we are interconnected through the Holy Spirit and the call for each of us to help ease the suffering of other people in the world. Yet, I wonder what is the cost of discipleship; What is the price each and every one of us must pay for such a deeply ingrained empathy; what is the price when our world is hurting and suffering?

For, today, we are witnesses to people who are suffering from racism, environmental destruction, misogyny, food insecurity, political unrest, LGBTQIA + inequality, domestic violence, isolation, health care concerns, inadequate support for schools, the pandemic, and a host of other issues. Are you overwhelmed, yet? With everything happening in the world around us, are you overwhelmed with grief for our Body? When all the people in the world are crying out in pain and agony and you want to help them; do you feel overwhelmed and not sure which way to turn – who to help – what part of God’s ministry you came here to help as part of the Body of Christ? This beloved is the price each of us sometimes pays for our discipleship – a price for our empathy when we can become overwhelmed by the pain of those who are suffering.

The problem is that if we become overwhelmed, we may become the wounded – the wounded people who become self-protective and thereby avoid – disregard – or minimize the wounds of other people, no longer empathetically walking in the Way of Christ as one Body but only concerned with our own wounds. The cost of discipleship has and will cause a spiraling wound of trauma if we let ourselves become overwhelmed.

Yet, beloved, we are not alone in this struggle. The darkness cannot win for there is a light and it begins with Christ – and within each of us as the Body of Christ. So, although the world is hurting – hungering for healing – thirsty for justice in ways which I have never seen in my life, I invite us all to stop – take a step back – and refocus ourselves as Christians to ask the very real question: what did we come to do? 

As we ponder this question would you pray with me,

Body of Christ reveal to me Your Way and invoke in me Your calling; so, we may each be Your gift to the world. Reveal this gift through Your Holy Spirit so each of us may be healed by those who are called to heal – taught by those who are called to teach – guided by those who are called to guide. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You God.

Now, Beloved, I am speaking today specifically about our personal call of discipleship – our purpose in God’s ministry – our individual part of God’s Mission. I am speaking of this call through the realization of our pandemic isolation which has provided more time for us to witness the ailments of our world as many people are out of work, working from home, or unable to engage in social activities. Even if this reality is not your case, people do seem to be expressing all the issues of the world louder and more viscerally than ever before. And I hear these concerns, but I am worried about you – worried that these issues of the world are being intensified by your own sadness and loss. Worried that your empathy will become overwhelmed and cost you – your empathy for other people.  

I imagine this same conflict was afflicting Jesus in our scriptural reading from the Gospel according to Mark. This same concern over becoming overwhelmed. For, the story begins in the middle of a narrative of healing early on in his ministry. In fact, these healings in Capernaum were at the very beginning of his ministry directly after he had been baptized and called the first of his disciples. Then, he began his ministry of teaching while using his gifts to heal people and cast out demons. Let me clearly say that although there are interpretations which state the casting out of demons is a metaphor for the healing of mental illnesses, this text according to the theologian Lamar Williamson JR. is referring to actual demons as that is how the Hellenistic world of the first century understood what was happening to people. Either way, the casting out of demons is clearly different than the physical healing which Jesus is also performing. This point becomes especially important as the narrative continues to bring more and more people to be healed by Jesus. I imagine his empathy for their wounds and afflictions must have been overwhelming. For, even though he could heal them all – the streets were full of people needing to be healed.

Then something interesting happens in the Gospel according to Mark, something vastly different than in the accounts of Matthew or Luke. Jesus stops – as he sits there healing people in Capernaum – he stops. And we know the healing is not done; for, the disciples share that “Everybody is looking for you.” There is more healing to be done and they are looking for the healing touch of Jesus. Yet, he stops, and we are left without the answer of why. Why he stopped in the early hours before dawn. Why he stopped healing when people were crying for this touch. And although we do not know, I imagine it is because of how each and every one of us is feeling right now as the world cries out hurting – hungry for healing – thirsty for justice. I imagine that anyone with empathy hearing all these cries needs to stop and take a moment for self-care. Because no matter how much we love all people, residing in the pain, the loss, and the devastation will overwhelm us and destroy our ability to help one another as disciples of Christ. 

