SERMON ~ 09/12/2021 ~ “Rally Day? What’s That?”

09/12/2021 ~ Proper 19 ~ Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-9 or Wisdom of Solomon 7:26 – 8:1; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38 ~ Rally Day ~ VIDEO OF COMPLETE SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=quX0GVd9AqA

Rally Day? What’s That?

{Wisdom says:} “How long, O simple ones, / How much longer, you ignorant people, / will you love being simple, being ignorant?” — Proverbs 1:22.

This is the fifth time I am leading in person worship here at South Freeport. Add one time leading by video and that is a total of six. Therefore I think I need to start my comments with an apology.

Why? I have already said what I am about to say twice. This will make it three out of six. But I need to assume some people will be hearing this bit of information for the first time and might not have been privy to it the other two times. (Slight pause.)

My upbringing was in the Roman Catholic tradition. There! I said it again. Now, in many Protestant churches as I said earlier the kick off of the Christian Ed year has often been called “Rally Day.” Here we have appropriately renamed it Back to School Sunday.

Because I came to maturity in Roman tradition I never heard “Rally Day” until I moved into a church in the Protestant tradition. My first reaction was “Rally Day? What does that mean?” Rally Day just does not happen in Roman Churches.

To a certain extent American history is the culprit in me having never heard the term Rally Day. You see, less than 150 years ago if you were a Roman Catholic you were considered at best a second class citizen.

Here’s an example of that. The Knights of Columbus was founded in 1882. Why was this organization invented? It turns out it’s not just a fraternal organization.

Back then insurance companies would not sell life insurance to Catholics. So, fraternity is not the prime mission of the Knights. Selling life insurance to Catholics is.

Another consequence of Catholics being socially ostracized was they organized their own educational system, established a range of schools from Grade Schools to High Schools to Universities. Given their own education apparatus, they did not need to celebrate an educational start date in the church.

That a Fall term would happen, education would happen, that was a given. Why mark something assumed? I would be remiss if I did not point out similar social ostracization in the 1920s led to the educational institutions established by churches on the right.

Therefore in my case, I ascribe the reason I never heard about “Rally Day” to information myopia. I did not know about what I did not see. And yes, sometimes information myopia can come from being ostracized. But there are many flavors of myopia about information, about facts.

Information myopia can come from, pardon the expression, willful ignorance. Make believe something does not exist even if it is staring you in the face— that is willful ignorance. It seems to me there’s a lot of that going around.

There are other flavors of ignorance. It can come from different forms of isolation— physical, self-imposed, social, economic, cultural isolation. Of course, information myopia can come from a lack of curiosity on the part of an individual. A lack of curiosity— a self imposed isolation is, perhaps, the worst kind. (Slight pause.)

In an article Psychiatrist Alfred Margulies said curiosity is necessary for stable individuals. (Quote:) “Wonder…” wonder meaning a sense of curiosity, “…wonder promotes a searching attitude of simultaneously knowing and not knowing.” (Unquote.)

Wonder blends astonishment with curiosity, a combination that ends up fostering deep appreciation of the other. Children can be exemplars of curiosity, of wonder.

The questions children pose often have as much to do with relationship as with acquiring information. For instance, when a child aska an adult, “Why do grown-ups cry when they are happy?”— yes, the child is seeking information.

But the child is not just seeking information. The child is asking for and seeking interaction. Relationship is at stake in the question being asked.

If an adult squelches that kind of “why” inquiry, relationship gets thwarted. I therefore want to pose the idea that curiosity is often about relationship.

Here’s an example of that from Scripture. We have labeled one disciple, Thomas, as “doubting.” But Thomas is known as Didymus— twin. And the episode is commonly described as being about doubt. But the word doubt is not in that passage.

So, when Thomas seeks to touch, to see, is that about proof? I think not. Rather, the scene is about opening doors to relationship.

And that relationship will require all kinds of personal, relational change. What Thomas does display is holy curiosity. And yes, curiosity is holy. [1] (Slight pause.)

These words are found in the work known as Proverbs: {Wisdom says:} “How long, O simple ones, / How much longer, you ignorant people, / will you love being simple, being ignorant?” (Slight pause.)

One of the things we need to notice in these words, in the context of how they are spoken, is that they are proclaimed into the very heart of the city of the people of God. This is a public proclamation, not a proclamation of an individual truth, but a public call to everyone, for everyone.

Wisdom declares this Word from God is to be heard, bids everyone to listen. This, thereby, is a proclamation to all people to enter into dialogue with God. This invites everyone to examine how God might see the world, to understand the nature of reality not as we humans see it, not as an individual sees it, but as it is created by Yahweh, God.

Since this is an invitation to examine how God might see the world, it is a summons to both curiosity and to relationship. Curiosity and relationship intertwined are at the core of this proclamation.

Is this passage a prophetic accusation, a prophetic condemnation? It proabbly could be read that way. But no— the only real condemnation here is when and if the people condemn themselves by ignoring God’s covenant teachings, by being willfully ignorant of God’s covenant teachings.

Of course, what that really means is we are in control. We have the ability to learn. We are in control because the teaching heard here is an invitation to participate, an invitation to be in relationship with God, an invitation to be in relationship with each other. I would be so bold as to suggest that to enter into relationship, to be in this kind of dialogue, is a sign of spiritual maturity. (Slight pause.)

I also want to suggest the pertinent issue here is one discussed in the last verse of the reading. (Quote:) “…those who listen to me / will be secure, / those who listen to me will be at peace; / those who listen to me / will live at ease, will have quiet, / will have no dread of disaster.”

Listen is repeated three times. Why? The Shema, the Great Commandment, says this: “Hear, O Israel.” And, when we do not listen to God, when we do not, therefore, hear God, we break covenant.

So if we are to rally to anything we need to rally to learning about covenant and through covenant. And covenant invites us to one thing: growth.

Covenant is, you see, a commitment to growth, a commitment to not be in any way myopic. Covenant growth is a commitment to learn, a commitment to change, a commitment to grapple with God’s reality, a commitment to seek, a commitment to relationship.

And yes, just change alone is a tall order. But we are invited to go beyond just change to growth. That is the daunting challenge of covenant. Amen.

09/12/2021 [2]
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Earlier I mentioned the episode we commonly call “Doubting Thomas.” Jesus invites Thomas to examine the wounds. Again, this is not about proof. This is about the invitation of Christ to relationship, and thereby it is an invitation to movement, to change, to growth.”

BENEDICTION: We are called to care, even when conventional wisdom says we should not. God is our helper. Christ is our teacher. The Holy spirit is our guide. Let us go forth knowing that the grace of God is deeper than our imagination, the strength of Christ is stronger than our need and the communion of the Holy Spirit is richer than our togetherness. May God guide and sustain us today and in all our tomorrows. Amen.

[1] The last several paragraphs are adapted from an article in The Christian Century (9/12/18) by Peter W. Marty, Curiosity Is Holy.

[2] Give that the date is the day after the 20th anniversary of 9/11/2001 the pastor said this before gathering joys and concerns for the Prayers of thep people.

We have come to the time we call Prayers of the People and the World. This morning I want to separate the two. So before I ask for your concerns for this day and in and about this place, South Freeport, I want to and need to address the anniversary of 9/11. I once worked in an office at 5 World Trade Center, one of the smaller buildings in the complex, a building crushed 20 years ago. But on 9/11 I was already in my sixth year serving the church in Norwich, New York. Of course, I had both worked at the Trade Center and I am a native of New York City. I still have friends and family there. To say what happened on 9/11 deeply affected me is an understatement. So on Friday I looked up the sermon I shared the following Sunday. This was among the things I noted on that day (quote:) “Christianity and all the great world religions, when well understood, have, at their core, a history which rejects nihilism, rejects ignorance, rejects insular judgments, rejects legalism, rejects the darkness found when one surrenders to an impulse which says cruelty to others is acceptable behavior.” At the end of the service before the Benediction I said something, just like I do here. On that day I offered this prayer from the United Church of Christ Memorial Service. So let me offer that prayer again right now after which I shall ask for your joys and concerns for this day.

Let us pray: we gather here in the protective shelter of God’s healing love. We are free to pour out our grief, release our anger, face our emptiness, and know that God cares. We gather here as God’s people, conscious of others who have died and of the frailty of our own existence on earth. We come to comfort and to support one another in our common loss. We gather to hear God’s word of hope that can drive away our despair and move us to offer God our praise. Amen.

And indeed, as we worship even here today, all these years later, it is well to remember we believe the protective shelter of God’s care, God’s healing love, is available to all people.

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Sermon ~ 09/09/2018 ~ Equity?

READINGS: 09/09/2018 ~ Proper 18 ~ Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37>
VIDEO OF SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90BwDy1u15o.

Equity?

“My brothers and sisters, your faith in our glorious Savior Jesus, the Christ, must not allow for favoritism.” — James 2:1.

My brief biography on the church website says I have had material which I wrote performed Off -Broadway. My most important credit in that arena is I contributed writing to a show which stared Kaye Ballard. Some of you may remember Kaye. But she was more of a theater personality than a TV or movie personality.

Now, theater people tend to do a lot of different things just in the profession. So I was also a stage manager off-off Broadway, a business manager for a children’s theater, wrote and staged club acts and worked for the theatrical charity the Actors’ Fund of America.

