SERMON ~ 01/16/2021 ~ “Revealed Glory”

READINGS: 01/16/2021 ~ Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Known in Some Traditions as the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11 ~ The Weekend of the Federal Holiday Known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day ~ VIDEO OF THE COMPLETE SERVICE:
NOTE: There are issues sound with the sound quality.

Revealed Glory

“Jesus did this, performed the first of signs, at Cana in Galilee; in this way Jesus revealed glory; and the disciples believed.” — John 2:11.

Charisma is an interesting word since it has multiple definitions. If someone is charismatic it can mean a person has divinely conferred power but it can also mean someone who has compelling attractiveness, charm, can inspire devotion in others.

I, personally, try to avoid using charisma or charismatic. Why? People who sell snake oil are often charismatic. That does not mean you should buy snake oil from them.

I have, myself, been afforded the privilege to be in the presence of and learn from teachers who have charisma in the positive sense— no snake oil. Let me offer two examples from my experience.

The well known writer of musicals, the late Stephen Sondheim— the lyrics for West Side Story, music and lyrics for Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd among many, many shows, would come by the A.S.C.A.P. Musical Comedy Workshop, a Master Class for aspiring writers of musicals, when I was a member. He came to offer advice and support.

I want to address how Sondheim worked as a teacher, as he had a distinct presence— charisma. There are YOUTUBE videos out there of Sondheim you can look at, see him working with acting students on his songs, videos that display him teaching.

In one video a song he wrote is sung by three people who intone three different parts of the song. Two of the three students are very good. The third struggles.

How does this composer respond? Gently— Sondheim does not berate the person of lesser ability but works with this individual. How is that accomplished?

Sondheim knows songs are not just ink blots on paper, not just sounds. Words have meaning. Notes don’t just go up and down. Both lyrics and notes express emotion.

So Sondheim enters into a dialogue based not on what the words and notes say or sound, but what they mean. He invites each student to bring what they can to the table, encourages each student to give their own interpretation. Sondheim does this with the one who struggles and with all the students at each one’s own level. [1] (Slight pause.)

Another wonderful teacher I had is the late Dr. Ann Johnston, my Hebrew Scriptures professor at Bangor Theological Seminary. Ann was a Roman Catholic nun who had a PhD. in Hebrew Scriptures— an interesting combination to say the least.

She would assign at least four papers a semester. But for one paper Ann would always offer the option of writing a creative paper as opposed to an academic paper.

You could write an academic paper but alternatively you could draw, paint or sculpt something, write a play, a poem, a short story as a paper. If you created a piece of visual art you needed to offer a short explanation but that was simply for clarity.

One student once said to me Ann wants you to re-write the Bible. “Of course,” said I. “That’s because she wants you to be emotionally engaged with it so you are able to convey to others what the Bible says but use your own words.” (Slight pause.)

These words are found in the Gospel According to the School of John: “Jesus did this, performed the first of signs, at Cana in Galilee; in this way Jesus revealed glory; and the disciples believed.” (Slight pause.)

This is something I said at Bible Study last Monday. Any story about a miracle in the Bible is not about the miracle. To explore that idea I need to say something which is obvious. Jesus and the disciples were Jewish.

Given that, what does it mean that Jesus revealed glory? Modern culture totally misuses and/or fails to understand the meaning of the word Glory as it is used in Scripture. In Scripture the word Glory means the real presence of God.

Indeed, people use, often sing a prayer called Gloria. The Latin words in the liturgy and hymns used in the church for millennia were Gloria in Excelsus Deo. These are often translated as Glory to God in the highest.

But the words Excelsus Deo can also mean Highest God. And a title of God used in Scripture is Highest God. Hence, Gloria in Excelsus Deo can mean this Highest God displays Glory, presence. In short Gloria in Excelsus Deo can mean is present, this highest God is present.

And what does this passage which contains a miracle say about Jesus? It says Jesus reveals Glory, reveals God is present.

Please note and as I said, the point of the story is not the miracle. It’s not about turning water into wine. The point of the story is the presence of God is revealed.

And the result of this is the disciples believed. Indeed, nowhere does it say the disciples knew about the water/wine transformation. So if Glory does not refer to the presence of God, that the disciples believed is a non sequitur; it makes no sense.

As you may realize, in the Gospel of John Jesus seems more God-like than in any other Gospel. Hence, when John tells us the disciples believed what we need to hear is the disciples believed that the presence of God is revealed in Jesus.

All that brings me back to the word charisma and its definition. Charisma can mean a person who has compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion. Charisma can also mean a person who has divinely conferred power or talent.

Here, in this story, those two definitions to come together, merge. Jesus is not just a person who has compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others, although some would have you believe that’s all Jesus is or does.

Jesus is not just a person with divinely conferred power or talent, although some would have you believe that’s all Jesus is or does. Jesus is both compelling and divine.

Coming back to my experience, Stephen Sondheim and Ann Johnston were good teachers because they realized people learn when they become emotionally engaged. And so they engaged their students and encouraged their students to engage on an emotional level.

So let me say this: we all have charisma, the ability to share in different ways. Therefore, we all can teach. You see, teaching is about sharing your passion and we share our passion, emotionally engage, every time we set an example by performing acts of unconditional love with that emotional engagement. Indeed, I think Dr. King taught as much by example as by rhetoric— he did write the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, did he not?

So to reiterate, the miracle stories in Scripture are not meant to encourage us to go “ooh” or “aah” and wonder about miracles. Miracle stories are in Scripture to encourage us to engage our emotions, become emotionally engaged about the reality of God.

