Pastor’s Letter July 11, 2021

An image of the community joining together in fellowship before Wednesday night worship.

Good morning Beloved,

Many blessings on this Sunday morning. As we begin our summer season, I pray you are well and able to refresh your Spirit; to reflect on what is important in your life; and discover what makes you happy, at peace, and joyful. I make this prayer as many people in our world seem to be hyper-focused on accomplishing and fixing. They seem to feel a need to do everything – today, like there is no tomorrow. And, I am sure we have all witnessed this reality in ourselves or other people throughout our life. In people who need to work a hundred hours a week for a third home; they will never see. In people who challenge every word, action, or inaction as a slight or offence. In people who are defining success in their life by the things they acquire; instead of in the way they live.  

This thought came to my mind a few years ago when I was in a creative writing class. It was right after the professor made an off-hand comment that writers are “only as good as their last piece.” I thought, ‘how sad, as the journey of writing (as well as the journey of life) is the enjoyable part.’ It was then I realized that success, for me, cannot be measured by my accomplishments alone. But then, how do we gauge our success? Perhaps, we cannot.

Or rather, perhaps we should not measure OUR success in this world. For, if we focus only on our goals – our accomplishments – our success then maybe we are missing the point. I mention this idea as it seems not only egocentric and self-serving to focus on my success, it does not match our Christian teachings. Therefore maybe, humans need a new perspective, especially in “_?__” beloved community, a new “our” to focus on, a new Center. 

While pondering these thoughts, I recalled a Bible verse:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3: 1-3 NRSV)

And, I wondered if the phrase, “in God,” is where we should shift our focus too. Perhaps, perhaps, God as our center is the answer. I mean, what would happen if human beings measured success not on our individual accomplishments but on what God does through us for everyone? Would the world be a better place if we considered God as our Center? Would divisions end and peace reign if we are all “in God”? I believe it would. Mind you, I did not consider this way as a form of blaming God for any issues in our world; rather, it became a shift in perception from what was best for me to what is best for ALL through God at the Center of my world. 

I wonder if this Way would alleviate anxiety and bring joy – peace – and happiness to your life. I know it has done so for me while refreshing my Spirit with new hope for our future. 

May these thoughts be a blessing in your life as we walk through this journey of life together

Your pastor, Brian

“Lessons of Our Fathers”

Orange and white background with the text, "Happy Father's Day."

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem June 20, 2021

It is difficult to look out our front door and not see there are storms raging in the world – perhaps not the torrential downpour we had on Tuesday evening; but there are storms. Storms of clashing ideologies, or thoughts. We can see these divisive storms in discussions over Critical Race Theory in our schools, immigration in our country, or racial justice in our world. We saw these storms brewing during the pandemic in relation to masks and vaccines. We have felt these storms rage in equality issues around gender and sexual identity. Yet, through all of these storms. These storms of clashing ideologies, one thing seems clear: people are letting fear overcome their faith. The result of this tragedy is more and more violence, more and more othering against “those” people. “Those” people who we disagree with, or feel are oppressive, more and more silencing. It does not seem to be getting better, only worse, as our society comes back together.

That said, perhaps I am wrong and these lightning strikes from the storms of conflicting ideologies is not only fear. Perhaps, it is also anger, mental illness, or just simple hate. Perhaps, it is a combination of all of these issues. Yet, whatever the cause it seems clear to me that fear is also involved. And to this affliction, I believe there is only one beautiful answer taught to us by our fathers and those who represent fatherhood in our lives. The blessing given to us by God and granted lovingly to the beloved people who teach us the lesson of how to always have more faith than fear in the middle of any storm.

Before we continue would you pray with me

Holy God – open wide our hearts to the gifts of fatherhood and the love You reveal through Your beloved – our fathers and those who have fulfilled the roles of fatherhood for us throughout our lives. May the words from my lips and the faithful meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You God. 