I never waited on tables like many theater folk, but I did work many jobs outside of theater. You name it, I did it— from managing a store to being a tour guide to computer operations to back office Wall Street operations. Being a pastor is not a second career for me— it’s a ninth career. This is a story about one of those other jobs.

I once was a computer operator at Bloomingdale’s Department Store in New York City. That was back when a computer took up a space the size of this Meeting House.

I mostly worked the night shift. Computers were slow in that era, so sometimes jobs took hours to complete. The machine would chug along and I would have nothing to do except sit and watch in case something went wrong.

And so, with the permission of my boss, I took to reading books as I sat there. Once, at about midnight as the computer was grinding away and I was reading, the CEO of Bloomingdale’s walked in. He was an older, tall, regal, patrician looking fellow. What he was doing there at midnight I have yet to figure out.

He asked a couple of questions and my responses seemed to satisfy him. Since I had permission to read and the CEO saw me reading, it did not concern me. But curiosity did overtake him so he asked me what the book was.

Now, in 1762 the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a work called The Social Contract. That book proposed this radical idea: all people are created equal.

There are many issues you can have with Rousseau’s work. But his best ideas are reflected by Jefferson fourteen years later in the Declaration of Independence.

The work I was reading was also called The Social Contract. But this book said people are not created equal. So I said that to the CEO of Bloomingdale’s: “The premise of the book is not everyone is created equal.”

The CEO of Bloomingdale’s, this older, tall, regal, patrician looking fellow, smiled, nodded and said: “I never thought they were.” Then he turned and walked out. (Slight pause.)

It says this in the work known as James: “My brothers and sisters, your faith in our glorious Savior Jesus, the Christ, must not allow for favoritism.” (Slight pause.)

Justice does not allow for favoritism. Favoritism sanctions privilege, something perhaps familiar to a CEO. It is therefore clear this passage addresses justice. After all, favoritism, by definition, means things are not equal.

But when it comes to the word equal, I suspect we read inaccurate implications into it. Why? We are, in fact, not equal, at least not equal in any mathematical sense.

Each of us is born with a set of gifts and talents. Each of us is unique, different, created by God with singular gifts and talents.

Therefore, instead of equal I sometimes use the word equity. And I do think it is good to strive toward equity. But that word, equity, is an almost impossible target.

So I think neither equality nor equity is quite right, at least from the perspective of Scripture. Perhaps that’s because Scripture understands that any standard of human justice is flawed, imperfect. But we do need to be clear: when we try to talk about equity, when we try to talk about equality, we are addressing the possibility of justice.

There is a reason I just labeled justice a “possibility.” Human justice is unquestionably an illusive goal. Further, Scripture does not address human justice. Scripture addresses the justice of God. (Slight pause.)

I maintain when this passage says we (quote:) “must not allow for favoritism,” the justice of God is being addressed. Most of the time when we translate the underlying Greek word for justice we translate it as righteousness.

But we also have a hard time with that since we think of righteousness in human terms— my righteousness. So let me offer a definition of righteousness from a Bible dictionary.

(Quote:) “Righteousness is a fulfillment of the demands of a relationship with God”— a fulfillment of the demands of a relationship with God. When we think about justice are we even aware relationship and justice are intertwined? (Slight pause.)

Here is some interesting history. Our Pilgrim ancestors would not have carried the King James Bible to these shores. They were, after all, rebelling against anything related to the King. The Pilgrims would have brought the Geneva Bible.

In the Geneva Bible the word for justice is not translated as righteousness. Justice is translated as “right wise”— one strives to be right wise with God, strives to maintain a right relationship with God. So here’s my take: a right relationship with God constantly seeks the justice of God for all people— the justice of God for all people. (Slight pause.)

You heard Dietrich Bonhoeffer quoted at the start of the service. [1] Let me offer a couple more quotes. The ideas here offered might help explain how God’s justice demands a relationship with God and demands relationships with others.

Here’s Thomas Aquinas— “The work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy and is based on it.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu — “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has a foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Slight pause.)

Biblical justice does not just or only mean equality, just or only mean equity, just or only mean everyone has a seat at the table, just or only mean everyone has a voice. Why? Biblical justice adds yet another layer to those foundations.

Biblical justice means, indeed instructs, that everyone is engaged in relationship with everyone else. And I think being in relationship at a minium means we become more involved, more concerned— hard, difficult work. (Slight pause.)

The Epistle of James reminds us of two things. The first is of upmost importance. (Quote:) “You are acting rightly, however, if you fulfill the venerable law of the scriptures: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The second explains what that means (quote:) “If deeds do not go with faith, then faith is dead.” Faith, relationship, justice— these are all intertwined. Amen.

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Since earlier I offered several quotes, let me offer a couple more very ancient ones. This is a Yom Kippur, a Day of Atonement Prayer: ‘We pray for impossible things: peace without justice, forgiveness without restitution, love without sacrifice.’ This is Saint Augustine: ‘Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.’”

BENEDICTION: Surely God will empower our ministry; surely God will supply for our needs when we are about God’s work; may this God, the God who formed the universe, bless us with the courage, the knowledge, the wisdom and the fortitude to serve the Gospel of Christ, empowered by the Spirit to seek justice, this day and forever more. Amen.

[1] “The absence of anything lasting means the collapse of the foundation of historical life, confidence, in all its forms. Since there is no confidence in truth, the place of truth is usurped by sophistic propaganda. Since there is no confidence in justice, whatever is useful is declared to be just. And even the tacit confidence in one’s fellow-man, which rests on the certainty of permanence and constancy, is now superseded by suspicion.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

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SERMON ~ 08/29/2021 ~ Your Children; Your Children’s Children

08/29/2021 ~ Proper 17 ~ Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9; Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 ~ VIDEO OF THE COMPLETE SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUqVO69J__A

Your Children;

Your Children’s Children


“But take care and be diligent in guarding yourselves closely, so as neither to forget those things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days you live; make them known, teach them to your children and your children’s children—…” — Deuteronomy 4:9.

I believe this is a given. We all have specific ways of learning things. In the field of education these are commonly called learning styles.

And, depending on the research you look at, learning styles can be broken down into at least 7 or 8 ways of learning. I, myself, would argue there are about 107 or 108 learning styles. After all, we each have different ways of learning, so to break the styles down to that kind of simplicity, while useful for understanding, seems like a stretch.

Now, one of those 7 or 8 officially recognized styles is labeled as visual learning. I am not a visual learner.

However, research says about 65 percent of the population are visual learners. Perhaps that explains why movies and television— visual mediums— are popular.

These are new mediums but please do not delude yourselves by thinking visual mediums are new. The ancient Egyptians wrote in hieroglyphics, writing recorded in pictures. There are over 1,000 distinct pictographs, characters, in Egyptian writing.

The Cathedrals of Europe had stained glass windows and statuary. The buildings, themselves, are full of visual cues. These ancient shrines are old examples of how people learned about faith in visual ways. (Slight pause.)

Well, on a slightly different but related topic, here’s a true story about how non-visual I am. I am not making this up. I am sure you have all seen the international symbol which means “fragile” on some box, a circle with a line through it. And behind that circle with a line is what looks like a broken champagne glass.

When I was a kid I would look at boxes with that fragile symbol and I would think, “Does that mean broken glasses are in the box?” No— it means fragile; handle with care. Since I am not visual the symbol made no sense to me.

I am also dyslexic. Hence, I think I cultivated listening as a learning style so I could process first through hearing, through sound, not sight.

One other thing on that count— in my profession being dyslexic could have been devastating. After all, is the word “angel” or is it “angle”? Two letters difference, right?

There is the good news for me on that. The letters “e” and “l”— el— are one of the root words in Hebrew for God. Indeed, the word ang-el means messenger from God. Once I learned Hebrew in Seminary and understood God is a part of that word, I got a lot better at spotting the difference between “ang-el” and “ang-le.” (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the Fourth Chapter of Deuteronomy. “But take care and be diligent in guarding yourselves closely, so as neither to forget those things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days you live; make them known, teach them to your children and your children’s children—…” (Slight pause.)

Right after the reading we heard today leaves off, verse 13 uses the word ‘covenant.’ It is the first time the word covenant is used in Deuteronomy.

So the words heard in today’s reading are meant to prepare the reader, the listener, for the idea of a covenant way of life is real, is important, is lived… fully. Therefore, God admonishes the people to not (quote:) “…forget those things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days you live;…”

God, through Moses, says, “teach them to your children and your children’s children—…” Teach what? (Quote:) “…the commandments of your God…”

To be clear, in Hebrew a commandment is not understood the way we understand it— as in “do this” or “don’t do that.” In Hebrew there is no command tense at least in the same sense as there is in English. In fact, the word commandment here means teachings— plural— teachings. And what is being taught? Covenant. (Slight pause.)

So, how do children learn, really? I’m not talking about learning styles. What I’m addressing is how we live our lives and how share our lives with children. (Slight pause.)

Sometimes, especially in private situations, people introduce me as Reverend Joe. And especially in private situations, I correct them and say, “People usually call me irreverent Joe.” That is not meant to be impious. That is meant to be realistic, real.

So, what’s my point about trying to be real? We need to be real with our children. Let me try to unpack that with something I shared just last week. I mentioned that given my very Irish name— Joseph Francis Connolly, Jr.— it’s hard to hide the fact that I came to maturity, grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition.

