Pastor’s Letter Dec. 8, 2021

Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.”

  • Romans 2:29
An image of white ball like Christmas lights set against a dark background.

Hello Beloved,

I pray you are warm and safe as we prepare for our first snowstorm of the year. Moreso, I pray all the decorations you wish to hang outside are hung and ready to warm your spirit in this time of Advent, for the snow is coming. I thought about this prayer today as I went into the sanctuary and witnessed all the beautiful decorations wonderfully hung this week. How beautiful our home is at this time of year, especially. Again I must say thank you to Sue, Mary, Simone and Gary for all of your joyful work and ministry. But still, as I looked at the beautiful decorations I wondered how each of you are doing in the busy season of Advent. Is it stressful or worrisome preparing your home for Christmas? Are the decorations you love one thing too many or were you able to put them up and enjoy all their beauty? I hope for the latter of course. 

I hope for the latter as it is one way – a traditional way – we celebrate the coming of Christ and Christmas. It is one of the ways I grew up enjoying the season. In fact, I believe many of my friends throughout my life have also enjoyed this tradition of Christmas lights, even those who are pagan, atheists, or Jewish. Yes, these beloved people who I know may not believe in Christ; but yet, I have seen their homes flooded with Christmas Lights, filled with goodness, and brimming with all the Joy that these lights bring. How grateful I am for each of these souls as they live spiritually, if not literally, in Christ throughout the season.

Mind you, I will never say telling of your faith is not important but as the Apostle points out the mark of your faith is one upon your heart – a spiritual observance – and not the literal declaration to everyone through an outward mark on the body. So perhaps, the worry many Christians have during this time of year is premature. The worries that we are living in a post – Christian world;  that people are not engaging in church; or that the morals, ethics, and the goodness of God is gone. Yes, perhaps these concerns are premature; for, we see the spiritual mark of Hope – Love – and Joy on so many people during this time. We tear up at old movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Story.”  Even our hearts ring out in Christian Joy as we sing Christmas Carols which are completely unrelated to Christ like “Rudolf, the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Beloved, the point is this: Christ is amongst us. The Joy we witness and feel throughout life is the spiritual mark of being Christian – the very declaration of our faith to God. So, fear not for there are Christians in spirit all around us waiting to be welcomed home.

May your week be a blessing of the Spirit as we sing out in Joyful noise

Your Pastor, Brian

As always please call (207-350-9561) if you need anything or simply want to talk. Next week, My pastoral care hours are Mon. 8-12, Tues. 12-5, Wed. 8-4, Thurs. 10-2 to provide some time for visiting. However, if I am at the church please come in . Many blessings and Love to you all.

Pastor’s Letter Dec. 1, 2021

“you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

  • Mark 12:30-31(NRSV)

Good afternoon Beloved,

I pray that you are all well and experiencing ALL the Love God has to offer in this blessed season of Advent. Love though, as we all know, has so many different ways that it can be experienced. It is the feeling that we have for our significant others. The feeling that we have for our children and for our friends. It can even be the feeling that we have for things like ice cream or a Baconator. Yet in all these ways, we are only describing the feeling of love in our heart, or maybe that which lies in the mind and soul. But none of these various ways truly describe the depth of love we are called to exhibit in “all (of our) strength.” To Love God “with all your strength” includes our bodies. We can understand this idea as the love we reveal through our actions and service to God’s Mission. It is like when our friends gather to help the SonShine Soup kitchen or the Beloved who are learning about Open and Affirming. Basically, it is the idea of showing God’s Love in everything we do, think, and feel. 

This Beloved is actually easier said than done. Yet, sometimes an opportunity comes along to show our love for all humankind with all of our strength. An opportunity which we did not know existed. An opportunity to be the very light of love for another human being in the midst of darkness. Our own beloved Amy Chartrain has brought this opportunity to us this week which I feel exemplifies what it means to be a Christian who loves God with all our strength.

For come to find out, there is a foster home in Lawrence for young girls (ages 13-18). These girls come from troubled homes. Many of their parents are either incarcerated or are formerly incarcerated. Rather than risk going back and forth into many foster homes, the children have chosen to live here. This location alone is a gift of care and love to the least among us as the directors are working at making this place even better. Some improvements include a home gym space so the girls can incorporate activity into their daily routine. However, their upbringing and situations have also made them vulnerable to the worst kind of predators. Those who prey on the children.

As such, these young women have been lured to parties and the subsequent sex trafficking of their bodies through the offer of a new pair of sneakers. Yes, sneakers – predators in our neighboring Lawrence are using sneakers to force children into a life of human trafficking. These horrible crimes must stop and I pray the police find everyone who is guilty. Yet, beloved this darkness also reveals the very way we – you and I – can reveal the love of God with our strength. We can help in this Advent season by taking away the lure. By making one child’s life a little safer from these predators with one 20-dollar gift card to Foot Locker.

Therefore, I hope you will join me in procuring some gift cards and bringing them to worship on December 12th where these gifts of our love will be offered and received. If you have any questions, please ask either me or Amy.

This said, revealing our love can be that easy at times . It can be that easy to give a card but it requires beloved disciples like Amy to reveal the need, to love God and people with all her strength, to bring the darkness into the light of Christ. It requires a discerning mind and the strength to step forward and lead the way. The strength to say, “NO,” when injustices are happening. So, we may end the darkness together. This is part of the love we are all called to do and one way we fulfill the Mission of God.

I feel blessed to witness a beloved disciple loving with all of her strength, thank you Amy. For, you are an example of loving God, our neighbors, and ourselves. I pray we all witness this example and seek with all of our strength to love God by loving one another throughout the season of Advent.

May your week be full of all the Love God has to offer

your pastor, Brian

As always please call (207-350-9561) if you need anything or simply want to talk. Next week, My pastoral care hours are Mon. 8-12, Tues. 12-5, Wed. 8-4 to provide some time for visiting. However, if I am at the church please come in . Many blessings and Love to you all.

Salvation of a Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perceptions of Peace

Advent candle of peace with the text "peace".

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joy throughout the Generations

Advent candle with the text "Joy"

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

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

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

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

Before we begin, would you pray with me,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making the Way Straight

PIcture of advent candle with the text "Love"

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

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

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

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

As we ponder this thought, let us pray:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing for the Light of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would you pray with me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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