Now beloved, the flashes of lightning I am witnessing include an increase of mass shootings over the last week – twelve since last Sunday; an increase in judging people as good or bad over the last few months based solely on a perceived racial – sexual – or gender identity. This reality can be seen when sitting Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, refused to do anymore interviews with white reporters. I have also witnessed an increase in silencing voices over the last few years. For, a common argument in the universities is that “you do not have any right to speak about an issue unless you are of a particular identity.” To all of these varied lightning strikes, I wonder what people are afraid of – what do they fear when they silence a male identified voice in regard to a discussion on abortion, when an African- American mayor is openly racist against reporters, when people resort to violence instead of discussion. What are people afraid of and why has that fear grown larger than our faith to endure – our faith to trust one another – our faith in God?  

This conflict of today though is remarkably similar to the one which the disciples are dealing with in our scripture reading from the Gospel According to Mark. Here, we witness Jesus and the disciples leaving the crowds to go to the “other side.” There are other boats, yes; but they are alone on the water and Jesus is asleep in the stern. Therefore, I believe the disciples in this passage are a metaphor for everyone who feels separated from a supportive community. Everyone who feels alone or feels like they must be fiercely independent while being called to confront the storms of life. Everyone – regardless of gender, identity, or ability to have children, who feels alone in their struggles. From personal experience, I have seen my father embrace this reality at times. For you see when he came down with cancer my father did not rely on his family, friends, or the church. He was fiercely independent, and I witnessed him become more and more alone until finally fear held him in the last days of his life. Fear held him and my father turned away from God, family, and even himself. Now, beloved, please know I am not criticizing my father because he could not seek support – some people simply cannot. But much like the disciples my father grew more fearful when facing his storm because he faced it alone. 

Yet, when this happens there is Good News that is also revealed in this passage from The Gospel. The Good News revealed by Jesus when he rebukes the disciples for their fear. For in this moment, he reminds them and us that there is no reason to fear; for, we are not alone. God will quell the storms in our life, and we are called to have more faith in God than the fear we feel from any storm. The theologian Pheme Perkins confirms this point by stating that this passage is meant to “reassure (the faithful) that Jesus has the power to save believers even in the worst circumstances” – in the worst of storms. Even when our community is apart. Even when the storm is raging. Even when you do not see God amongst you because of the growing fear – you are not alone as long as you have faith in God. This gift is one we do not always see in our fathers who appear fiercely independent. But it is the gift we witness in our beloved fathers who are faithfully independent. Our fathers and those who take on the role of fatherhood by keeping their faith in God especially amongst the storms. I have seen this truth in many of you – you who are walking through the storms with me – you who are the “tough old birds,” you who are the stoic independent souls whose faith brings you here physically and virtually to worship God – even though the storms are raging outside. To all of you, I say well done – well done faithful souls. 

This said, beloved, there may be a time – a time when even the most faithful of us feel the fear grow in our life. Grow larger than our faith. Grow to the point where we are shaking Jesus while yelling “do you not care that we are perishing.” In those moments, beloved, I pray you will remember God does care – Jesus is with us – and the words of another one of our fathers. The father of the Church of Corinth – The Apostle Paul. Remember his words; for, he reminds us how to have faith once again in these storms of life. We can see this truth in the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians when he responds to a congregation engaged in a storm of ideologies. The people of this church have begun following the “super-apostles” and have lost faith in Paul’s teachings of Christ. To this reality, the author writes this letter, attempts to quell the storm of differing ideologies, and end the division being created. Yet, the father of this church, Paul, does not choose to place obstacles or restrictions in the way of the Corinth community. He does not demand they follow his teachings instead he lets go – trusting faithfully. Faithfully believing in his parishioners to follow Christ as he taught them and beloved this sign of faith – this Good News – this trust is revealed to end the storm raging when the Corinthian people reconcile with God. For, the storm of ideologies is quelled, a truth we know for the Corinthian church continued to prosper in the teachings and faith of Christ. So, when our fear grows in the midst of the storms, I pray you will hear these words and let go – trust in God and one another – For trust is the blessed way back to faith amongst the storms.