And this beloved is the Good news of the account from Mark – the good news of how to continue being a disciple when you start to feel overwhelmed by all the tragedies in the world. Just stop and take a step back to engage in self-care. Jesus’ need for self-care is revealed here by stepping back and entering a “deserted place.” Yet, this deserted place is not like our pandemic isolation; it is a place where he can pray and discover what God is calling him to do. That said, prayer in this Good News can and should be witnessed: as a form of self-care; as a way to refocus our lives; as a way to remember our part of the Body of Christ and thereby be able to help other people throughout the world. 

Furthermore, I believe this Good News is needed; so, we may remember what we came here to do – what we are called to do as people individually and how we are called to be part of the Body of Christ. For, as we saw in the scripture of Mark even Jesus needed to stop, step back, and refocus. We are witnesses to his amazing gifts of healing; but healing is not what Jesus was called to do as the head of the body of Christ. Instead, he is called to “proclaim the message and cast out demons” throughout Galilee, to teach all people about God and heal them spiritually by casting out their demons. This Good news beloved is the Way of Christ – the Way of the disciple – not the exact way for we are all different parts of the Body. Yet it is the Good News we are invited to follow as disciples of Christ especially when we feel overwhelmed by the suffering of the Body.

So, what is your Way – your Way of self-care – Your Way to stop – step back – and refocus? That is the depth of the question this week and one which we will explore throughout the Lenten season. Yet as we explore the various paths, I wish to remind you they are paths with a purpose. For, we are disciples and there is a cost of that discipleship. The cost and joy of allowing God to use us to make the world better. And as I mentioned in my letter this week, I would like each of us to discover that part of God’s Mission – ministry – purpose we came here to do in this life. Now perhaps discovering this purpose will be through trial and error which is why I invited all of you to experience Lent in a new way – instead of giving something up – I have, and am, inviting you to take on a purpose – a ministry – a part of God’s Mission throughout the season of Lent. I offer this invitation knowing that many of us are feeling overwhelmed with the suffering and the pain that is happening in our world. But I offer this invitation now because it is not a simple discernment and I wish you to take your time, consider your gifts, and the variety of ways to share them with the Body of Christ. This Good News, beloved, is the Way Jesus walked – the way of the body of Christ – the Way of the disciple which invites each of us to stop, step back, and refocus on what we came here to do in this world. May each of your days be full of self-care and reflection as we walk in the way of Jesus as the body of Christ. Amen.

“The Stumbling Block of Justice”

The black and white image of an open book with pages on either side turned into middle to reveal a heart shape. The words "Love above Knowledge - 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13" are written below the book.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem January 31, 2021

All of us possess knowledge. We know things. We know the reasons behind the conflicts last year. We know the reasons for the issues from the capitol conflict to the racial justice protests. We know their truth that feeds the movements…but, what is the Truth?

What is the Truth of God? What is the Truth of God and are we living that Truth? This question is where we must begin as disciples of Christ: What is the Truth, are we living that Truth, or are we doing the opposite by eating an idol’s food? Thereby, creating stumbling blocks for others to find their way to the Truth? These questions filled my heart this week as I continued to pray for all people. 

Would you join me in this prayer:

Holy God of Healing make us whole once more with Your Holy Loving Truth for all people. Heal us with Your Love, God, for Your people are broken and we need Your Love to replace what we think we know with that which is Your Truth called Love. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You.

Now in the UCC we do not usually speak about “the Truth” as we encourage each person to discern how they witness God in their lives. The problem with this practice is that we have, at times, been seen as wishy-washy, vacillating in our beliefs, not standing for anything. Many of us use phrases like my truth and your truth to demonstrate the variety of ways God is revealed through human beings. That said, there is the Truth – the Truth of God which was – is now – and will be forever – Love. God created all people as equals through this Love. That is the Truth – pure and simple. No one is greater or lesser than anyone else as we are all equally created in forgiveness, in brokenness, and in Love. 