In short, the words we find in Scripture are not just ink blots on paper, something to simply recite, especially not something to recite by rote. We are called to understand Scripture for ourselves, and thereby to become emotionally engaged by what we find there. And I will speak for myself but I hope I am speaking for everyone. What I find there is the peace, the hope, the joy, the freedom, the equity and the love of God. Amen.

South Freeport Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, 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: “This is, of course, the weekend of National Holiday known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Dr. King wanted us to be emotionally engaged. This is a quote from Dr. King: ‘We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice, leaders not in love with publicity but in love with humanity, leaders who can subject their particular egos to the pressing urgencies of the great cause of freedom…. a time like this demands great leaders.’”

BENEDICTION: The love of God must be lived and shared. So, let us go forth with the praise of God on our lips for the steadfast love of God will light our paths as God keeps us open to new ways of doing and learning. And may the love of God guide us, the word of the Christ empower us and the gifts of the Spirit dwell in us, this day and forever more. Amen.


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SERMON ~ 01/02/2022 ~ “Cultural Noise”

READINGS: 01/02/2022 ~ Second Sunday after Christmas Day, i.e.: the Second Sunday after the Celebration of the Nativity, the Incarnation of Jesus, the Christ ~ Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12; Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:(1-9), 10-18 ~ Note: 01/06/2022 ~ Epiphany of the Lord ~ Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12.

Cultural Noise

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea during the reign of Herod, astronomers from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born ruler of the Jews? We observed the star of this child at its rising, and have come to pay homage.” — Matthew 2:1-2.

I just finished a biography of the song writer Irving Berlin and it was written 30 years ago. I picked up the book at Twice Told Tales, the used book outlet of Curtis Library in Brunswick. My bet is even if you don’t know who Berlin is you all know his song White Christmas. Many associate that song with the 1954 film of the same name. But it first was heard in the 1942 film Holiday Inn.

Most people don’t know there is an introductory verse to the song in that movie and in the original sheet music. Berlin actually eliminated the verse out of the sheet music after its initial publication.

These are the words of the rarely heard introductory verse: “The sun is shining, the grass is green, / The orange and palm trees sway. / There’s never been such a day / in Beverly Hills, L.A. / But it’s December the twenty-fourth,— / And I am longing to be up North—” And then you get: “I’m dreaming of a White….”

Berlin, a New York City guy, was often bored when he was in Beverly Hills writing songs for movies. That was reason enough to dream about Christmas back home. But seriously, how many people over the age of about, let’s call it 50, really want a white Christmas?

We had white Christmas this year but my experience is people may dream of it, but don’t want to shovel snow or travel on hazardous roads. A white Christmas seems to be simply a cozy cultural fantasy, something which makes us feel warm and fuzzy.

Needless to say, most people don’t realize the song is altered from the original. But our culture and the noise our culture makes can readily obliterate factual data.

Cultural noise is fascinating to observe. While a cultural fantasy like a white Christmas is a relatively benign, cultural noise, fantasies in the worst sense of that word— things which are not true— are too often not benign. Why? Cultural noise can invite us not to think about what we hear, not to think about what see, not to think about what read.

We hear a lot of cultural noise at Christmas time, especially around the Nativity stories. I’m going to list some cultural myths most people accept as Biblical fact, but they are not; none of these so-called facts I am about to recite are found in Scripture.

Jesus was born in the midst of winter. A star lit up the sky when the angels appeared. When appearing to the shepherds, angels sing.

A star illuminated the path of the shepherds to the stable. Shepherds were acceptable folks in polite society.

The animals gathered to see the baby. The role the innkeeper played was very pivotal. (So I say this up front an innkeeper is never mentioned.)

Some cultural assumptions we buy into are gender based and gender biased. The shepherds, the Magi, that nonexistent innkeeper were all… men. Says who?

Turning to the Matthew story, there is more cultural noise. The Magi and the shepherds gathered at the same time and same place to see Jesus. The Magi arrived right when Jesus was born, when Jesus was still an infant.

The Magi traveled on camels. The names of the Magi were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. There were three Magi, no more no less, just three. (Slight pause.)

None of that long list I recited is in Scripture. It’s just not there. All of it is just cultural noise, things made up which the culture teaches as truth. Each is unsupportable given what can actually be read in Scripture.

When the cultural noise is taken into account the record in Scripture becomes clear. Matthew and Luke are two very different stories, written at different times, addressed to different audiences. We kind of mush them together. (Slight pause.)

This is from the Gospel known as Matthew: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea during the reign of Herod, astronomers from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born ruler of the Jews? We observed the star of this child at its rising, and have come to pay homage.” (Slight pause.)

Question: Is the birth of the Messiah meant as a message for all people, everywhere? (Slight pause.) One of my favorite Christmas carols is Carol Our Christmas. Not often heard in the Northern hemisphere, it speaks to how Christmas is experienced in New Zealand, where December is in the middle of Summer.

These are some of the lyrics: “Carol our Christmas, an upside down Christmas: / snow is not falling and trees are not bare. / Carol the summer and welcome the Christ Child, / warm in our sunshine and sweetness of air. // Rightside-up Christmas belongs to the universe, / made in the moment a woman gives birth; / Hope is the Jesus gift, love is the offering, / everywhere, anywhere, here on the earth.” (Slight pause.)

I am not immune. I get overwhelmed by cultural noise also. This hymn helps me cleanse some of that since it makes it clear Jesus was born for all of us, not just Northern Hemisphere types. It helps me concentrate on the reality of the Messiah instead of the cultural noise which clutters the landscape at Christmastide.