Finally, the third lesson of faith is also revealed by the Apostle in our passage. The lesson or guidance on how we can embrace faith when the fear grows.He reminds us to remain in “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech” throughout the storms that rage in life. Through the “beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger” the author endured these storms. Endured not because of an inner strength but because of faith – faith within himself – the faith that comes from God. I believe we have seen this endurance in our own fathers or figures of fatherhood throughout our lives. The beloved people who reveal this Good News as they struggle with all the storms life throws at them. The beloved who do not let fear rule their lives or let it be greater than their enduring faith. Let us rely on their examples and follow these lessons of our fathers. Especially, their teachings of faith – A faith in God which is strong enough to drive out fear and quell the storms raging outside our doors. May you hear these truths and embody the lessons of our fathers which teach us how to have an enduring trusting faithful independence in God; so, we may all have more ways to celebrate fatherhood and worship God, the father of us all. In the name of Jesus who reveals the Way, Amen.

The Seed of the kin-dom

The image is of many different types of families standing before the Cross at sunrise. The text " Family Worship is prominently in the foreground.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem June 13, 2021

Let us pray: 

Holy God who calls us to Your kin-dom – reveal the reflections of Your kin-dom here on Earth amongst our words and Your faithful disciples. May these meditations be always pleasing to you God.

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus shares with us many parables, or simple stories to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. Today’s parable from the Gospel according to Mark is one of my personal favorites and one I am sure we will reflect on many times together. It tells of how a small seed which you can barely see will grow into the largest of bushes – sometimes reaching 30 feet tall. Now I wonder, I wonder if you can imagine hearing this parable and not knowing that the seed which Jesus speaks of is Love? I suppose many of us can because we regularly see the great bushes around us. The outcome of a seed which has been nurtured in our families and in our fellowship. The results of faithful discipleship which has already been sown, nurtured, and invited to grow amongst all of us. That said, these beautiful bushes all began because God first sowed a seed – a seed of love in the hearts of our faithful and we are now witness to the blooming flowers, large branches, and fanning leaves which provide us a home and the shade to rest our weary souls.  

Yet today, words spoken by me alone cannot relay the full beauty of the bushes amongst us – the bushes which have continued to help grow our fellowship over the last year – the beautiful reflections of the kin-dom; we are creating here together – as one people. No, my words alone cannot reveal or celebrate the seeds of the kin-dom planted amongst our faithful. So, today let my words not be the only ones heard as we begin our celebrations of all of you who have helped to nurture the seed of love and grow our fellowship through these dark times. Celebrations which will continue for many months. Therefore today, I invite you to witness the blessed reflection of the kin-dom in your words as our Education Team gratefully recognizes the seeds of love within Lily Chartrain, Jan Bordeleau, Jacob Chartrain, Laura Edwards, and Mark Wellspring who have not simply maintained but grown our worship since September. Beloved, your tribute is a reflection of the kin-dom, the bush which grew from their seeds of love. 

-TRIBUTE (Please watch on YouTube during the worship service: FCC Salem NH Sunday Morning Worship, Sunday June 13th 2021 – YouTube. Tribute alone is approximately 17 minutes)

May we continue to recognize and celebrate the seeds of the kin-dom within our fellowship and throughout all of Creation. In the name of Christ Jesus who reveals the Way. Amen.

The Fruit of the Parent

The image is of two red and yellow hands holding each other above two red and yellow hands reaching for each other. Between the bottom two hands is a outline of a yellow dove/ All of this is on a blue background above the text, "LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR" on a orange background.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH on May 9, 2021

I would like to begin today by saying Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who are with us in person and online. To all of you who have given birth and those who have chosen to adopt children. To all the single mothers and the mothers who have a partner. To all of you who have at some point fulfilled the beautiful role of motherhood for a friend, a nephew, or a sibling. To all of you who reveal God’s love as a mother. But that is one of the difficulties of today – today as we become more inclusive and celebrate the breath of motherhood, we realize that the definition of this blessed calling is not so clear. We can no longer clearly define the mother as the definitive biological female who gives birth and raises children. Rather, the calling of a mother has become the person in our life who fulfills many roles. Yes, the people who fulfill these roles can be the biological female in our family; but they may also be one of the biological females, the biological male, or an older niece. So yes, this new reality of inclusivity we are living in today becomes difficult when we wish to honor and celebrate certain people in our life who believe in us – care for us – love us regardless of what we do – the people like our mothers on this Mother’s Day. 