But when it comes to my family background, it’s even worse than that Irish heritage sounds. My father, for his entire working career, was a teacher at a Jesuit High School. My mother was a nun. Seriously, entered the convent at a young age, dropped out before taking final vows, then married my father. It could be argued I just went into the family business. (Slight pause.)

I would be foolish to ignore that personal history. Their background with and in the church had an impact on me. This brings me back to what God said through Moses.

“…teach them,”— teach them— what does that mean? That means share with the children, share these learnings, share this covenant living, share this way of life. This points to an obvious question. How do children learn, really?

Yes, children learn from their parents. But children also learn from the adults around them, learn by example. Learning happens not just with and through the parents but with all the adults— around them. And we all have to be real with children.

Yes, age appropriate information is necessary when working with children. But age appropriate also needs to be real. Why? How do children learn? Children learn from their elders. And children will sniff out phoney, bogus or unreal in a second. They may not react. But they know.

And yes, my parents taught by example. But there were others. Many family friends were clergy— priests, nuns. I saw them at parties, on trips, on vacations, at family dinners. I, therefore, saw them as real people, not icons.

And I learned. Learned what? I learned this God stuff was something with which everyone grappled as they lived their real lives.

I learned these adults searched for meaning, lived in hope, prayed with humility, sought to embrace justice, were passionate about loving God and neighbor. I learned this God stuff is not to be placed on a shelf, taken down and dusted off every Sunday. (Slight pause.)

What I am really saying is through teaching (quote:) “…your children and your children’s children…” the first thing we need to be is real. Age appropriate, yes— but real, genuine, careful, thoughtful, truthful… conducting lives well lived.

Children do learn from the adults who surround them. And if our life with God is not something with which we grapple, something fully lived, if our life with God is something we place on a shelf, take down and dust off every Sunday, children get it.

So please remember these words from Deuteronomy: “…take care and be diligent in guarding yourselves closely, so as neither to forget those things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days you live…” And these words are followed with this instruction (quote): “make them known, teach them to your children and your children’s children—…” Amen.

08/29/2021
South Freeport Congregational Church, United Church of Christ

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “These are the words of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II from the Musical South Pacific: ‘You’ve got to be taught / To hate and fear, / You’ve got to be taught / From year to year, / It’s got to be drummed / In your dear little ear / You’ve got to be carefully taught. / You’ve got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made, / And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade, / You’ve got to be carefully taught. / You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, / Before you are six or seven or eight, / To hate all the people your relatives hate, / You’ve got to be carefully taught!’ That lyric is seventy-two years old. Perhaps it sounds like it could have been written yesterday. And yes, we need to be careful not just about what we teach but how we teach. To use another song idea, we need to teach our children well.”

BENEDICTION: God’s Word lights our path. The risen Christ dwells among us. The Holy Spirit, guides, protects and sustains us. Let us go forth from this service of worship and offer service to the world in the name of Christ, for the grace of God is deeper than our imagination, the strength of Christ is stronger than our need, the communion of the Holy Spirit is richer than our togetherness. May God guide and sustain us today and in all our tomorrows. Amen.

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SERMON ~ 08/22/2021 ~ “Prayer”

READINGS: 08/22/2021 ~ Proper 16 ~ Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ 1 Kings 8:(1,6,10-11), 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; Psalm 34:15-22; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69 ~ VIDEO OF THE COMPLETE SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ufQqNiWbtM

Prayer

“Always pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and every petition. Indeed, pray constantly and attentively, always persevere in prayer for all the saints, the people of God.” — Ephesians 6: 18.

I think some of you know and others may have assumed given my very Irish name that I came to maturity, grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition. And that is true. In fact, I can still recite in Latin whole swaths of the old Tridentine version of the Mass.

For example: “Et introibo ad altare Dei”— these are the first words of the Mass in Latin intoned by a priest. The person serving at the Mass then responds: “ad Deum qui laetíficat iuventútem meam.”

The translation— don’t worry, you were going to get the translation: “I will go onto the altar of God,” are the words said by the priest. The server then says, “God, my exceeding joy, God who gladdens my youth.”

That is a quote from Psalm 43. Part of that Psalm was used as the Call to Worship today.

Now, the Tridentine version of the Mass was instituted in 1570. Only in 1962 was it revised for the first time since that date. (Slight pause.) Churches— did you know things change really slow in churches?

There was a second development with the Mass in 1962. Reciting the prayers of the Mass in Latin was no longer a requirement. Permission and eventually instruction to use a vernacular language was granted. This has been in the news recently if you’ve paid attention. English, French, Swahili— whatever the language common to a specific location or group could now be used.

Over the years I have on occasion heard my fellow Protestants make an interesting accusation about the how Roman Catholic service of worship, the Mass, is celebrated. “Those Catholics,” it was and is still sometimes stated, “those Catholics don’t even pay attention to what is being said. English or Latin does not matter. They just recite everything by rote.”

Since I have voiced that accusation here, let me offer some personal history. In my youth I was, in fact, a server at Mass, an altar boy. So I have, myself, experienced, served at a Mass, when a priest recited it by rote. That Mass lasted about 15 maybe 20 minutes at most.

However, this needs to be heard also. Back then and maybe even today I’m not sure Canon Law required every priest to celebrate at least one Mass every day— not every Sunday but one Mass every day. That can be tedious and it becomes understandable why rote comes into play.

But, interestingly, a priest cannot celebrate Mass alone, by themselves. In order for the Mass to be valid, there needs to be at least one other person in attendance. And so, there needs to be a server. On occasion that server would have been me which is why I have experienced a 20 minute Mass.

But there is a real reason that at least one person other than a priest needs to be present at each and every Mass and it is the very thing which makes that requirement interesting. The Mass both is and is meant to be a communal event. The worship expressed in a Mass is seen not as an individual offering. The worship expressed in a Mass is seen as a communal practice.

That brings me back to the idea some people voice about a Mass celebrated by rote. I agree. This happens. There are Masses said by rote.

However because the Mass is a communal practice, if any priest or any altar boy or any parishioner recites the words of the Mass by rote, they are doing it wrong. This poses an obvious question: if celebrating a Mass by rote is wrong is there a right way to celebrate Mass? Indeed, is there a right way to be engaged in an act of worship? Is there a right way to… pray? (Slight pause.)

We hear these words in Ephesians: “Always pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and every petition. Indeed, pray constantly and attentively, always persevere in prayer for all the saints, the people of God.” (Slight pause.)

You may have already heard me say this from the pulpit: “Let us be in an attitude of prayer.” Being in an attitude of prayer has nothing to do with our circumstances, our physical position, our past, about who we are, about who we think we are.

An attitude of prayer might be about how we approach prayer. Hence, I want to suggest being in an attitude of prayer might be about focus. But I do not want to imply by the word focus that there is any one way to attain a focused state.

Indeed, we Westerners seem to equate silence or physical stillness with a prayerful attitude. That would not be true for a whirling dervish. They pray as they dance, while they dance. Indeed, their dance, the movement itself, is an aspect of their prayer.

An attitude of prayer is about the state of your own spirit as you strive to listen for the will of God in your own life. And yes, striving to listen for the will of God in your own life may mean you need to be silent and still. That is just not true for everyone.

In fact, as I indicated about the Roman Mass— and the Mass is, after all, an extended prayer— communal prayer is an important aspect of prayer. We need to pray together, with one another and for one another. So perhaps community is or can be a contributor to each individual being in an attitude of prayer, praying in the spirit.

To be clear, by definition each of us prays on our own and in our own way. But I would also suggest God longs to hear the cacophony of prayer which pours forth when we pray together as a community. (Slight pause.)

I need to mention another interesting idea we Westerners seem to have about prayer— interesting— I think that might mean not true. We treat prayer as if it was a medicine. Take this pill called prayer. It will fix everything. To me that makes prayer sound like snake oil medicine.

Prayer as a remedy also places prayer in the realm of monetisation. It changes prayer into money. Pay this, get this back. Trade, barter, is not the purpose of prayer. So, what is the purpose of prayer? (Slight pause.)

You may have noticed something fairly unusual about our bulletin this week. There were three Thoughts of Meditation which were recited out loud earlier.

Did you notice the origins of these quotes? One is from a Hindu; one is from a Jew, a Rabbi; one is from a Roman Catholic nun.

There are two obvious conclusions to draw from that. First, this should be quite clear: prayer is a very universal concept, idea, practice. Second (and perhaps this is my take on what an attitude of prayer might mean), prayer in itself is an act of worship and worship is a very universal concept, idea, practice.

All that brings me back to admonition found in Ephesians which tells us to (quote:) “…pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and every petition.”

As I suggested earlier, I believe God longs to hear the cacophony of prayer which pours forth when we pray together as community. So for me prayer is first and primarily an act of worship. Put another way, the worship of God is or should be at the core of prayer. And the worship of God is first and primarily a communal act.

This stance makes no claim that each of us does not or should not pray on our own. This stance makes no claim that each of us does not or should not worship God on our own.

In fact what I am suggesting simply points out an attitude of prayer might be a place where we join hearts and maybe even minds in worship. You see I maintain we are invited by God to community, to be in a community. In fact, I maintain the first invitation of God on our lives is to live in community and to live into community.