The most important theological issue raised by the Feast of Christmas is obvious. Who is Jesus?

Indeed, perhaps what we need to consider is that the celebration is important not because of the birth, itself, but because of Who Jesus is. The stories in Matthew and Luke, not the made up cultural myths, answer that question ‘Who is Jesus.”. Jesus is the Messiah.

Specifically, the messianic claim made in Luke is the Messiah will be announced to the poor and to the outcast since as a group shepherds would have been among the poor and the outcast. The messianic claim made in Matthew, because the Magi are not Jewish, is that the Messiah is not only for the Hebrew people but for all humanity.

To be clear, the stories in Luke or in Matthew do have angels and shepherds and Magi. I don’t want to take anything away from that or discount it. These details help the stories come alive.

But are the details the point of the stories? Indeed, the point is not even that a baby is born. The point of these stories is that the Messiah is among us, present to us.

I want to suggest once we try to filter out the culture noise we add on to the Nativity stories we can readily see the very presence of Jesus illuminates the real meaning of the stories— Christ lives. Christ is with us. Because Christ is with us the continuing work of God lives. (Slight pause.)

All that leaves us with an interesting choice. We can choose to simply and only feel warm and fuzzy about the cultural overlays we place on the Nativity Story. Or we can choose to feel warm and fuzzy because Christ is present to us, walks with us, and the work of God is placed in our hands.

Jesus, you see, is a sign given to us that the covenant is real, that the invitation to love God and love neighbor is our calling. Personally, I feel warm and fuzzy about the reality of the Christ and the reality that we are invited to participate in the work to which God calls us. Amen.

South Freeport Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Freeport, Maine

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: “I have nothing against warm and fuzzy. But I also think it’s important to deal in reality. Since only Matthew and Luke have nativity stories, not Mark and John, it seems unlikely the early church was culturally invested in those stories. That Jesus was, that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, Who lives, is the place to which these writings point. That is the place where the early church is invested. And so because Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, walks with us, for me it is clear our call is to pursue the work of the Dominion.”

BENEDICTION: Let us go in joy and in hope in peace and in love and in light, for the one who has made covenant with us is present to us. God reigns. Let us go proclaiming God’s love and God’s light. Amen.

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SERMON ~ 12/26/2021 ~ “Finding Jesus”

12/26/2021 ~ First Sunday after Christmas, i.e.: the First Sunday after the Celebration of the Nativity of Jesus, the Christ ~ 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52 ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE; NOTE: THERE ARE OCCASIONAL ISSUES WITH THE SOUND:

Finding Jesus

“When the festival had ended they started to return. But Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, something Mary and Joseph did not realize.” — Luke 2:43-44.

Jack Scott, my brother in law, lives Downeast, on Deer Isle. That statement of relationship and location in no way describes me as an expert on Maine but it does mean over time I have found out a thing or two about Maine.

Something I suspect anyone familiar with Maine knows is the further Downeast you go the test of who is a real Mainer and who is not becomes more stringent. On Deer Isle it’s said you need to be at least second generation before you are a real Mainer.

On that island they have a way of explaining this stand which has typical Maine dry humor in it. “A cat may have its kittens in an oven. That doesn’t make the kittens biscuits.” I apologize for my downeast accent.

Despite that demanding test, I actually consider Maine my home. So let me tell you about my first encounter with Maine and Downeast.

My best friend, Paul Johnson— full confession: New York City is the place of my birth and Paul lives there— Paul, my best friend, invited me for a week of vacation to family property near Stonington. The property has been in Paul’s family since 1898.

Two years later, having liked that experience, I was back. But this time I encountered Paul’s cousin, one Bonnie Scott who, at that point in time, was a photographer on the Brunswick Times Record. To use a euphuism, we hit it off. We got married a year later.

I don’t know why but Bonnie did not want to move to New York City. That meant if I was to marry Bonnie I needed to move to Brunswick, where she lived. And since I did move to Brunswick— not a small move for someone who thought if the subway did not go there it was too far to travel— if I did move to Brunswick I guess to say we hit it off is an understatement.

We have always insisted that when we met we were not looking for anyone. Why? I was 39 and Bonnie was 38. Bonnie puts it this way: when we found one another we had given up looking. And of this I am fairly certain. When we met we were not looking.

Indeed, we both agree, had we met ten years earlier— which could have happened since ten years earlier I already knew Paul for 5 years— it’s unlikely we would have found one another because our heads were in a very different place. I am also aware that ten years earlier we actually were both looking for someone.

My point is sometimes when you are looking for something you never find what you’re looking for since often you actually don’t know what you are looking for. And yes, when you’re not looking, what you are really looking for, perhaps unconsciously, becomes evident. (Slight pause.)

We find these words in Luke/Acts in the section commonly referred to as Luke: “When the festival had ended they started to return. But Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, something Mary and Joseph did not realize.” (Slight pause.)

As was stated when this reading was introduced, there are apocryphal gospels, works which didn’t make it into the canon. Some contain astonishing stories about the boy Jesus striking down difficult playmates and resurrecting them, bringing them back to life.

In one of those stories the boy Jesus shapes sparrows out of clay and brings them to life. One can readily see why these apocryphal gospels were voted off the island, or at least did not gain entry into the canon called Scripture.

For me a recurring theme throughout all the Gospels and one reflected here is that people try to find Jesus. People seek Jesus, in part because they seek a Messiah.