Yet, I believe in all my heart that this difficulty is only because we are still struggling with the gender schisms of the past. Therefore, we are having a hard time accepting the loving fruit that God, our Parent, has and is providing us in the kin-dom to come.

Before we continue, would you pray with me:

Mothering God who reveals love. Invoke in us your divine love once more – teach us through our mothers – and guide us through the Spirit how to love one another as you have, do now, and will forever love us – Your beloved children. May the words spoken today share Your Love and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You God. 

Now beloved these gender schisms I am speaking about today are built right into our societal structures, as old as Aristotle who around 350 BC distinguished between the public sphere as that of citizens, or men, in control of society and the private sphere which included slaves, women, and families. Basically, he defined the gender roles of men and women with the expectation that all women were mothers who worked inside the home, subservient to men. And we have all heard this theory in some shape or form. Furthermore, I assume, and it is my assumption, that some people have enjoyed this structure and others feel oppressed by this societal construct. Either way though, this societal framework has remained in place for thousands of years. Remained in place and created days like today. Days where we have traditionally celebrated our mothers in an exclusive fashion as the women who bear children and take care of the home. 

Yet not all mothers today give birth, work inside the home, or are even biologically female. Our perception of motherhood has grown to become more inclusive than Aristotle’s finite definitions of gender roles which is creating difficulties throughout society. Because change is always difficult, especially changing our perception of who we are lovingly called to celebrate on this day when the very concept of mothers is so ingrained into every aspect of our society. Yet changing who we are called to love into a more inclusive way is not new either. 

For Jesus in our continued reading from the Gospel according to John, reiterates his second commandment: “love one another.” The recurrence of this commandment which appears in all four Gospels reveals how important these words are for all of us to understand. Along with the importance we discussed last week, we must also remember the context of this important last speech. For, Jesus is speaking to his disciples who are Jewish in a Roman society full of schisms, divisions, and exclusions. These separations can be understood as the spheres of influence which separate the Jewish from the Romans – the citizens from the slaves – the men from the women. Leaving each person as part of an exclusive sphere within the greater society. These spheres or defined roles which people inhabited did not allow for upward progression – you could not be born Jewish and become a citizen – you could not be a woman and become part of the military. Each person either remained in their role or fell to a lower place on the societal scale. 

In many ways, we still feel the divisiveness of these spheres today. Today, when women are treated like objects – when women are paid less for the same occupation – or even when we expect a biological female to become a mother in order to be a valuable member of society. These gender roles and spheres are a hold-over from the Roman culture which perpetuated an exclusionary oppression on nearly everyone. Yet, Jesus’ words in this culture full of divisions were not spoken to the oppressors but to those who are oppressed. And to these souls, Jesus reveals the Good News. 

The Good News that the oppressed, the disciples, all disciples even us today are called to love one another. Jesus invites us to this love – this loving of one another without saying who the other one is – without putting disclaimers that he is only speaking about the disciples – without referring to only the people in one particular sphere; rather, Jesus simply says, “love one another” – love thy neighbor. Now, this may not seem to be profound for us here in Salem, New Hampshire as many of us have never felt oppression to this degree. But in the Roman culture where hate, exclusion, and oppression were commonplace it was an extremely profound change for Jesus to ask people who were already feeling oppressed -to love one another. This point is enhanced when Jesus says you are no longer servants, or slaves; but you are now my friends and the beloved of God as long as you do what I command. Beloved, do you see now what Jesus has done in this culture of exclusivity. He changed the world to lovingly include all the disciples – all people – all of us as part of the same sphere – the beloved friends of Jesus – equal to one another as long as we love one another. This commandment is the Good News, a calling to the oppressed, and the inclusive Way to the kin-dom.