This Truth, beloved, is why we, in this community, have sought out many ways to bring awareness to the issue of racial inequality over the month of January, why we are seeking awareness of this issue through studying a book on Anti Racism, why our confirmands are now seeking racial inequality awareness as part of their confirmation classes. We have witnessed this Truth of Love for all and are choosing to live that Truth as disciples who reveal God’s Love by loving one another. 

That said, there is a problem with the Truth that is revealed when humans get involved. When we think we know the Truth and we are really only speaking about our truth. We, as a community, have grown in awareness about racial inequality; but are we living in the Truth of Love for all people or are we simply shifting our Love to another group of people? Beloved, this question leads us to one of the great stumbling blocks in social justice. Basically, when we realize God’s Love is for everyone and we wish to stand up for that Love; we will come to the quandary of how do we Love all people even those who are the enemies of our truth – our idea of justice – our ideologies?

When we know their ideas are so hateful – how do we love them? When we know our truths are right – and their idea is wrong – how do we live in the Truth? When we know that the best way to move forward is by oppressing the other voice – how do we walk with God? This problem, beloved, is a stumbling block of social justice which happens whenever we forget to love God first – in all things.

We see this problem in the apostle’s First Letter to the Corinthians when Paul reminds the Church of Corinth about love. For you see, the Corinthians have a moral struggle happening within their community. A moral struggle as to what to do about those people – those people who do not believe as they do – those people who follow false idols. The other in this narrative are the pagan’s in the town of Corinth who have a set of sacrificial rites which directly oppose the early church’s belief of their truth according to the theologian Victor Furnish. Namely, the Corinthian truth is that with Christ we no longer need to sacrifice our livestock to God and are risking our immortal souls by engaging this practice with the pagan’s false idols. 

Now this may not seem to be on par with racial justice – economic justice – or any other justice in our world today; but that is because these justice issues are the ones affecting us today. In the time of Paul when the world was about to end and we had to be ready for the Parousia – the end times – the coming of Christ, this issue was just as important. This issue and the understanding of their truth was not only important, it was an existential crisis, a concern for their very existence. For, if the people of Corinth did not follow their truth – they believed they would be destroyed forever by God. Much like people today seem to believe that if their truth is not followed – the environment will be destroyed – democracy will be destroyed – all black people will be destroyed – free speech will be destroyed – their very ideology will be destroyed. 

To this idea Paul writes “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” To know – or rather think we know – Paul says is wrong, we do not yet have the knowledge. We do not really know the reasons for the issues from the capitol conflict to the racial justice protests. We do not know what truths people are feeding upon – we do not know what is within their hearts; but Paul says anyone who loves God is known by him. Known by her – known by God. This is not a simple phase. When we are known by God, we are called by him to be disciples following the way to the Truth – The Good News – The Love of God.

Paul even goes on to provide an example of how to reveal this Love when we are called – when we are called to engage with people who are our enemies – and who threaten our very existence; and this beloved is the Good News of our scripture this week. For, Paul says, “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” In other words, the truths of the pagan and the Corinthians are not the Truth – neither makes us better or worse. However, if we eat that food, that truth, the divisions which continue to “other” people as enemies, even if we do not believe they are our enemies – will make “a stumbling block to the weak.” We will be revealing not an example of the Truth of God’s Love for all people but our truth that our way is right, and their way is wrong. To this Paul stands for God and says, “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”

As you may have guessed, I am using this food today as a metaphor in Justice issues – the food that feeds the movements and divisions is not the Truth of God’s Love for all people but it is our truths – our many varied truths, perspectives, and opinions. The food is heaped out in our silos and feasted upon by the many. But, to eat of that food and recite those same mantras from our silos is causing people to fall – is causing division – is causing people to move away from the Truth that God Loves all people and we are all equal under the divine. To share what I mean in the realm of racial justice it was only a few months ago when a woman went into a Walmart to buy a cake for her father retiring from the police department. She asked for a Thin Blue line cake which honors the people who serve our communities; yet the bakers refused her request by saying that the Thin Blue Line symbol is racist. Beloved, I must ask: is that love? Or did these bakers hear only their truth and ate only of the food of the racial justice movement? How can dishonoring someone they never met further racial justice or be loving to anyone?