Here are two examples. First, and I hope this is clear, throughout all the Gospels the disciples seek a Messiah.

Another more specific example: Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin— effectively the city council in Jerusalem— seeks out Jesus but does so by night. It is likely Nicodemus seeks Jesus at night, because he is afraid someone like him, someone who holds such a high station, would be even seen with this revolutionary, this rabble rouser. (Slight pause.)

In the story of the twelve year old Jesus we heard today there is a lot happening and a lot to be reckoned with— everything from the fact that Jesus appears at a young age to be quite learned to the fact that Mary and Joseph are clearly devote Jews. They visit Jerusalem each year at Passover. I think there’s enough for a couple of sermons or at least a couple hours of sermonizing here.

Fear not: I will limit my observations. Indeed, let me concentrate on one way to look at this story. In fact, perhaps one reason this story finds its way into the canon as opposed to the stories which were left out is, in a real sense and to reiterate, people seek a Messiah. And so people seek, identify, Jesus.

I think there is a twofold aspect to this seeking of Jesus. First, Jesus is there. Jesus in not hiding. Jesus is simply there. Since Jesus is there people prod, question Jesus as if to ask, “Are you real?”

Second and as you probably know, people are not expecting the Jesus Who is actually there. In this story the teachers, the Rabbi’s in the Temple, are amazed by Jesus, amazed by the questions asked by Jesus and amazed by the answers offered by Jesus.

They did not expect this from someone so young. In later stories, people largely are expecting a Messiah Who will overthrow, perhaps overthrow violently, the existing civil order, the Roman Empire.

But the Messiah they get is not the Messiah they expect. The Messiah they get is a Messiah Who teaches, a Messiah Who spreads the love of God, a Messiah of peace.

I think sometimes we have the same problem today. The Messiah some of us want is not the Messiah Who is there in the Gospels. So people seek a Jesus Who is not there, a Messiah Who is not there, instead of recognizing the Jesus Who is there, recognizing the Messiah Who is there in the Gospels. (Slight pause.)

I want to suggest the reason we celebrate Christmas is to remind us that Christ is with us— here, now. Our claim as Christians is the presence of Christ is a reality, whether or not we admit it. Is that the Messiah we want? I would also suggest because of that presence, Christ invites us to participate in the work of God, the Dominion of God— here, now.

And what is that work? That work is the work of peace, hope, love, joy. I would add to those four virtues we celebrated in Advent that the work of the Dominion of God includes equity and freedom. So here’s the short version of this message, a message which I find riddled throughout the Gospel stories.

Relax: we do not need to seek Jesus. Jesus is with us; Jesus walks with us here, now and invites us to do the work of the Dominion. That is, I think, the message of Christmas. Amen.

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 Response and Benediction. And this is a précis of what was said: “There is a cartoon you can find on the internet. It’s a picture of a woman has opened her house door and two men stand there. They are on a proselytizing mission since what they say is, “We are here to ask if you’ve found Jesus yet.” But also in the picture is another figure, clearly meant to be Jesus, hiding behind some window curtains. It seems not only has this woman found Jesus, she is hiding Jesus. That is also something we should not do: hide Jesus. We need to share the love, peace, hope, joy, equity, freedom of God we find in Jesus.”

BENEDICTION: Go now, go in safety, for you cannot go where God is not. Go now, go in love, for love alone endures. Go now, go with purpose, and God will honor your dedication. And go now, go in peace, for it is a gift of God to those whose hearts and minds are in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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SERMON ~ 12/24/2021 ~ “God Whispers”

READINGS:12/24/2021 ~ 12/25/2021 ~ Nativity of the Christ – Proper I ~ Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14, (15-20) ~ Proper II ~ Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20 ~ Proper III ~ Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14 ~ VIDEO OF THE COMPLETE 7:00 p.m. SERVICE:; VIDEO OF THE COMPLETE 9:00 p.m. SERVICE:

God Whispers

“Mary treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart.” — Luke 2:19.

The journey from Nazareth had been long and hard. The trip took about eight days. The two of them and a pack animal had traveled over the hills and winding roads of Roman Palestine. Mostly they walked.

Mary was pregnant so occasionally— when fatigue or simply when surges of pain happened— walking was out of the question. But they could not stop. They needed to get to the City of David by a certain date to register, to be in compliance.

And so at those times when Mary needed to ride, her husband found a good sized bolder on the side of the road, helped her up and nudged the mule— for reasons beyond him this was an incredibly patient beast— nudged the mule next to the stone. Using a rock as a platform Mary would then carefully climb on the animal’s back.

As they traveled, there seemed to be noise along the road— a lot of it. They had not expected much company on the journey. They were wrong. Roman soldiers, both marching and riding in chariots, were also navigating these treacherous paths.

If the soldiers did not actually have the right of way, they took it. They were, after all, an occupying army.

And so commanders barked orders, chariots creaked, hooves pounded, soldiers cursed, horses snorted, pack animals brayed constantly. These all made noise, a lot of it.

Then there were the people, hundreds of them, people with families, people in wagons, people riding, people walking, people making noise who, like Mary and Joseph, were headed to Bethlehem. Why were there so many?

The decree from the Roman Emperor declared everyone had to return to the place, the town, from which they claimed lineage. Joseph was a descendant of the house, the lineage of David. David was, of course, the great ruler of Israel, the one whose linage the prophets predicted the Messiah would be born.

Joseph had a suspicion as to why so many people were going to Bethlehem. They wanted to claim they were of David’s lineage so they were making the trip. Claim was the key word.