But like I said, here in Salem on this blessed day where we celebrate mothers, this Good News may not seem profound. For our doctrine is love and we believe all are welcome no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey. But I wonder – I wonder would everyone here love another so much that they would sacrifice for another person. Sacrifice for not only our family as motherhood has often revealed; but love the other side – the enemy – our actual oppressor enough to sacrifice for them? That is the true depth of what Jesus is calling us to do – to love each and every person so much that you would be willing to sacrifice everything; so, they may be included – welcomed – loved by God. 

Sacrifice though does not always include our lives and I pray that none of you are ever called to that cost of love – the love revealed in Jesus. Yet, this love does require a willingness to sacrifice. And sacrifice can be as simple as giving up those traditional gender norms to allow ourselves to become more inclusive and welcoming to all people. It could mean sacrificing the territorial feelings some people have that Mother’s Day is only for biological females who are homemakers in order to celebrate the thousands of ways motherhood has enhanced all our lives. It could mean sacrificing part of the day; so, your daughter may celebrate Mother’s Day with her new boyfriend’s mother, or your son may celebrate Mother’s Day with his wife. It could mean sacrificing our preconceived notions that the mother and child are ethnically the same or that there is a biological female in the family. It could mean sacrificing our societal standards built on thousands of years of oppression in order to witness the fruit of inclusive Love which God is calling us too in the kin-dom. It could even mean sacrificing a relationship with someone who is oppressive in order to love one another from a distance. That beloved is the depth of what Jesus is asking us to do when he says, “love one another.” Love one another enough to sacrifice for another person; so, we may all experience the inclusive loving fruit of the Parent in the kin-dom to come. May you never have to, but always willing to, sacrifice for another; so, all people may witness the inclusive Love in the kin-dom of God. Amen.

“The Fruit of Love”

The image is a blue, partly cloudy sky over an ocean looking through a vine wall. The opening is in the shape of a heart.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem on May 2, 2021

I would like to begin today by sharing my gratitude to all of you – gratitude for granting me some time to get away and nurture other relationships in my life. Relationships like the one I have with my friend, Daniel. 

Although our homes are only an hour and a half away, we rarely see one another. And this reality is not only due to the pandemic; for, we went almost a year without talking. Not that we were upset with each other; but because our lives had become busy – so busy that it was not easy to find time for even a phone call. Yet last week, we were able to meet and nurture our friendship. As I consider our relationship today, I can testify that his friendship has and continues to enhance my life. I can see the outcome, or fruit, of our friendship in the joy we share when we challenge each other intellectually, share the mutual interest of a good superhero flick, or comfort one another over the loss of a family member. These fruits of love have brought us closer together over the years.

That said, our friendship is not perfect, none are. Daniel and I often disagree. However, we accept each other for who each other is and that – that is how we have nurtured the fruits of a true friendship based on Philia, or brotherlylove. 

Before we continue would you pray with me

Loving God who reveals Love through Creation and by sending Your Son, our Christ, to save us – reveal Your Love to us again; so, we may become the fruit of Love for the world to witness. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You God.

Now Beloved, the type of love I described earlier is not the only form of love in the world. Countless poets and storytellers have defined love through their works. Every human being on earth, I pray, has or is experiencing love in a different way; for, it is the most powerful positive emotion we can express as human beings. Even the ancient Greeks believed love was so important that they used different words to define the different aspects of this beautiful emotion like Philia which I reflected on earlier. Yet, there is also Storge which is the love between a parent and a child; Eros which is the romantic love between people; and many more detailed definitions of love throughout the Greek language. However, there are three particular aspects of love which bind all forms of love together. Three aspects which are central to the divine Love of God – or the selfless love called Agape. Three aspects which reveal how the fruit of love is not only possible but nurtured throughout our lives.