And the first invitation of God on the community is to worship God. What is it, what does it mean to worship God? Worship is an act of extended prayer. Worship is striving, as best as we can, to pray in the spirit.

So yes, Ephesians has it right. We are to (quote:) “…pray constantly and attentively, always persevere in prayer for all… the… saints,… the people… of God.” And yes, that is how we are to (quote): “Always… pray… in… the Spirit….” Amen.

08/22/2021
South Freeport Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, South Freeport, Maine

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Earlier I said God calls each of us to community. Community is not easy. Indeed, the Gospels and Epistles are clear: the Apostles and the early church had many arguments. And what makes community not easy is even when arguments exist we are, all of us, no exceptions God’s people called to be in community, to live in community. So perhaps one key to community is the aforementioned communal prayer.”

BENEDICTION: Let us trust God to provide all we really need. God knows us, loves us and blesses us in Jesus, the Christ. Let us love one another as Christ has loved us. And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.

[1] RESPONSIVE CALL TO WORSHIP BASED ON PSALM 43
ONE: Vindicate me, O God.
MANY: Plead my cause before unjust judges,
rescue me from lying, deceitful accusers!
ONE: For You O God are my stronghold and defense.
MANY: O Holy One, send forth
Your light and Your truth;
let them lead me, guide me;
let them bring me to Your holy mountain.
Let them bring me to Your dwelling place.

            (Time for silent reflection.)

ONE: Then I will go to the altar of God.
MANY: God Who is my exceeding joy,
God of my delight;
and with my harp and my lyre
I will sing Your praise,
O God, my God.
ONE: My hope is in God;
MANY: For I shall, again and again,
praise You O Holy One,
My deliverance,
My help, my God.
Indeed, you are my God.

[2] “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” — Mahatma Gandhi.

“There are three basic prayer themes: Wow! Help! Thanks! ‘Wow’ prayers express awe and wonder— amazement at… the miracle of life itself. ‘Help’ prayers articulate our deepest needs, hopes and fears, aspirations and longings. ‘Thanks’ prayers give voice to gratitude for our blessings— our lives, souls, the miracles, wonders and goodness that surround us every day,… the opportunity to be God’s partners in the ongoing work of creation, for God’s love and care.” — Rabbi Richard Block

“The purpose of prayer is not prayer. The purpose of prayer is to come to love God as much as possible with all the insights into the nature and presence of God this world allows.” — Joan Chittister, Order of Saint Benedict.

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SERMON ~ 08/15/2021 ~ Living Bread

08/15/2021 ~ Proper 15 ~ Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost ~ 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 ~ Psalm 111 ~ Proverbs 9:1-6 ~ Psalm 34:9-14 ~ Ephesians 5:15-20 ~ John 6:51-58 ~ VIDEO OF SERVICE ON YOUTUBE:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEUnIOMl0KU

Living Bread


“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” — John 6:51.

I was nineteen when my grandfather, my father’s father, died in 1967. He finally succumbed to a series of strokes which left him weaker and weaker over the course of several years.

For reasons of which I am now unsure— perhaps they are mired in the murky fog of childhood memories— my grandfather and I had a special bond. While I can’t quite put a finger on how to describe that bond, I can safely state we had the same sense of humor— sometimes silly and physical— sometimes dry, verbal, intellectual.

An early interaction I do remember happened when I was, perhaps, five. One evening when visiting his home, I had a quiet tantrum. I curled up in an easy chair and, pretending to be asleep, refused to come to the dinner table when called.

Always a small, short, thin man, Grandpop was a little taller than five feet and probably weighed all of 110 pounds soaking wet. But he was strong.

He had been a sanitation worker when that meant picking up iron trash cans and lifting them into garbage trucks. Since I had curled up on a chair in a juvenile snit and everyone had waited way too long for my presence at the dinner table, Grandpop came to me, gently lifted me out of the chair, cradled me tenderly in his arms, carried me into the dinning room and sat me where I belonged. (Slight pause.)

By the time I was in my teens I outweighed him and towered over him by a considerable amount. By that time, he was living with my family. That’s when the strokes began to happen.

Typically, he would be sitting in his reclining chair in the living room, reading, invariably smoking an ever-present cigar, and start to have convulsions, begin to shake head to foot. Sometimes the episode would stop within moments. Sometimes it would linger.

Either way, we would rush to his side and try to comfort him. Sometimes he would recover right away. Sometimes he needed bed rest for a couple days.

I remember one such episode when I was a senior in High School. After the convulsions subsided, since I was now the strong one, I lifted him out of his chair, all 110 pounds of him, cradled him gently in my arms, carried him to his bedroom, laid him tenderly on his bed and sat by his side. (Slight pause.) You see, we had a special bond. (Slight pause.)

Amazingly, his condition landed him in the hospital only twice. The second time, when I was nineteen, was when he died.

At that point in my life I had dropped out of college— probably a mistake— was still living with my parents— probably a mistake— and was working a night shift job— probably a mistake. Since I was on the night shift, I was headed home at about eight in the morning when I had an overwhelming sense Grandpop had died.

I walked into my family’s house and my cousin was there. That was not unusual, since we were a close knit family, she lived in the neighborhood, she was there often and was something of a matriarch in the family structure. With a tear in her eye she said, “Grandpa died.”

In a very matter of fact way, I said, “I know.” I’m sure she had no idea what my response meant since this was to state knowledge I could not possibly know in that era before cell phones. She never questioned it. (Slight pause.)

I went to the living room, sat in his chair, breathed in the smell of stale cigar smoke and missed him immediately. Perhaps I wanted to find a way to be somehow present with him.

I was old enough to understand things change, old enough to understand people die. But still, what can I say? My grandfather and I had a special bond; as I sat there his presence was all around me. (Pause.)

These words are from the Gospel we know as John: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Pause.)

I hope it will not surprise you to know that competent pastors, before speaking about a passage, will consult several commentaries. The very first thing I read about today’s passage from John said it is one of the (quote): “most controversial and hotly debated in the Fourth Gospel.” (Unquote.) Why?

The (quote) “sacramental theology” (unquote) adhered to by some slams up against the (quote) “anti-sacramental reading” (unquote) of others. Those who do not favor a sacramental interpretation say there are no words of sacramental institution in John’s version of the last supper. Hence John, taken as a whole, is not interested in it.

Those who favor a sacramental interpretation say these are words of institution. Indeed, this passage is one in this section of John we hear from in the lectionary readings for several weeks in a row. And they could all be interpreted as referencing the sacrament. Jeremy preached on a different but similar section just two weeks ago.

And yes, these words offer support to those who say transubstantiation, that bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, describes the mystery of Communion. But they also offer support those who say it’s a commemorative meal and even offer support to all those who land between these two extremes. But is it possible this passage transcends those positions and points to yet another place? (Slight pause.)

Let’s consider the idea that the ground covered in the sixth Chapter of John is not about a definition of a sacrament but about feeding people. Where might that lead us? (Slight pause.) Well, this is where that observation leads me. John is the only Gospel in which Jesus makes “I am” statements— nine of them.

“I am the bread of life.” “I am the living bread.” “I am the gate for the sheep.” “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” “I am the true vine.” “I am the light of the world,” and that one is said twice.

Our tendency is to emphasize the comparisons Jesus makes— comparisons to bread, a gate, a vine, etc., etc. Each of these are, however, in their own way, different. So, what is similar here? The phrase “I am”— and to where might that point?

(Quietly.) You know what? The name of God in Hebrew is Yahweh. Among a multiplicity of meanings Yahweh means “I am.” It also means “state of being.” It also means “presence.” (Slight pause.)

This is my take: Yahweh, God, the great “I am,” calls humanity to one thing and one thing only: relationship— covenant to use a different term. God insists the relationship, the covenant we have with God is real, because God is present to us. The covenant promise God makes is that God is present in this relationship and that the relationship with God will be… everlasting.

For me the covenant of God contains this promise: there will be and there is a special bond between God and each of us. There will be and there is a special bond among God and all of us, among God and all humanity. (Slight pause.) [1]

With whom have you had a special bond, a special relationship in your life? With whom do you have a special bond, a special relationship? Whose presence do you feel, despite being separated by space, by time— even by death? (Slight pause.)

If there is a basic message the Bible has for us, it’s that we can never be separated from God. If there is a basic message the Bible has for us, it’s that we can never separated from the love of God.

If there is a basic message the Bible has for us, it’s that the presence of God is real. If there is a basic message the Bible has for us, it’s that the very being of God surrounds us, a tangible, special bond exists. If there is a basic message the Bible has for us it’s that God is with us, right here, right now— presence. Presence— here’s what that means: God holds us tenderly in God’s own arms. Amen.

08/15/2021
South Freeport Congregational Church, UCC, South Freeport, Maine
08/08/2021

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Benediction. This, then, is an précis of what the pastor said before the blessing: (The pastor holds up an 8×10 picture of his grandfather and two children.) “This is a picture of my grandfather. The two youngsters are myself and my brother. Was there a special bond between us? I think so. Is there a special bond between us and God? I think so.”

BENEDICTION: God’s Word lights our path. The risen Christ dwells among us. The Holy Spirit, guides, protects and sustains us. Let us go forth from this service of worship and offer service to the world in the name of Christ, for the grace of God is deeper than our imagination, the strength of Christ is stronger than our need, the communion of the Holy Spirit is richer than our togetherness. May God guide and sustain us today and in all our tomorrows. Amen.