More than likely, the weak who heard their truth will either eat of the same food and divide themselves even further from the police or eat of the food that racial justice is hateful to officers and divide themselves further from the people seeking racial equality. So, how does eating of this food help us come to the Truth of God? Let me say, it does not. “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” I will not eat that food that all police are racist – or all African Americans are criminals – All republicans or all democrats are bad – I will not eat food that will divide but instead follow the Good news – the Truth – the Love that God created us all equally; for, love builds us all up and that Truth will guide us as we seek justice.

For, each way to reach justice by way of the Truth will be different. It may be simply scrolling past the comments on Facebook – it may be turning off the News when the rhetoric begins – it may be simply changing the subject of a conversation. It requires us to live into the Truth of God’s Love and be an example of the Truth for all to witness. This Good News, however, does not mean we sit idly by as black people are oppressed for their skin color; but it does mean we do not demonize all police officers as racists because of bad actors. It means whatever we do, we start with the Truth of God’s Love for all people. And witness the whole of the issue – good and bad by all actors honestly to find a way to the Truth of God’s Love for all.

This Way is not easy, though – for, humans are broken, easily drawn into the conflicts, and quick to share the knowledge that we Know – but instead of that path, let us follow the way we are called the way of discerning what we think we know and ask if that is the Truth – if our truth is also Loving to all people – even our enemies – If so then we are following in the Way of Christ. If not, we are probably hitting a stumbling block of Justice and may need to consider another way to find God’s Loving Truth while seeking Justice for all. May your days be full of the Good News – the Truth – the Love of God for all people in all ways. Amen

“Fishing the Web”

Picture of Jesus walking on the shore calling to Simon and Andrew to become the first disciples from Mark 1: 14-17.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH January 24, 2021

Today – we have a brand-new world. No matter how you lean politically, this week has been a historical change in our lives. We have our first African American female vice-president and for many people that sign brings hope – hope that this week marks the beginning of a future where gendered and racial human inequality will come to an end. This month has also been a historical change. No matter how you feel about the vaccine, New Hampshire has begun vaccinating people over the age of 65, for many humans that sign brings hope – hope that this month marks the beginning of a future where this pandemic will come to an end. 

But do these signs of hope – help? Do they help everyone in our society feel hope? Do the doctors in hospitals feel hope when the emergency room is full? Does the person of color feel hope when their environment – the place they live and work – is increasing their chance to catch this pandemic? Do you feel hope from these signs when you disagree with the vaccine, voted for someone else, or have resisted the call of Christ to share worship – our fellowship – our love of all people in an innovative way?

Beloved, only you can answer that question; but I feel it must be asked as so many hopeful praises for the future this week have been focused on human works either absent or minimally using our faithful hands to help create a better world. Thus, these praises seem empty. Empty of God’s divine hope. That said, this divine hope is present – this divine hope that we were reminded of one month ago, this day, is amongst us – this divine hope of Christ is present with us when he came into our world and called us to not just be hopeful in word but to be disciples in action: disciples who “fish for people” – who share the hope of God with all people – who reveal our hope by living our faith to recreate a better world without divisions – without isolation – without inequalities – through God.

Before we continue, would you pray with me

Blessed Creator – create in us the divine hope for a better world where we not only witness your hope but become the examples of Your divine hope for all people regardless of who they are, what place they call home, or where they are on Life’s journey. May the words upon my lips and the meditations in all our hearts be pleasing to you, God.