However, to really explain these three aspects of Love, let us turn to our reading from the Gospel According to John. Here, Jesus shares with us the metaphor of the vine which is about Agape Love and the relationship between God, Jesus, and all disciples. We should also take note that this teaching is occurring after the Last Supper amongst all the disciples, except Judas who has already left to betray Jesus. To the rest of the disciples, Jesus teaches us how we are all called to “love one another” as they are leaving the upper room. Now, we know that Jesus shares this teaching to help keep the disciples from stumbling as expressed clearly in the following chapter. Yet, I also imagine that this teaching is important as this is one of the final teachings of Jesus’ human life. He will not be around to teach us after Judas’ betrayal – will not have time afterwards to show us how to remain loving to one another – will not be present to keep our love from withering away as we fall from the vine. Will not have time to do any of these things until after the resurrection and then it may be too late – some of the disciples may have already been lost.

Therefore, Jesus takes these precious moments to teach us the Good News of how to remain on the vine and continue to produce the fruit of Love through three aspects. First, love is acceptance of differences. The vine has many branches and each of those branches is different – just like all of us. In fact, Jesus is not the only vine but the “true vine” of our faith. Now the vines and branches do not judge the other branches or vines. No, the only way that a branch will be pruned is by the vinegrower, God, and only when that branch does not produce the fruit of love. I believe this aspect is not only a teaching for the disciples and how they may react towards Judas after the betrayal; but also, to every one of us who witnesses injustices in the world and feel like it is ok to attack the person instead of their hateful actions. Yet, Jesus teaches us another way – the way of love to accept the differences of people and let the fruit of love be the evidence for the vinegrower’s judgement, not ours. 

Second, love is a nurtured relationship. We are called to abide, be one with, Jesus as he is one with God. I would even argue that the whole metaphor of the vinegrower, vine, branches and fruit only relate to us because love requires each of us to be in relationship with one another. Much like the Philia love between Daniel and I is only brotherly love because we do nurture our relationship with each other – now. Similarly, I imagine that Jesus is speaking this Good News to sway the disciples from isolating after the betrayal – after Jesus is arrested – and after the crucifixion. All of which is a very real concern for Jesus, at this point in the story. For, he is clearly worried that the disciples will stumble in his absence. However, I wonder if Jesus is also speaking to us today, reminding us that our relationships must be nurtured with each other’s presence to continue producing the fruit of love. Perhaps this is a stretch – perhaps not; for, each branch is different and each relationship as well. But what I can say is that love – every love – even self-love does require one to nurture the relationship through mutual presence which can be anything from a card to gathering together in worship. 

Third, God is love. Although this is clearly stated in our passage from First John, Jesus tells of this truth as well. Teaches us this truth when he says, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”  In other words, we cannot fully produce the fruit of Agape love – the selfless love of God – the love which is nurtured in relationship and accepts all differences in people – without God. She is the source of this love – the source sent through the vine of Jesus for us and into – our lives. This Good News is the fruit of love we are called to share with the world, Beloved. 

But we all know this third aspect – right? This blessed truth that God is the source of Love. We all know this truth; yet I wonder if we remember that the vinegrower has many vines – many branches – many ways that Love is shared with the world. Some of which do not make any sense to us; for, we cannot witness the whole crop of grape vines – let alone all of Creation as the vinegrower is able to. So yes, I wonder about this question as many of us would easily judge Judas as bad; for, he is the betrayer of Jesus. Yet, without Judas’ betrayal how would Jesus have fulfilled the prophecy and become one with God through the resurrection? How would we have been saved from our sins? How would God’s love continue to be revealed through the vine of Jesus? It would not be. Simply put, the love we are called to share today could not be present without Judas’ betrayal.