[1] This analysis is, in part, based on what is found on this passage and on this passage and on the whole 6th Chapter of John in The New Interpreter’s Bible: the Electronic Edition. Needless to say, the Electronic Edition of The New Interpreter’s Bible has the same information as the printed edition.

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SERMON ~ 08/08/2021 ~ Membership ~ South Freeport Congregational Church, UCC, South Freeport, Maine

08/08/2021 ~ Proper 14 ~ Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost ~ 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51.

YOUTUBE Video of the complete service of worship:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yjPZhdNbr4

Membership

“Get rid of all bitterness and wrath and rage and anger and wrangling and slander, malice of every kind. In place of these be kind to one another, tenderhearted, compassionate, mutually forgiving— forgiving one another— as God, in Christ, has forgiven you.” — Ephesians 4:31-32.

In my comments today I am going to mention several people who were well known in show business decades ago. They will be known to those of us who are of a certain age. Dare I label that age as ripe?

Younger folks do not have to take my word for it that these people were famous. You can GOOGLE it. However while I do need to mention these famous people of yesteryear for context, in a real sense what I will say has little to do with them. Indeed, the place I need to start is by telling you something about my late Father. (Slight pause.)

Dad was a graduate of Manhattan College, in New York City. When he was a Freshman one Owen Patrick Eugene McNulty was a Senior. Even those of the aforementioned ripe age will not know the name Owen Patrick Eugene McNulty. But you might know the stage name eventually adopted by this performer— Dennis Day. (Murmurs of agreement are heard.) I can hear some people agree that they remember Dennis Day.

Here’s the second name we of a ripe age will know: Jack Benny. Benny and his writers concocted a variety show— music and sketch comedy— first on radio then on television. Indeed, it might be argued the writers of the Benny Program invented the form which eventually evolved into what we today call a sitcom— situation comedy.

Let me come back to this Owen McNulty/Dennis Day fellow. He appeared in sketches first on Jack Benny’s radio program and later on Benny’s television show. But he was also a singer, an Irish tenor, who supplied some of the music for the show. Both my parents liked Dennis Day and liked the Benny program.

But this McNulty/Day fellow was very special for my father. You see, every time Day came on the TV screen, my father invariably said (and I am quoting), “Dennis Day— he’s a Manhattan College graduate, you know.” (Slight pause.)

Even though or perhaps because I was a child, I always wondered why my Father said that. The questions which came to my mind ran along these lines— a Manhattan graduate— did that make Dennis Day a special human being, above reproach, placed in a special category, a level of sainthood of which I was blissfully unaware? (Slight pause.)

When I got older I realized my father was saying Dennis Day— a Manhattan College alumni— is a member of my club. I am a member of Day’s club. Dad was saying that they— this well known Irish tenor on TV and Joe Connolly, Sr., someone who could not carry a tune in a bucket and was a less than well known High School English teacher— were members of the same club. (Slight pause.)

These words are from the work known as Ephesians: “Get rid of all bitterness and wrath and rage and anger and wrangling and slander, malice of every kind. In place of these be kind to one another, tenderhearted, compassionate, mutually forgiving— forgiving one another— as God, in Christ, has forgiven you.” (Slight pause.)

You may or may not know this. Different churches and different denominations have different ways of counting membership. Some churches say Baptism, infant or adult, constitutes membership. Others say if you receive Communion you are a member. Some churches say you need to be confirmed to be a member.

And when it comes to Confirmation, churches cannot even agree on what Confirmation is. In the Roman tradition Confirmation is a Sacrament. In Protestant Churches it is a rite of the church but not a Sacrament.

When it comes to joining a church some churches say Baptism— again, infant or adult— is the key. Others insist you have to take membership classes before you can join. Some say you only have to meet with the pastor or deacons. Many say you need to go through some kind of ritual, a ceremony in which a person formally joins a church.

Indeed, churches, themselves, have so many rules and categories for counting membership that often the churches don’t know who is a member and who is not. But most do put some kind of limit on membership, some necessary step which determines membership, say there is some way to join the church. (Slight pause.)

So, how should church membership be counted? (Slight pause.) I want to suggest asking how church membership is or should be counted is the wrong question. And I want to suggest the author of Ephesians got it right.

You see, my Dad was right in the sense that he and Dennis Day were in the same club, Manhattan College graduates. But church membership is not that kind of club. And church membership should not be like a club, despite any strictures we place on it.

Churches are not or at least should not be a place for special human beings or a place which allows someone to be above any kind of reproach or a place that slots you in some special category, some level of sainthood. Churches are for real people. Churches are for flawed people. Churches are for all people.

Churches are also places, as the writer of Ephesians suggests, where we can (quote): “Get rid of all bitterness and wrath and rage and anger and wrangling and slander, malice of every kind.” Churches are also places where we need to (quote): “…be kind to one another, tenderhearted, compassionate, mutually forgiving— forgiving one another— as God, in Christ, has forgiven you.” (Slight pause.)

For a moment, let’s move in another direction about church membership. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us the worship hour on a Sunday is the most segregated hour in America.

And we know from the other writings of Dr. King what he said was not confined to race— class, education, income, profession— all kinds of things separate people into groups. So it’s a human reality to say churches, by their nature, are club-like.

Put differently, a reality of church is that like people worship with like people. And that statement at one and the same time is both theologically abhorrent and it is true. So how do we, how can we deal with that reality? (Slight pause.) Well, first we name it. As painful as it is to admit that reality, unless we name it we will not deal with it.

But let me take that one step further. If you read the brief biography which let people know I was to be your “Bridge Pastor” it said I was a pastor at one church in rural, Upstate New York for 23 years. Over the course of those 23 years a lot of people joined that church.

When folks talked to me about joining I always said this. Let’s assume you are waiting for a train in a train station. And the church is the train you want to board.

Here’s the problem. That train is going to come through the station and it is not going to stop. It been around 200 years and has quite a head of steam. If you want to join you need to stick out your hand and grab onto it and pull yourself on board.

Why? Every organization, a church, a business, a town, has it’s own way of doing things. And that way of doing things is already established. To be clear, that way of doing things will change and even may even change radically simply due to the fact that you joined, because you joined. But another reality is often the change will be slow.

This brings me back to that which is both theologically abhorrent and true. The church is unfortunately in some ways like a club. Why? Like people worship with like people. And what are we to do about that? What can we to do with that? (Slight pause.)

I want to suggest the writer of Ephesians has two answers for us. I have already referenced the first answer. “…be kind to one another, tenderhearted, compassionate, mutually forgiving— forgiving one another— as God, in Christ, has forgiven you.”

If you think that is hard to do… you are right. It is hard. But the second answer the writer of Ephesians gives is even harder. (Quote:) “…try to imitate God, as beloved children. Walk in love and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave of self….” Amen.

South Freeport Congregational Church, UCC, South Freeport, Maine
08/08/2021

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is a précis of what was said: “If you saw the service I led by video in June you know it is my practice to say something before the Benediction. Today’s entry is a quote from Catholic theologian Richard Rhor. “Christianity is a lifestyle— a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared and loving. However, we made it into an established religion (and all that goes with it) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish and vain in most of Christian history and still believe that Jesus is one’s ‘personal Savior.’ The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on earth is too great.”

BENEDICTION: The loving kindness of God, the steadfast love of God, is always present to us. Therefore, may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.

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SERMON ~ July 18, 2021 ~ “Teaching Sheep?”

VIDEO:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcgQbjD-iyc&list=PLZLVrA0zg6Cn0QgvjwtFH1HqcyZb9q_7v&index=1

July 18, 2021 ~ Proper 11 ~ 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Ninth Sunday after Pentecost ~ 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56.

Teaching Sheep?

“And so when Jesus went ashore, there was a crowd waiting; and the Rabbi felt compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So then Jesus began to teach them many things.” — Mark 6:34.

I would bet what I am about to say is true for many of us. There are people in our lives with whom we have a connection and the only way I have of describing that connection, the only language I have, is to say the connection is in some way ethereal.

What does that mean? A description— sometimes this kind of connection means when that other person is in pain we feel it.

But there are other kinds of connections too. Here’s one: it’s when you fully understand what another person says, as they say it1fully understand. But even that kind connection, one grounded in communication, that connection feels in some way ethereal, you don’t quite understand what’s going on.

That’s the kind of connection I had with one of my professors at Bangor Theological Seminary, the late Dr. Ann Johnston. Ann was a fascinating individual. A Roman Catholic nun, she held a Ph.D. in Hebrew Scriptures, was fluent in ancient Hebrew and, despite being a Roman Catholic nun, was teaching at a Main Line Protestant Seminary.

Ann and I had similar backgrounds which perhaps made connections possible on a number of levels. There was the obvious one. She was Roman Catholic. I came to maturity in that tradition. But she also grew up in New York City, as did I.

She had a sibling who lived in the Saranac Lake area as do I, so we both know what that neck of the woods is about. In any case, for reasons beyond me— although I think at least some of the aforementioned background must have played into it— we understood one another, communicated on many levels.