People wanted to claim a relationship with David. But were all these people really of David’s lineage? It seemed unlikely.

However, once that relationship to David was registered with the Roman government, who would question it? Having that credential made the claim real even if it was not.

Yes, the road was crowded. And when Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem they discovered the town was packed. There was no place for them to stay.

And so by chance and by necessity they wound up in a stable, a barn. And that was noisy. There were all kinds of animal noises… and smells, all kinds of animal smells; it was… uncomfortable. Joseph gathered hay in a pile to make a place for Mary to lay down.

Just when she had settled into the hay her time arrived. Now it was she who made noise. And it was loud. She was loud. But the labor was short.

It was then the turn of the infant to make noise. This was her firstborn. She had not realized how loud a child could be. The noise hurt her ears. But this was her child. So she loved the noise.

Nearly right away there was even more noise— shepherds, boys— all very young— excited as only young boys can be, burst into the barn. She did not understand what they were talking about.

They said things about the glory of God and angels and good news and they went on and on and on. They shouted, they pointed to the sky and they pointed at the child. It did not make any sense. And then they ran away as quickly as they had come. (Slight pause.)

So finally, it was just Mary and her husband and the child alone in the barn. Joseph offered a knowing smile and sat next to Mary and the infant. At least her husband was not noisy, she thought. He was, most of the time, taciturn.

Just as quickly as Joseph sat, he stood. “We are both hungry. I should go talk to that innkeeper. Probably I can get some food.”

Mary smiled, nodded ascent and he was gone. Mary sighed and held the child next to her breast. The child stopped crying. In a short time she could feel the steady tempo of slumber, the warmth of breath against her skin.

She suddenly realized noise had been a constant companion for her for days. But now there was no noise. It was strangely quiet.

The quiet surrounded her, enfolded her, embraced her. She felt warmed by it, comforted by it, blessed by it.

The silence gave her time to think. She reflected on the events of the last months, the tumult, the excitement. Of course, there was that… vision. Then there was the trip to see Elizabeth, the betrothal to Joseph, the pregnancy, the hard journey to Bethlehem.

As was her habit, she tried to understand the place to which God might be calling her. Perhaps because of that vision, the one she experienced, she had recently spoken with her Rabbi and asked what the voice of God might sound like.

“The voice of God has nothing to do with noise,” said the Rabbi. “We humans seem to like chaos. We seem to like noise. Noise is what humans make, not God.”

“The prophet Elijah,” he continued, “stood on a mountain before God. God was not in the earthquake, the wind, the fire. God was in sheer silence.” (Slight pause.)

Mary lifted the cover under which she and the child rested and looked down. The child opened its eyes and looked at her. (Slight pause.)

Mary heard the voice of God. The voice of God was not loud. The voice of God spoke softly, gently, quietly… in a whisper.

Mary heard the voice of God whisper in the eyes of a child. One word was spoken softly, gently, quietly… in a whisper— love— love. (Slight pause.)

Mary pondered this in her heart, wondered what it meant that the voice of God could be heard in eyes of a child. She wondered what it meant— that the voice of God said only one word: love. Amen.

12/24/2021 ~ Christmas Eve
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: “We live in a very secular world. Hence, when possible I try to avoid wishing people a ‘Merry Christmas.’ That is a secular term. You see, at Eastertide when possible I try to avoid wishing people ‘Happy Easter’ and instead I say ‘Christ is Risen.’ And so, at Christmastide, if somebody says ‘Merry Christmas,’ I say ‘Christ is with us.’ And that is the real Christian sentiment expressed in and by the Feast of the Incarnation— Christ is with us.”

BENEDICTION: The sun shall no longer be / your light by day, / nor for brightness shall the moon / give you light by night; / for Yahweh, God, / will be your everlasting light, / and your glory. — Isaiah 60:19-20a.

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SERMON ~ 12/12/2021 ~ “Bible Study?”

READINGS: 12/12/2021 ~ Third Sunday of Advent ~ Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18 ~ The Sunday on Which the Christian Virtue of Love Is Celebrated ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE:

Bible Study?

“Do not worry about anything; dismiss all anxiety from your minds;…” — Philippians 4:6a.

I want to start my comments today with a poem by Mary Oliver. The tile is Thirst.

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh God,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour
and the bell; grant me, in your mercy,
a little more time. Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart. Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.

(Pause.) When I lead a Bible Study I try to let people know that when I, myself, personally study Scripture, I work with a specific premise. I think the premise is simple to explain and hard to do.

First, the simple explanation, the premise: we need to strive to understand what the passage or work meant to those who wrote it and what it meant to those who first read it. In short, what was the writer was trying to convey to the reader in those times?

Therefore addressing what is hard to do, in addition to the obvious, the content, there are many things we should try to understand. Among them are the political, religious, and economic systems, the context of the literature being explored. How did all those things work in those times?

Also of course, the Bible was written between roughly three thousand and two thousand years ago in ancient languages. Ancient Hebrew and Ancient Greek are not the same as their modern counterparts. Dissecting, parsing, analyzing all that is a tall order.

How tall is it? At best it’s a stretch to say we can even partially comprehend any of these in the context of the times in which Scripture was composed. We can’t.

Of course, popular culture insists it’s possible to understand Scripture by simply reading words we see only in translation as if all we have to do is read it and we’ll get it. You’ve heard me say this before. Popular culture is wrong— just plain wrong.

Given that, people sometimes ask the obvious next question. ‘Joe, if that’s true, that comprehension of Scripture is not in our wheelhouse, why should we bother to study Scripture at all.’ My take: that’s exactly why we should study Scripture. That’s exactly why we need to study— not just read Scripture but study Scripture.