Mind you, I am not saying Judas revealed love as Jesus taught. I am also not encouraging any acts of betrayal, injustice, or hate as we are part of the “true vine” of Jesus which moves against these atrocities in the world. The “true vine” which produces fruit of love, which is accepting of differences, nurturing of relationships, and humbly following the source of all love – God. And Judas’ path is not our Way. Rather, my point about Judas is to explain how fruitless judgment can be for us mere branches. We do not see the whole picture in Creation. We are witness to only the vine of Jesus and on this vine, we know that we will wither and fall if we are not revealing God’s love through the teachings of Jesus, that simple.

That said, if we judge or hate the oppressors in our world – someone like Judas, someone who is unjust to others, someone who is hateful – I wonder: what is the fruit we are producing? If we use hate to defeat hate what is our fruit? I pray that you see it is not Love – not the Agape love of God through Jesus, our Christ – not the Love which requires acceptance of differences, a nurtured relationship, and God’s eternal Love for all people. May you each witness this truth, reflect on the Agape Love of God, and strive to produce the fruit of Love for all the world to witness throughout this week to come. In the name of Christ who shows us the Way. Amen

“The Great Reset”

An image of a forest with two rainbows in a partially cloudy blue sky.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem February 21, 2021

This week we began our journey of Lent, a season where we are each invited to reflect on, care about, and grow deeper in our faith as Christians. We begin this journey by remembering that we are mortal – our time here is limited – and to ashes we will return one day. However, that is not the full story of this journey, we are also invited to “turn away from sin and return to the Gospel.” Turn away from sin – seems easy enough – right? We ask for forgiveness each month – reflect on the ways we have sinned and become broken through our actions and our inactions and are then forgiven by God every month directly before we celebrate communion. Some congregations share in this liturgy every week – some people ask for forgiveness every day. So yes, I believe we understand how to turn away from sin; but – but I wonder if it is possible to learn how to avoid sin during this time of Lent? Or at least find ways to avoid the causes of sin especially when we feel our lives are out of our control – spiraling into a broken tempest of apathy for our fellow Creations. Is there a reset button for people which will allow us to return to the Gospel – the Way of Christ – the Mission of God?

As we ponder this thought, would you pray with me?

Forgiving God, forgive us today and reveal in us ways to reset – to care for – to return our lives to Your Mission and the Gospel of Love. May the meditations on all our hearts reflect your forgiving Grace and let the words from my lips only speak of Your Truth.

And it is true, beloved, many people are feeling like our lives are out of our control today. We love our families; but the unknown duration of the isolation is creating stress. Our youth are learning; but the variances in schooling is creating anxiety. We have a vaccine; but the effectiveness and distribution is causing fear in many people’s lives. These causes are called stressors which decrease our ability to engage in situations – lovingly and therefore increase our negative reactions to one another. In other words, as stressors increase so do our sins to God through other people. 

We also set aside the Gospel and the Mission of God – we set them aside because all we can do is focus on the fear, anxiety, and stress affecting our lives right now. This idea is like a computer with thirty web sites open, printing a document and infected by a slew of viruses. The computer cannot focus on the one video about LGBTQIA equality because of all the other operations it is doing and all the virus infecting it. So, that one video will start, stop, stutter, and then start again as long as you are still watching. As long as you have not gotten so frustrated with the viruses and sins in your life before throwing the whole computer out the window.

I imagine this metaphor of the computer is similar to how God witnessed the world. How She witnesses the world in the chapters before our reading from the book of Genesis – I imagine that God had become frustrated with humankind and our inability to reveal His Mission due to our wickedness and sin. The only recourse was to reset the world and throw the whole computer out the window, an event understood as the Great Flood.

Thankfully, the Great Flood is not where the story ends, and God changes Her will: promising to never reset the world again – never flood the world again with the waters – never throw the whole computer out because we have become too infected with wickedness and sin. This message does not mean we are not broken – we are. It does not mean our stressors and sins no longer keep us from God’s Mission – they do. This passage does not mean we do not need to reset our lives from time to time – for we do need that Grace in order to refocus on God’s Mission before us. What our passage means is that God will no longer throw out the whole computer for our wickedness – and the reset will no longer destroy humans or be for the whole world. This covenant – this promise of God to Noah is “everlasting” for all the generations to come. 