Let me tell you story about that. Any student who goes to a college or a graduate program should visit the school in which they have an interest, meet a professor or two. It’s also wise for a prospective seminary student to visit that seminary and meet a professor or two. And so, I visited Bangor Seminary where I had a chat with Ann, the first time we met.

Not a fifteen minutes into our discussion— and this was the first time we ever met— she tilted her head a little to the side and said, “Joe, I think you need to be ordained.” My memory was immediately thrust back about fifteen years to when the Rev. Carol Anderson, who was among the first women to be officially ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church and she was my pastor at that point in my life, Carol said to me, “Well Joe, when are you going to become a priest?”

Back to my relationship with Ann— I suppose the bottom line is we could hear what one another said clearly. Here’s an interesting example of that.

In a class Ann would give verbal instructions as to what she might want to see in a given assignment, a paper. After assigning a paper, she once came back to the classroom with a totally looking chagrined one week later. She had a stack of papers in her hand.

She announced nearly everyone in the class was going to have to re-do the paper we had handed in a week before. She apologized and said since so many of us had not returned a paper she deemed adequate, it must have been her fault. She must have given poor instructions.

She then told us she had written extensive comments on the papers she was handing back in the hope this would help. At that point she went around the room handing back papers with comments scrawled across the sheets.

She had said, however, not all the papers needed to be redone. She said nearly everyone was going to have to re-do the paper.

When she gave me my paper at the top of the first page I found scrawled in red a grade of A+. She made some other comments throughout the text, as she always did. But the A+ stopped me cold.

I never had the nerve to ask Ann what I did right. I have always, however, attributed the success of that paper to the fact that when she said something I heard it fully. We connected on some level beyond any logical explanation. (Slight pause.)

We hear these words in Mark: “And so when Jesus went ashore, there was a crowd waiting; and the Rabbi felt compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So then Jesus began to teach them many things.” (Slight pause.)

For me the story I just told about Ann Johnston and myself raises three questions. First, does one study with a professor, a teacher, or does one study under a professor, a teacher? I think that answer is evident. You need to work together. Unless you work together, work with a teacher, deep learning, leaning how to think, will not be accomplished.

Learning is, you see, not about acquiring a set of facts. Facts are often readily available. Learning is discovering how to think, not what to think.

And it is a mistake for a student or a teacher to picture learning as if it’s like filling an empty gas tank. Any student, even the youngest, comes to any learning situation with knowledge and experience. So learning, education, is not about filling a tank. It’s more like designing a new one.

Second, what can you learn from a professor, a teacher? Surely there are limitations, no matter how solid the personal connection. And yes, there are limitations, especially if we’re talking about how to think. I’ve always said you learn what you can from a given teacher. The rest, what you cannot learn from that teacher, you leave behind.

However, from the perspective of the student that means you first need to understand how you think, what are your methods and patterns of thinking. That needs to happen before you can learn different, new methods, new patterns of thinking, new patterns a teacher might help you learn. It is, of course, hard to break out of our current methods and patterns. But I would also suggest when you do get to these new patterns of thinking is when learning truly begins to happen.

The last question I want to raise is, I hope, obvious. What kind of effort, what kind of involvement is necessary on the part of the student? (Slight pause.)

Well that brings us to the story we heard about Jesus and the disciples, and that crowd who followed Jesus and the disciples to a remote, deserted place. I think we too often read this story with Twenty-first Century eyes and we, therefore, miss something vital.

We presume Jesus, the teacher, is the sole driver of the story. What we miss is how involved the crowd is. The crowd drives the story with the eagerness of each individual in the crowd, their willingness, their journey to that remote, deserted place. For me that willingness to go to a remote, deserted place tells us something different, something new, a new way of thinking, a new way of life, is being sought— it’s being sought by these people.

So, let me repeat something I said earlier. Learning is not about acquiring a set of facts. Learning is about discovering— eagerly discovering— how to think, not about learning what to think. Learning is not about what to thing but how to think.

And that’s another Twenty-first Century mistake we make as we read this the story. We assume Jesus, the disciples, these teachers, are merely dispensers of facts.

No! After all, what is Christianity about? Is Christianity about a set of facts? Or is Christianity about a new way of life, a new way of thinking, a new way to think about the call of God on our lives, the call for our lives and the call of God on the life of the whole world and the call of God for the life of the whole world?

Put differently, is Christianity about the Realm of God, the Dominion of God being present to us here, now and about our participation in the Realm of God, the Dominion of God, right here and right now? Is Christianity about being empowered to live into that Realm, that Dominion, that new way of thinking, or is Christianity simply about lip service, an ability to spout facts, recite Bible verses? (Slight pause.)

It’s clear to me Christianity is about a way of life, a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing life. This way of life is called covenant love— love of neighbor, love of God. And from what I see and hear in Twenty-first Century society, love of neighbor, love of God would appear to me to be too often in short supply.

So if love of God, love of neighbor is, for Twenty-first Century society, a new way to think, a new way to see life, a new way to understand God is present with us, here, now, perhaps, perhaps there is a call on our lives. Perhaps our call is like the call of the disciples, a call to share the love of God. But maybe, just maybe our call is also like the crowd who went to that deserted place, eager to learn, eager to discover, eager to think in new ways. Amen.

07/18/2021
North Yarmouth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “The text from Mark says the people (quote:) ‘…were like sheep without a shepherd.’ But again our Twenty-first Century way of thinking does not understand what’s happening here. The text also says the people needed a shepherd. A shepherd is not someone who dominates and orders others around. A shepherd is someone who guides, who helps. Jesus is a shepherd, a guide, a teacher who helps us to seek new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing the Realm of God, the Dominion of God. If we also engage in teaching our job is to also be a shepherd, to guide, to help.”

BENEDICTION: This is the blessing used by natives of the islands in the South Pacific: O Jesus, please be the canoe that holds me up in the sea of life. Please be the rudder that keeps me on a straight path. Be the outrigger that supports me in times of stress. Let Your Spirit be the sail that carries me though each day. Keep me safe, so that I can paddle on steady in the voyage called life. God of all, bless us all so we may have calm seas, a warm sun and clear nights with star filled skies. Amen.

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SERMON ~ July 11, 2021 ~ “The Plumb Line” ~ North Yarmouth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ.

VIDEO ON YOUTUBE:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsIrmNA-GGg&list=PLZLVrA0zg6Cn0QgvjwtFH1HqcyZb9q_7v&index=2

July 11, 2021 ~ Proper 10 ~ Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Eighth Sunday after Pentecost ~ 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29.

The Plumb Line

“This is what the Sovereign, Yahweh, showed me: God was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in hand. / “what do you see, Amos,?” Yahweh, God asked. / And I said, “A plumb line.” — Amos 7:7-8a

If you were here last week or heard it online you know I told a story about being drafted into the army in 1968 and going to Vietnam. Today I want to start with a life story from even a little before that. If you accuse me of telling stories I will plead guilty.

In January of 1961, January 6th to be precise, to be exact, my family moved into what was for us a new house. I was 13.

I can name the date with accuracy for two reasons. January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany, the feast which celebrates the arrival of the Magi, often called “Three Kings Day.” My mother called it “Little Christmas.”

I think she called it “Little Christmas” because of her very Catholic upbringing. But what really made this particular “Little Christmas” special for my mother is on that day she was now in a new house and she repeated over and over numerous times because of a new house it was not just “Little Christmas” for her. This was Christmas.

I can also identify that date in January because just days later, January 20th, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated. And I know I watched the inauguration in that new house. My very Catholic parents, being very Eisenhower Republicans, still felt pride that Kennedy, the first Catholic President, had been elected.

January 20th, 1961 was on a Friday. I was in the seventh grade. So, why was I not in school but watching the inaugural?

There had been a major East Coast snow storm and all the schools were closed for the day. I am quite sure a certain 13 year old altar boy felt getting this day, a day on which the inauguration of JFK happened and being home from school because of a snowstorm, was a gift from God.

Back to this new house. The bathroom sink was simply attached to the wall, no legs, no cabinet, no storage space underneath. You could see the drain pipe.

That Summer my Mother asked me to build a rolling cabinet which could be pulled in and out and fit under the sink. I have no idea where she found plans to make a rolling cabinet— this was 1961— no Internet, no place to search for plans, but she found some.

These instructions were quite specific as to what was needed— lumber, wheels, paint. What the plans did not have was measurements since all sinks are different. They told you how to measure but measuring was left up to the builder— in this case me. In measuring I, effectively, set the standards by which the cabinet was built.

And, having measured, I got to work. Measuring was important since the cabinet did have to fit under the sink and roll in and out. Too tall, it would not fit under; too short or wide, there would be too much space around the edge.

I became very familiar with a tape measure and a carpenter’s level, a bubble level. The level was especially needed because the thing had to roll evenly.

If there is any lesson I learned in putting this together it’s the importance of measuring. Measuring sets up standards, especially when measuring is up to you. I am proud to say not only did I successfully complete the cabinet but it was in the bathroom until it got re-built some 20 years later. (Slight pause.)

These words are in the work known as Amos: “This is what the Sovereign, Yahweh, showed me: God was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in hand. / “what do you see, Amos,?” Yahweh, God asked. / And I said, “A plumb line.” (Slight pause.)

In the original texts the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures are sometimes referred to as “seers.” Why? They were believed to be able to see things others could not.