Now beloved – do not get me wrong. I do not want to besmirch any form of hope that you are feeling today. Hope is by far one of the most blessed gifts that God gives to each of us every day of our life. It helps us climb out of bed each morning and face the world when all we see is unfairness – it helps us be at peace when we are alone – it helps us come together as one people. But hope without God – hope in humanity without God feels empty. This type of hope without the love of God for all people makes me ask: what is the human motivation; as, I am sure it does for so many of you. 

As I am sure it does for the people who are living in our cities throughout this nation and have not had the privilege of isolating themselves during Covid. Not had this privilege because their employment requires them to be present and their communities are over populated. Added to these realities are medical, educational, and financial disparities within a population of people who are predominantly the ancestral minorities in this country. When we say this reality is racism – environmental racism – beloved, the story of how Covid -19 has affected these minority communities is what we mean. It is the reality that the environment of Boston with a population predominantly black must expose themselves to Covid more than us here in Salem, New Hampshire with a population which is predominantly white and able to work, live. and worship virtually. So, of course when we say there is hope for our future where we may all be one because we have a new vice-president – the words seem hollow. They seem empty to our black sisters and brothers as they only seem like words – these beloved people have neighbors, families, children coming down with a pandemic at a disproportionate rate and Washington DC is very far away.

I can only imagine how hollow the sentiments of hope must feel for these souls who are stuck in an environment which is making them more susceptible to this pandemic. It reminds me of the story of Jonah from our scripture reading who was thrust into the sea because of his failure to follow God’s call. He was rescued and then stuck in an environment – the inside of a whale – which offered him no escape. Much like the people of Nineveh were stuck in their “evil ways” because of how they had lived in their city – their environment that was going to be destroyed by God because of their ways. Are we stuck in our environment as well – destined to be destroyed because we have failed to see the Truth that people – all people – are children of God and that we hold onto traditions of “fish(ing) for people” which rely on techniques from a pre-electronic age? Do we feel the hope is hollow when “hope” is claimed by our community while we cling to our physical church environment which may be killing us in this new world of hybrid worship?

Again, this question is something we must answer for ourselves, especially since many of us are living in the Good News by becoming the hands and feet of God through this community – bringing hope through worship and outreach to all through innovative ways. And for each of you, I must say thank you – thank you for the blessings of divine hope your ministry has and continues to share with this community. But there is more work to do – more ways to share this divine hope – more Good News to bring. For, like Jonah we are called to thank God – focus on the divine and repent. Following this path, Jonah was freed from the whale – the environment which was keeping him stuck. Likewise, the people of Nineveh put on “sackcloth” – repented and were free of their environment which was about to destroy them. The Good News, beloved, is not just in the hope of words alone but in the divine hope which reveals our repentance and actions to secure freedom from the environment which is holding us and could be killing us. Through this path we discover words of hope spoken aloud are no longer empty, but a revelation of God’s hope through our actions which seek a better world to come – a place where all are equally loved and equally cared for regardless of where they live or the color of their skin – a place we call the kin-dom of God.

Now this call to bring divine hope is happening in this community. Much like when Jesus called the “fishermen. And … said, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’” You, beloved from other states, have been called across the internet. I pray you continue to answer the call, we continue to share our voice of God’s love with each other – continue to be free of the singular environment of Salem. For our fellowship has grown – grown through you who visit across the internet each week. Your ministry of joining us brings me hope – a hope in the ministry we can do together; but we need to hear your voice as part of our community so we may all feel divine hope and reflect it into the world – divine hope for all people no matter where they are, what place they call home or where they are on life’s journey. You in Michigan, Maine, Florida are part of our ministry and please share your voice so we can live into our faith together. Yet, there are also more ways for all of us to bring divine hope to the people of the world; for, we are no longer limited to the confines of a building – an environment. 