To do otherwise is to treat Scripture like it’s a Genie in a magic lamp— rub the book, get your wish. Study is the place we need to start if we want to begin to understand Scripture. I think I’ve also said this here before: I do not take Scripture literally. I take Scripture seriously. (Slight pause.)

So let’s come back to the words we heard from Philippians. “Do not worry about anything; dismiss all anxiety from your minds;…” What is it these words can say to us when we explore the aforementioned context? (Slight pause.)

I hope this is obvious: these words sound very much like a series of exhortations, perhaps simply a blessing since we are not reading them in their historical context. As was stated when the reading was introduced, without context these exhortations might imply an unrealistic attitude toward life, a Pollyanna religion that ignores harsh tragedies and calls for a stoic like serenity.

So, what is the context? Philippians is written while Paul is in prison. Further, in this letter, Paul is addressing a rift in the church at Philippi.

More context— we have a poor understanding of the churches to which Paul writes. Perhaps we compare them to a modern idea of church or a gathering of a town. But it’s unlikely any of the churches to whom Paul writes are larger than about 50 people. So since Paul is addressing a rift here, this rift amounts to a family argument.

The last bit of context I need to address is a vital piece of information in a verse before the ones heard today. For some reason the lectionary lopped them off. Hence and obviously, studying a specific passage can mean looking beyond several words or verses in front of us.

So, in that earlier verse Paul addresses two women, Euodia (u-o-di-a) and Syntyche (syn-thi-chi). Why is this important context?

If we know anything about how women were treated in this era we know they are not treated as equals but as chattel, propriety. But Paul calls these women co-workers and says their names are recorded in the book of life because of their work.

I probably do not even need to point out what this indicates but I will. This speaks to how different, radical, liberal the Christian movement is in this era.

And that swings us back to the several verses we heard today. Given all that context, these exhortations are, this blessing is, in a real sense, out of place.

Why? This era, commonly referred to Pax Romana, in which Rome rules, is neither radical nor liberal. So to offer these exhortations, this blessing, in this place, at this time of the Roman Empire, at this time when Paul is imprisoned by the Roman Empire, at this time when there is a family feud at the church in Philippi, is both radical and liberal.

That brings me to a pivotal question. What does Scripture, what does the Bible as a whole describe? This is my answer. Scripture describes the story of the presence of God, the reality of God, in the life of the people of God.

Put another way, all of Scripture constantly describes the feelings of the people of God about God because they have encountered God. And having encountered God, these feelings get written down.

And that is one basic reason Paul offers these exhortations, this blessing and it’s appropriate. These are feelings experienced and feelings expressed having encountered God. (Slight pause.)

Why does Scripture need to be studied? Scripture needs to be studied to help us understand what our experience, our story of the presence of God might be, what the reality of God in our life might be.

I think studying Scripture helps us to identify where God is working among us. Once we do perhaps we might also offer exhortations, blessings. (Pause.)

This poem is Thirst by Mary Oliver.

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh God,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour
and the bell; grant me, in your mercy,
a little more time. Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart. Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.

(Pause.) Amen.

South Freeport Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, South Freeport, Maine

ENDPIECE: “This is a quote from the late author Rachel Held Evans: ‘When we say all people must say the same words or subscribe to the same creeds in order to experience God, we underestimate the scope and strength of God’s activity in the world.’ Scripture records emotions being expressed because of an experience of God. Perhaps as we study Scripture we can be encouraged to explore our emotions about our experience of God.”

BENEDICTION: Let us share our gifts, our hopes, our memories, our pain and our joy. Go in peace for God is with us. Go in joy for God knows every fiber of our being. Go in hope for God reveals to us, daily, that we are a part of God’s new creation. Go in love, for we rest assured, by Christ, Jesus, that the love of God is steadfast. Amen.

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SERMON ~ 12/05/2021 ~ “Outside the Box?”

READINGS: 12/05/2021 ~ Second Sunday of Advent ~ The Sunday on Which the Christian Virtue of Peace Is Celebrated ~ Baruch 5:1-9 or Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6 ~ Communion Sunday ~ VIDEO OF THE FULL SERVICE – NOTE THERE ARE OCCASIONAL SOUND ISSUES:

Outside the Box?

“John went through the entire region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins;…” — Luke 3:3

Most of you know I am technically retired. After serving as an Associate Pastor in Waldo County at a five church cooperative— I know, that sounds very Methodist, a five church cooperative— I spent 23 years in the New York Conference. Then I moved back to Maine. Next, the pandemic hit. I had expected to supply preach some but things shut down.

Before I was in Waldo County, while I was still in Seminary, I did supply preach. In 2 years, 104 weeks, I preached 47 times— just short of half of the possible Sundays.

I recite this history to explain that, since I became a preacher, I have not heard a lot of other pastors preach. When you’re preaching you’re not hearing the other pastors.

Once I did hear a sermon offered by a good friend. The essence of the sermon illustration used was that some people think inside the box; some people think outside the box. The recommendation made was for churches to strive to think outside the box, something we’ve probably all learned a lot about since March of last year.

Later I said to my friend, “You’ve fully explained my life situation with one sermon. Some people think inside the box; others think outside the box. My take is, ‘Box? There’s a box? Why was I not told?’” (Slight pause.)

I need to be clear. Thinking either inside or outside the box can be useful, wanted, warranted at times. And I may present an image which says inside the box— male, older, Caucasian. Please don’t be fooled. I’m a theater person.