But what is the Good News – then – the Good News which reveals the Way God has given each of us to reset our lives, to forgive us of our sins, and free us from the stressors which increase our brokenness. Who is the Good News which allows us to refocus on God’s Mission in our life?

I pray that each and every one of you already knows the answer is Christ Jesus who shows us the Way and suffered for our sins as a whole people. I believe our passage from the Gospel according to John also reveals to us the Way to reset our individual lives. For, Jesus in the middle of dinner stood up and began the practice of foot washing. Now, this practice of foot washing was common at the time. People would commonly have their servants wash a guest’s feet as a sign of hospitality before dinner. However, here in the middle of dinner – Jesus stops, disengages, and takes on the role of a servant revealing his “spirit of lowly service, “according to the theologian G. MacGregor. Think on that for a moment. In the midst of stress, anxiety, and fear – only days before he is about to be beaten and crucified – at a time where almost any human would let those stressors cause them to react negatively, or sin, to those who are causing the stressors. Jesus stops – disengages from the meal – and becomes the servant – the very spirit of lowly service to Judas who is the cause of stress, anxiety, and fear through his betrayal. In other words, Jesus resets his life-focus on the Mission of God instead of letting the stressors or sin rule him.

This Way, beloved, is the Good News of Lent. The Way Jesus teaches us to reflect on, care about, and grow deeper in our faith during the Lenten Journey. I like to call this way – our Great Reset; for, it is a great way to allow each of us to reset our individual lives and turn away from the stressors before we sin against God through our actions and inactions with other people.

However, this Good News is not simple. Yes, Jesus does it throughout the Gospels; but he is perfect, and we are perfectly created in brokenness. So no, this Good News is not simple for us humans as it requires us to be aware of the stressors affecting us, continually practice new forms of disengaging from situations, and forgive ourselves when the stressors become sins. But this Good News is needed now more than ever for our computers are becoming bogged down with stress, anxiety, and fear – so bogged down with all the stressors and sins that the part of God’s Mission we are individually called to embrace is stopping and stuttering before our eyes. It is becoming hard for many people to witness God – Christ and ourselves as servants loving one another through the Holy Spirit when all we feel is betrayal.

But this Good News is what we need – we need to stop – stop when we feel the stress – anxiety – fear rush into our hearts. Stop – when we witness an enemy on Facebook – stop when someone voices their opinion and we only hear our fear. Stop – in that breath before you react – stop, even though we are called to justice – to defend the disenfranchised – to care for all people – this week, just stop – stop before you say anything – stop and disengage. Give yourself this gift of the Great Reset to simply disengage however you can. It can be as easy as saying, “I hear you, but can we talk about this later” to not even looking on Facebook for an hour, two hours, or a day. You may find yourself disengaging from the stress by going for a walk alone, from the anxiety by watching a silly comedy, the fear by picking up your favorite hobby. However, you can disengage will provide you time to reflect on what is causing the stressor – time to care for yourself – and time to grow spiritually before you react with a sinful action or inaction. Finally, consider what God is calling you to do – before you re-engage – while on that walk or during the hour away from social media consider what is your part of God’s Mission? Who are you called to serve? How can you help the Mission, next? Then – and only then will you be ready to re-engage with whatever stressor that is affecting your life. You will be able to re-engage because the stress, anxiety, or fear will seem so much smaller than it was – small enough for you to deal with in a loving way – small enough to engage with and not risk the possibility of sinning in the process. 

This Good News, though, is a journey beloved – a journey of self – reflection, care, and growth in our spiritual lives with God. One which we will not always succeed at accomplishing; but it is one practice which will help us turn away from sin – reset our lives – and return to the Gospel of Love. May your Lenten Journey be a time of self-reflection, care, and growth so we may all become closer to God. In the name of Christ, we pray. 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.