As such, let me ask: what would Jesus’ words be if they were spoken to us today? What would it be like if our computer programmers – our retired – our teachers were called instead of fishermen? Would God’s call be, teach of God’s hope – guide with God’s love – fish for people across the internet? Beloved, know that the call of discipleship is not limited to one way; but it is an expansive call within today’s world – it gives people hope – divine hope for they know our words are not hollow when we invite their voice, when it is based on caring for everyone, when it has no limits and no boundaries. And this call, beloved, is what we are called to do as disciples of Christ – stretch beyond ourselves and bring God’s divine hope to those who feel stuck in their environment – not out of some false sense of superiority; but so, we will be better together when people know they are not alone. So, reach out across the internet and fish for all souls who need spiritual love, care for all people in these trying times, share divine hope so we will truly be one people under God. May your days be filled with discernment as we discover new ways to reveal God’s divine hope with our sisters and brothers stuck in environments which may be killing them. In Your eternal name we pray. Amen.

“Should I?”

Picture of Martin Luther King JR. praying with the words, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. - Rev. Martin Luther King JR."

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH January 17, 2021

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Beloved, I invite you to consider those words – for a moment. Consider the blessed meaning behind those words written by a man – a prophet – my hero, Martin Luther king Jr. Consider those words and remember that this person fought and died for racial equality in a time when racism was rampant. People were being murdered by mobs because their black body dared to speak to a white body, dared to speak up for themselves, dared to consider themselves human. This society is where King lived when he, with his black body, said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Do you hear the message behind the words? The gift of hope King shared with us on that day in 1963. Can you witness the light of Christ in those words – the love King shared with us even though all around him was hate and darkness? I pray that you do – I pray that you hear the message of love in those words. The message which reveals how to walk in the love of God. That said, I believe King’s message of love is needed as much today as it was then. For, the message behind those words is not about what justice we are seeking but how we are seeking that justice. How are we confronting racism – hate – division in this world? How are you confronting these atrocities? Are you using darkness – hate – violence to drive out racism? Should you? Should our society? Should I?

Or are we called to follow the path of Christ – walking with a prophet who shared love for all people, even the people who hated him. As you consider which path you should follow, as Christians, let us pray.

Holy Christ – Son of God who is the Light of the World – our beacon of Love – our guide on the way to the kin-dom – soften our hearts to the enemies we see around us and help us learn how to share Your Love with the whole world. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You, God.

Now, beloved, on January 6th, 2021 – just last week, another atrocity happened in this country. One which shook me to the core – one which I consider the antithesis of Christianity – one which I believe reveals the evil path so many in this country have chosen to take. And let me be clear, I am speaking about the violence which happened in our capital – the use of darkness to drive out what these souls considered darkness – the use of hate to drive out what these souls considered hate. And, I unequivocally say there is no justification for this violence. Much like I believe there is no justification for the violence which has been part of our life for the last year. No justification: but that does not mean this horrible act of violence at the capitol was not expected or even inevitable because…

because, I believe we have been using darkness to drive out darkness. Hate to drive out hate and this horrible event is the inevitable result.

The sad thing is most of us do not even realize our part in these events. We are simply speaking our truth to power – calling out bad behavior – being intolerant of the intolerant. Yet how does calling a person names, cancelling their humanity, or silencing their beliefs drive out the darkness we see as darkness? What darkness are we even trying to drive out when we witness a person of a different ideology – like a republican or a democrat – and call them all racist or all socialist. Are we trying to get rid of the socialist and racist darkness or the darkness that is democrat and republican? I seem to think the latter. I seem to believe that over the last four, twelve, twenty years there has been a growing push to drive out the “other” political ideology and this has percolated into the violence of last week. We see this reality happening when we judge every person at the capitol protests and riots as a racist. Yet, we know they cannot all be racist. Not every person is a racist who believes in one political agenda. But after four years of being silenced, cancelled, and called names for their political identity; what did we think would happen? Did we really think that the rhetoric of division which happens in Washington, on the news, in our grocery stores would not explode?  What do you expect will happen when our brothers and our sisters are called names, cancelled, and silenced for over four hundred years? More violence – looting – riots, like those of last summer.