For theater people, outside the box is a given. We know about what outside the box is about— stretching. Can it be risky? Yes. However, I doubt that growth ever really happens without some stretching, without some risk taking. (Slight pause.)

And this is what we hear in Luke. “John went through the entire region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins;…” (Slight pause.)

With all those not easy to pronounce names in this reading— and Mr. Rose did a good job with that— with all those not easy to pronounce names in this reading what’s this writer doing? Offering historical context and it’s not the first time.

This is the more famous passage which gives historical context: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Slight pause.)

It is often said Luke was written for, to and about the poor, the outcast. The story of shepherds is not meant to depict a peaceful, pastoral scene. Shepherding was a hardscrabble, marginal, risky way of life, with nothing attractive or peaceful about it. Indeed, shepherds were considered the lowest of the low, outcast.

So, in these passages with historical context this writer is drawing a contrast. How? By telling us who was in charge in the world, who did and who did not have a hardscrabble, marginal, risky existence.

And who appears in this context? First the shepherds who are outcast. Then the Baptist, who shouts on Jordan’s shore, the one about whom it can readily be said, ‘this one is an outcast from respectable society and someone who does not care about boxes.’

John, however, can and does tell us about what a relationship with God looks like. And a relationship with God is about God Who clearly wants to be in relationship with humanity— with everyone— with those not in charge and with those in charge.

Why is it clear God wants to be in relationship with all humanity? John claims God starts this relationship with forgiveness. We are forgiven before we do anything. Further, we do not have to do anything to be forgiven. We have been offered this because of unconditional love.

Put another way, God starts with a premise: we are trusted. We are trusted with each other’s being, trusted to love one another, trusted to be stewards of God’s world.

John also says we are invited to repentance. Repentance is not about remorse, about feeling sorry. Repentance is when we turn around, turn away from where we humans are aimed and turn and aim toward God. Repentance is when we strive to walk in the ways of God, live life filled with hope, with peace, with love, with joy.

So, when we hear this proclamation about repentance and forgiveness these are not what popular culture says they are about— remorse, sorrow, mercy. And that brings me back to the juxtaposition the writer of Luke presents to us in laying out context.

Luke asks who is in charge of society? Who runs the world? Luke then holds up the power brokers and contrasts that reality with those who are outcast. (Slight pause.)

I think this is a given. Those who are in control— or rather those who think they are in control— are generally quite comfortable inside the box.

Indeed, those in control tend to use bywords. We’ve all heard them. Don’t upset the apple cart. Don’t make waves— inside the box thinking. (Slight pause.)

What is outside the box thinking? Everyone counts. All people are included. Go ahead— eat apples off the cart. Let’s splash some water— waves can be fun.

So yes, doing what’s new, what’s different, working outside the box, means taking risks. And my experience says the only way to fail is to refuse to take risks.

And what’s my experience? You remember I mentioned that five church cooperative? These were poor churches in a very rural area, five towns spread across 40 miles.

But they thought outside the box, took a risk. Each church had its own budget. Then together they formed a separate budget and unifying in that way, despite the distance, they had the where-with-all to hire two pastors— thinking outside the box.

This is also to say the preaching of the Baptizer is not about any kind of ethereal, pie in the sky stuff. Turning toward God needs to be real, practical, substantive and risky.

Perhaps that’s why so many have a hard time with repentance, turning toward God. How much of a hard time? People turn it into something it is not, remorse, feeling sorry.

And what happens with that ‘we are all forgiven’ stuff? People are not comfortable with free gifts. What do you mean we don’t owe God something for this gift? No, we don’t. (Slight pause.)

So, this is the Sunday of Advent when we celebrate peace. Biblical peace is not the absence of conflict. Biblical peace— the peace of God— refers to the real presence of God. Biblical peace says God is with us even when there is conflict, even in the midst of violence.

And yes, that is what Christmas is really about: the real presence of God. The birth of the Christ send this message: God is with us, God walks with us. Indeed, this idea that God is with us often makes people really, really uncomfortable.

Why do I say that? Do me a favor. Go shopping at this time of year and you see displays of trees, ornaments, electronics, cookware— you name it— and signs which say ‘Merry Christmas,’ ‘Happy Holidays.’ But let me know if you see any signs which say, “God is with us.” (Slight pause.)

So, let us celebrate Advent with hope, peace, love and joy. Hope, peace, love and joy can be found when we realize the real risk we take in our life is to ignore God is with us, God is present to us. Of course, that God is with us and present to us is the message of the Baptizer. It is the message of Advent. It is the message of… Christmas. God… is… with… us. Amen.

Congregational Church of South Freeport, 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: “Secular culture makes every effort it can to take over the church culture. After all, secular culture turns the birth of the Messiah, the in-breaking of God, into a buying spree while at the same time claiming there is a war on Christmas. Whose staffing the war? The sellers? The buyers? After all, when we the last time you heard somebody wish you a blessed Advent filled with all the hope, peace, love, joy because God is present to us? Clearly there is no war on Christmas. There is a war on Advent.”

BENEDICTION: Let us be present to one another as we go from this place. Let us share our gifts, our hopes, our memories, our pain and our joy. Let us go in joy for God knows every fiber of our being. Let us go in hope for God reveals to us, daily, that we are a part of God’s new creation. Let us go in love, for we rest assured, by Christ, Jesus, that the love of God is steadfast. Let us go in peace for God is with us. Amen.