Clearly Amos sees things others do not. In this case Amos sees God at a wall with a plumb line. A plumb line— a very ancient device used to keep things straight, level. It’s is a string with a weight, an instrument used to provide measurement, a reference line.

I therefore think one question for us becomes what is being measured? Is it the people of Israel? Is it us? I think neither.

I say neither even though the text makes it clear the Israelites failed when being measured. That failure, their failure, is not the point. They fail because a comparison is being made. So the real question is ‘a comparison to what?’ (Slight pause.)

I want to suggest the plumb line, a tool of measurement and a wall, the finished product, represent standards. What is the standard to which God invites us? Love. And in theory at least, justice— the justice of God— needs to flow from love.

I think we miss, do not understand, this very simple idea way too often: justice must flow from love. We miss this because we see justice as being one sided. We speak in terms of ‘my justice’ or ‘our justice.’ This sets up sides. But the place to which God invites us is love of all and therefore the place to which God invites us is justice for all.

Further, I would argue justice is not singular. My justice, alone, can never be a fullness of justice because justice for all cannot be possessed by one individual. Hence, I would also argue justice can happen only in community and through community.

That brings me back to my building a cabinet and standards. Measuring, as I did, as I had to do, in building the cabinet, is important. Standards need to be both attained and maintained. For me, the wall and the plumb line, these images Amos saw, have to do with identifying a standard. (Slight pause.)

And to reiterate, the standard of God is love. And both justice for all and all justice flow from love. Therefore, our problem can be twofold: first, sometimes we fail to correctly, accurately, identify that standard. Second, we sometimes fail to maintain that standard. (Slight pause.)

Earlier I said the cabinet I built lasted twenty years. Let me say two things about that. First, the plans told me how to do it but did not tell me what the measurements were.

God tells us how to it, how to do justice: love God, love neighbor. Then God places the measuring of justice— a measurment determined by love— in our hands. God relies on us. If the fact that God relies on us does not give us pause nothing will.

Second, wear and tear, time, use, does deteriorate cabinets. Wear and tear has the same effect on us on our standards, our understanding of justice.

So guess what? We have exactly the same problem as the Israelites— determining the standards and maintaining the standards.

But I think there is clearly one thing we can learn from the visions of Amos. I maintain that for Amos love and justice are one. But seeing love and justice as intertwined, seeing that as a standard is something with which we have a hard time.

A basic reason for that is rather than letting God’s love be our standard we let the culture take over. Here’s an example of that, perhaps an odd one but it’s one I like. I am sure we’ve all heard of Theory of Relatively. I am not suggesting we understand it, I’m not sure I do, just that we’ve heard of it.

Most of us hear the term Theory of Relativity and we twist the meaning. We say, O.K.— that means everything is relative, mobile, moves. No— the theory of relatively— E=MC2— says energy and matter change. These are mobile.

But the letter C represents the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, the ultimate standard. The speed of light never changes. The Theory of Relativity says everything is measured from that standard, that plumb line. What is measured changes. The plumb line does not change.

The plumb line of God is love. Love God; love neighbor. That is what needs to define how we measure our life, ourselves, our life with one another, how we measure justice. You see, everything is relative only in the sense that everything needs to relate to loving God and neighbor.

Is that simple to do? No. If it was simple we would be much better at it. But that does not mean we should give up. We need to continue to engage in building the cabinet. We need to continue to use the plumb line called love. Amen.

07/11/2021
North Yarmouth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I am sure most of us have seen a classic New Yorker type cartoon with a scraggy looking bearded man in a robe carrying a sign with a prediction of the apocalypse: ‘The end of the world is coming.’ I once stumbled across a good version of that cartoon. Someone with a scraggy looking beard was wearing in a robe and carrying a sign. The sign said, ‘The world is not coming to an end. Therefore, you must learn to cope.’ And that is part of the issue, is it not? Things are not perfect. But we are called to do what we can to help things be better and to do so through love.”

BENEDICTION: Let us, above all, surround ourselves with the perfect love of God, a love which binds everything together in harmony. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.

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SERMON ~ 07/04/2021 ~ “Freedom and Responsibility”

The video of the complete service is found here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GuqcM7oWTeA

Note: the lighting is not good.
**********************************
07/04/2021 ~ Proper 9 ~ Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Sixth Sunday after Pentecost ~ 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13 ~ Fourth of July Holiday on the Secular Calendar ~ Communion.

Freedom and Responsibility

“Then Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out in pairs,…” — Mark 6:7a.

I do not remember the exact date the letter arrived. I do know it was the first week of November, 1967. I was 19.

Those of a certain age will be familiar with the opening words in the letter and recognize exactly what they meant. (Slight pause.) “Greetings from the President of the United States.” (Slight pause.)

For those a little younger, I need to state this letter was from President Lyndon Baines Johnson and informed me I was being drafted into the Armed Forces of these United States. This was my draft notice.

The draft letter had one other piece of news. The date set for my induction was December the 5th, my mother’s 44th birthday— Happy Birthday, Mom. (Slight pause.)

At the time I was working at a large corporation as a computer operator. I gave them two weeks notice. Much to my surprise that afternoon my boss told me the company was acting on my behalf to get the draft notice postponed. That would buy them time for me to train someone to do my job.

They had not asked my permission to intervene. They just did it. I went along because I did not want to be inducted on my Mom’s birthday.

Within days I got a second draft notice for January 20th, 1968. That the corporation for which I worked could get my draft postponed without my input was a life lesson in real world power.

And so on January 20th, 1968 I was off to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for Basic Training. Late March landed me in Fort Lee, Virginia, for Advanced Training.

The next significant date in this sequence is hard to forget. 53 years ago today— July 4th, 1968— I arrived in Vietnam— Happy Independence Day. (Slight pause.)

I’ve always said my little brother is the one who got the smart genes in my family. You see, I was drafted because the first time I went to college I dropped out. My brother did not.

By the time he was eligible to be drafted draft numbers were assigned by date of birth. The system used when I was drafted chose individual people at random. It’s the only time I ever won a lottery.

My brother then proved he was also clever. He applied for conscientious objector status and got it. I could have done that. I knew all the clergy who signed letters to support him. So, why did I not do that? (Slight pause.)

Rumor to the contrary, the system of government under which we live in American is not a democracy nor is it a republic. It is a democratic republic. [1] Any competent civics text book will say that. We just don’t pay much attention to the term democratic republic as political commerce seems to prefer the mindless rhetoric which confines us to the words democracy or republic, neither of which is totally accurate.

So, what does it mean to be part of a democratic republic? Perhaps this will help: in the initial draft of the Declaration of Independence the inhabitants of the 13 colonies are referred to as (quote) “subjects.” But then, amazingly, Jefferson wiped the word “subjects” out of the text and changed the word from “subjects” to “citizens.”

As “citizens”— no longer subjects— we became and are a people whose allegiance is to one another, not to some king. [2] I believe from that point forward as a nation we have been bound one another in mutual covenant— citizens not subjects.

So, as a citizen of this democratic republic, as someone designated by chance, by tradition, by law and by age to serve I thought I had a responsibility to others. You may agree or disagree with that. But that I needed to be responsible is where I came down.

Put another way it’s this simple: real freedom can be found only in the collective not in the individual, indeed, not in individuality. Therefore and paradoxically, real freedom depends on the responsibility assumed by each individual to the collective, to each other. (Pause.)

These words are from the work known as Mark: “Then Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out in pairs,…” (Slight pause.)

Mark here addresses how the Good News spreads. When I say ‘how the Good News spreads,’ we need to heed not the details but the principles. In this case I think the first principle is mutual responsibility.

The disciples, you see, are sent out in pairs. So perhaps next we need to ask what is it which binds them in this mutual covenant? The message, the Word of God Jesus invites them to proclaim is (quote): “repentance.”

The Biblical meaning of repentance is neither regret nor feeling sorry. Biblical repentance is turning toward God with your whole being, turning one’s life over to God.

So next we need to ask ‘how do the disciples go about turning toward God, turning their lives over to God?’ In this case Jesus invites them to take nothing for their journey except a staff— no bread, no bag, no spare tunic, no money. Here is a different way to put that: focus your life on God and the place to which God calls you— nothing else. In modern language, they simplifed their lives.

But that simplify stuff also comes back to the fact that they go out two by two. To really simplify they needed to rely on one another. Because of that commission of mutual reliance, this seems clear to me: no one individual has the key or is in charge. No one individual has any formula. No individual can fix everything. Put another way, no one is God except God.

And so they go out two by two, embrace the humility found in accepting communal responsibility. They accept one another for who each of them is. They embrace the humility of needing each other. And this embracing of the other can and does form living community. (Slight pause.)

I need to step back for a moment and say one very important thing about the Gospel we know as Mark. While it is not said in this passage in Mark, especially in the parables, Jesus talks about the realm, the reign of God which has drawn near.

That the reign of God has drawn near is an overall theme of the Gospel. I want to suggest this reign of God has something to do with the freedom granted by God.

I also want to suggest this freedom also has something to do with the humility and the repentance found in accepting communal responsibility, responsibility to one another. And that brings us back to this two by two concept. Jesus is focused on the centrality of community in proclaiming the realm of God. (Very long pause.)

Many feel the opening words of the Declaration of Independence about equality, life, liberty, the pursuit are the most important words in the document. And these days we tend to take those words personally, as if they were about an individual, about us.