I believe more violence will happen; because, we have witnessed this frustration percolate out in the silencing of white voices in the discussion of racism; in the cancelling of white monuments which glorified our racist heritage; in the generational trauma of black bodies who use language which may seem angry – hateful – or yes even prejudice to white bodies. We have witnessed these inevitable events quite often over the last many years and for many of us who are called by God to be one with all people in the kin-dom, it becomes difficult. Difficult because we do not know how to help – how to end racism – how to stop the systemic tragedies of racism which are boiling into violence. Difficult to do the hard work of discipleship; therefore, we take the easy path and use darkness to defeat darkness – hate to defeat hate and the cycle of violence continues.

However, there is another way – beloved. The way of the disciple revealed to us through the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church of Corinth, a church which was being destroyed. Not from the greater Roman civilization, but from the conflicts inside – from the people judging one another within the community – from the divisions being created through darkness and hate. To these souls, Paul reveals another way. He first confirms the Corinthian conviction, according to the theologian J. Paul Sampley, of their own perception in the form of a maxim, or an accepted “truth” that “all things are lawful for me.” Yes, Paul agrees all things are lawful – permissible. We all have free will to do what we wish. He then counters this “truth” by saying, “not all things are beneficial… I will not be dominated by anything.” Not all things are beneficial – not dominated by anything. Not dominated by the hate – the darkness which our people – our human beings – our society has been dominated by for over four hundred years. In my heart, I believe hate does do just that – dominates and controls our actions. Paul offers this simple addition to the maxim as a guide to disciples to not be dominated by evil. He also offers the addition that not all we do is beneficial – which comes to the core of our message today. Yes, you may do anything – you may use darkness to drive out the darkness – be dominated by the hate when you use it to drive out hate. Yes, you can do this especially because Jesus believed in justice; but – but, is this path beneficial – beneficial to you – to society – to me? Should I call people names, cancel them, silence them when I find their acts of violence, prejudice, and racism to be the darkness of hate. Is this beneficial?

Our psalm this week, seems to say – no – no we should not – not because it is not permissible – because it is only God who knows what lies in our hearts – only God who knows our path; and only God who may judge me, you, or anyone. For, only that in-depth knowledge can judge fairly – with equity – our actions and inactions in this life. I do not know what lies in the hearts of the person who rioted at the capitol; so, how can I fairly judge them as a racist? How is this beneficial to our unity under God?

This message, beloved, does not mean we accept the hateful actions of people – it means we confront these actions with love – with understanding – with compassion; so, we may all be one with God as one people in the kin-dom to come. It means we share compassion when confronted with people who are suffering from generational trauma by listening with our hearts. Listen to the meaning behind the anger which is percolating through abusive language. Hear the person’s heart and understand what the black body has and is enduring every day in our world. It means we share love when confronted with history being destroyed by offering another way; for, we cannot forget and relive the darkness of our past. This way of discipleship means we share love by stepping back out of the conversation – to listen – to listen with our hearts all the ways black bodies feel the world is inequitable to them – we hear their hearts not so we can fix the situation but to support – we witness their hearts not to drive out hate with hate; but share love together as one people through God.

This good news, beloved, is the first step and what I believe King shared with us in 1963. This message of hope is how we end racism, divisions, and violence – through Love. By loving one another so much that we set aside the offences and love the person before us. The child of God within them and the child of God within each of us. It is a message which requires us to ask the very real question: Should I? Not once or twice; but every single time we are confronted with violence, hate, and darkness. Should I react with darkness to drive out those racist thoughts? Should I hate them back because all I see is their hate of my skin? Should I resort to violence when violence is thrust upon me? Should I – should you – should we, as a people, react with the violence, hate, and darkness of divisiveness when a group of individuals riot on our streets or at our capitol. Should we be controlled by that darkness or should we lovingly witness the person, understand their situation, and share compassion for them? While we let our courts – not us – make sure they are accountable for their actions. Should I walk in the way of darkness or in the way of Christ – our light in the world. Beloved, all may be permissible but only the light of Christ is beneficial. May Christ’s light guide you every time you are confronted by evil and let the love of God drive racism from our world. Amen.

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.