However, I believe for the ones who signed the document, who lived through those tumultuous times, some words towards the end of the Declaration are equally important. (Quote): “…for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” (Slight pause.) “…we mutually pledge…” The signers of the Declaration accepted, indeed, embraced communal responsibility. (Slight pause.)

No individual is up to the task of forming community. Being a lone ranger works only in the movies. We need to rely on one another, be in covenant with one another to see the full reality of freedom and its gifts.

As Christians who wish to seek the freedom promised by the reign of God we must work toward and in community. And for Christians community does not mean just those you know. For Christians community means everyone, all people who on earth do dwell.

So, perhaps the way we need to think about freedom on this Independence Day is that it is really “Interdependence Day,” a day on which we rely on one another with mutual respect and mutual responsibility. Living in community is sacred. Amen.

07/04/2021
North Yarmouth Congregational Church, U.C.C. [3]

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Benediction. This, then, is an précis of what the pastor said before the blessing:
“Before he won the Nobel Peace Prize I once had the privilege and honor of meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This quote is from Desmond’s vast wealth of theological sensibility. ‘The wave of hate must stop. Politicians who profit from exploiting this hate, from fanning it, must not be tempted by this easy way to profit from fear and misunderstanding. And my fellow clerics, of all faiths, must stand up for the principles of universal dignity and fellowship. Exclusion is never the way forward on our shared paths to freedom and justice.’”

BENEDICTION: Let us place our trust in God. Let us go from this place to share this Good News: by God we are blessed; in Jesus, the Christ, the beloved of God, we are made whole. Let us depart in confidence and joy that the Spirit of God is with us and let us carry Christ in our hearts for God is faithful. Amen.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_republic

[2] The Washington Post; Jefferson Changed ‘Subjects’ to ‘Citizens’ in Declaration of Independence; By Marc Kaufman; 07/03/2010 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/02/AR2010070205525.html?nav=rss_email/components

[3] The video of the service is found here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GuqcM7oWTeA

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SERMON ~ 06/27/2021 ~ Just Believe ~ South Freeport, Maine ~ Video

06/27/2021 ~ Proper 8 ~ Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Fifth Sunday after Pentecost ~ 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24 or Lamentations 3:22-33; Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43.

Just Believe

“While Jesus was still speaking to the woman, some people came from the house of the synagogue officer and said to that officer, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?’ But Jesus overheard the remark and said to the leader of the synagogue: ‘Do not fear— just believe.’” — Mark 5:35-36.

Given the Children’s Moment, you may have figured this out already. I am a Baseball fan. [1] I have been known to pull over to the side of the road to watch a Little League game. I lived in New York State and at different times I was in both New York City and in rural Upstate New York.

When I did live in New York, and it mattered not where, Upstate or Downstate, this is what people asked me about baseball: Yankees or Mets? Of course, when I lived in Maine— both before and currently— people who knew I was a baseball fan did not even bother to ask. They assumed I was a Red Sox fan.

I follow the Sox and I never stopped following them even when I was in exile in New York, but my real answer about team fandom is none of the above— not the Yankees, not the Mets not the Sox. I am not a team fan. I am a baseball fan. I follow baseball. Why?

If truth be told the only team for which I ever rooted was the Brooklyn Dodgers. Please note: that is not the Los Angeles Dodgers. That is the Brooklyn Dodgers.

And this proves I am old. I actually saw games in person at Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. My team went out of existence in 1957. That may be why I am a baseball fan and not a team fan. My… team… died.

However, since I did spend time in New York I know a lot about those teams. This is one story about the Mets. (Slight pause.)

These days the late baseball player Tug McGraw is probably best known as the father of country music singer Tim McGraw. But I remember Tug as an outstanding relief pitcher who played from the late 60s through the early 80s— 19 seasons.

McGraw was a part of the World Series winning 1969 Mets, the 1973 National League Pennant winning Mets and the 1980 World Series winning Philadelphia Phillies. Tug always had a way with words and what stands out in my memory about that is a catchphrase he invented for those 1973 Pennant winning New York Mets.

But before I talk about the phrase McGraw invented and for those of you who don’t follow baseball, I need to explain the 1973 Mets. Under their manager Yogi Berra (also someone who had a way with words— the classic phrase, “It’s too crowded; no one goes there anymore” belongs to him) under Yogi the 1973 Mets won the National League East title. But they did so with a terrible 82–79 record. They were certainly one of the worst teams to ever win a Division.

They then won the National League Pennant by beating a much stronger Cincinnati Reds team in the playoffs. And that’s where McGraw and his words come in.

On this terrible team every time the Mets won despite the rarity of a win, McGraw would shout, “You Gotta Believe!” And on this terrible team every time the Mets lost and there were a plethora of loses, McGraw would shout, “You Gotta Believe!”

And then the press picked up on it, quoted it. Then the fans picked up on it. People started making and holding up banners with the words “You Gotta Believe!”

If the Mets were winning by ten runs fans would shout, “You Gotta Believe!” If the Mets were losing by ten runs fans would shout, “You Gotta Believe!” (Slight pause.)

“You Gotta Believe?” Believe what? Believe you can throw a baseball, hit a baseball, win a game? What does it mean to believe? (Slight pause.)

These words are from the work known as Mark: “While Jesus was still speaking to the woman, some people came from the house of the synagogue officer and said to that officer, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?’ But Jesus overheard the remark and said to the leader of the synagogue: ‘Do not fear— just believe.’” (Slight pause.)

What is belief? What does the word belief mean? Jesus says (quote): “Do not fear— just believe.” What is this invitation Jesus presents? (Slight pause.)

In her book Christianity After Religion: the End of the Church and a New Spiritual Awakening Diana Butler Bass says as the Protestant Reformation progressed people started to place a larger emphasis on Creeds. Why? Perhaps because a Creed can readily be seen as a list of beliefs, a set of principles onto which one is expected to sign, a list of beliefs one is expected to affirm.

But Creeds have actually been defined that way, as a list of beliefs, only since a little after the Reformation blossomed. What I find fascinating about the timing is not that it coincides with the Reformation but that it coincides with the dawn of what might be called Western science.

The list of noted scientists who lived into, in or were born in the 16th Century spans giants of the era from Da Vinci to Descartes. In this era people now look at the heavens through telescopes, see things they have never seen before, look at droplets of water through microscopes, see things they have never seen before.

In short, things we humans never saw before and things we humans never thought about before, things we never knew existed are coming into focus for us. We are making new discoveries. And we humans start to look at the world with a new set of lenses. We start seeing the world as a list of facts. (Slight pause.)

Now I, for one, do not want to ignore the benefits of the era. It leads to the later discoveries of the Enlightenment and everything this thrust into modernity brought.

I like facts. I happen to like electric lights, computers and indoor plumbing— all benefits of facts, information, data, science.

But I do want to suggest when we look at faith like a science problem, we are headed down a questionable path. So, why is that questionable? (Slight pause.)

The word ‘Creed’ comes from the Latin word Credo. We translate the Latin word Credo as ‘I believe’— fair enough. Indeed, the first words of the Nicene Creed in Latin are Credo in unum Deum… which we translate as “I believe in One God.”

But to say the word Credo means I believe, as if belief is a mere piece of data, is somewhat deceiving. You see, the intent of the word Credo is not an affirmation of a belief as a fact.

The deeper meaning of the word Credo is I give my heart. So, in order to translate the phrase Credo in unum Deum accurately we should say, “I give my heart to God.” (Slight pause.)

I want to suggest giving one’s heart to God is not about God as if God is just another item, a fact on a check list. If we give our hearts to God, if we say we believe in God, it means we long to be in a deep relationship with God.

All of which is to say in Scripture— and who knows, perhaps even in Baseball— giving one’s heart is a key ingredient of what it means to believe. So when Jesus says to the synagogue officer, “Do not fear— just believe”— that is what Jesus is talking about, giving one’s heart to God.

In short this is an invitation on the part of Jesus. Jesus invites the officer of the Synagogue and is perhaps even inviting us to give our hearts to God. (Slight pause.)

I think this is clear. We need to be in a relationship with God. That’s what belief is really about. I also think what we humans find out over time is, once we are in relationship with God, this becomes clear: God calls us, invites us, to be in relationship with one another. (Slight pause.)

Well, I have good news and bad news. Belief— this being in a relationship with God— is just like any relationship. Being in a relationship with God may be the easiest thing we will ever do. And being in a relationship with God might also the hardest thing we will ever do. Amen.

South Freeport U.C.C., Maine — VIDEO
06/27/2021

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “It is my habit to say something at the conclusion of a service before the Benediction so I shall. I once had the privilege and honor of meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu and that was before he won the Nobel Peace Prize. This quote is from Desmond Tutu’s vast wealth of theological sensibility. ‘In the end it matters not how good we are but how good God is. It matters not how much we love God but how much God loves us. And God loves us whoever we are, whatever we’ve done or failed to do, whatever we believe or can’t believe.’”

BENEDICTION: The work and the will of God is placed before us. Further, we are called to be faithful and seek to do God’s will and work. In so doing, may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.

[1] In the Children’s Moment Pastor Joe tried on some hats and some baseball hats. Then this question was asked: for which team does God root? God is not a fan of one team. God loves everyone.

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