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SERMON~ 11/28/2021 ~ “Justice and Integrity”

READINGS: 11/28/2021 ~ First Sunday of Advent ~ The Sunday on Which the Christian Virtue of Hope Is Celebrated ~ First Sunday in Year ‘C’ of the Three Year Lectionary Cycle ~ Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36 ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE:

Justice and Integrity

“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous branch, a branch who maintains a right relationship with Me, to be raised up from the line of David who shall bring justice and integrity to the land.” — Jeremiah 33:15.

When the reading from Jeremiah was introduced this was said. “Prophets sometimes get a bad name for they are too often remembered for their condemnations rather than their word of hope.”

In our society many think a prophet is someone who predicts the future. Foretelling future events was not and never was the job of the Prophets in Scripture. The job of a prophet is to speak the Word of God, the truth of God.

That having been said, my bet is most of us have had some experience of foretelling, predicting— premonitions. I’ve had my share. Let me mention just one.

In August of 1964 I was headed into my senior year of High School. On August 4th I was watching as President Johnson made an emergency address to the nation.

The President said a Navy destroyer had been attacked by North Vietnamese PT boats. He asked Congress to give the executive the ability to respond without a declaration of war. As I watched I had one reaction.

This is where not prophecy but premonition kicked in. I was suddenly aware something half way around the world would affect me. Indeed, several days later Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

Sure enough, at age 19 I got my draft notice. At 20 I shipped out to Saigon. Now, when I was 20 and 21 a lot happened while I was overseas. Much of what happened made it seem there was little hope left in the world.

Aside from the reality of Vietnam, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated. There was a revolution in Czechoslovakia but it was squashed. Johnson decided to not run for President and there were riots at a national political convention.

On the other side of that coin, American Astronauts landed on the moon, the Beatles released the White Album, the Who released Tommy. The Jets won the Super Bowl. The previously hapless Mets won the World Series. But that other side of the coin is more about fun than it is about hope. We often confuse the two— fun and hope. (Slight pause.)

This is found in the Scroll of the Prophet Jeremiah: “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous branch, a branch who maintains a right relationship with Me, to be raised up from the line of David who shall bring justice and integrity to the land.”

Most people would describe my sense of humor as verbal but it sometimes extends to the visual, the physical. 3 years before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, my first day of High School— I was 13— my mother walked me to the front door of the house. With a tear in her eye she gave me a tight hug and wished me luck. I could not resist.

I walked out the door, did a pratfall down the short stoop and landed on my butt. Mom screamed. I looked up at her and said, “You’ve got to watch out. The world is a dangerous place!” I don’t think she ever forgave me for that one.

Despite making that statement in a humorous way I was, of course, right. The world is a dangerous place. How dangerous?

Ask Jeremiah. Again, when this reading was introduced it was said the prophet speaks a word of hope to the people of Israel who seem to be in a hopeless situation, under siege from the armies of Babylon. The world is dangerous. And because of that we sometimes fail to hope. (Slight pause.)

I have a friend, his name is Jack, who is the Executive Director of a non-profit which addresses issues of poverty. A question folks constantly ask Jack and with which people wrestle is ‘can anyone escape poverty or is the situation hopeless?’

When asked this Jack says things are not hopeless and that is what drives his organization. He employs a 2 ‘E’ approach, he insists— two “Es”— education and engagement.

In today’s world education is a necessity. But he says engagement is the real key and needs to be an integral and integrated part of education. People need to be engaged with one another in many ways, on many levels, in order to achieve any results.

And yes, engagement is a two way street. But I want to suggest those who profess to practice what Jeremiah calls (quote:) “justice and integrity,” are practicing the flow of that engagement, that two way street, a street which is and must be open no matter what happens, no matter what another party does, no matter how another party behaves.

You see, justice— God’s justice— is not a result. It’s not something you point to and say this is what it is. Therefore you practice it, you do it, no matter what the circumstances are, no matter what happens.

Hence justice can never stand alone. Justice is also about integrity. And integrity is about the wholeness possible through living into and living in a full sense of what the community of God entails. What’s that? Equity for all people. (Slight pause.)

That brings me back to my pratfall and the observation of a 13 year old. Yes, the world is a dangerous place.

But should we fear the world? Should we fear danger? It’s clear a lot of people today from prelates to pundits to politicians want us to be afraid. So should we hide our heads in the sand because the world is a dangerous place or do nothing because we are afraid?

There is another possibility. It is the one I think Jeremiah’s words of hope recommend. We should accept the challenge with which danger presents us and boldly confront this dangerous world. (Slight pause.)

I believe the words of Jeremiah are about hope because they are an invitation from God to us. They are an invitation to consistently, with integrity, confront a dangerous world. These words are an invitation to practice justice— God’s justice.

And justice never happens in isolation. Justice happens in community. God’s justice is, you see, not about my justice. God’s justice is not about your justice.

God’s justice is about our justice, communal justice. And God’s community includes all people. If you exclude someone what you are saying is that individual is not human, is not a child of God. (Slight pause.)

That leads me to this question. Why is this reading assigned on the First Sunday of Advent, the Sunday on which the Christian virtue of hope is celebrated? (Slight pause.)

For me the answer is obvious. The birth of the Messiah is about hope. The birth of the Messiah is about confronting the world with action, with hope as did the Messiah.

And yes, the birth of the Messiah is about the hope of God. This hope of God to which we are invited insists the Dominion of God will be seen when we act with one another to confront the reality of tribalism which tries to counter justice in this dangerous world.

This hope of God to which we are invited insists we need to maintain justice with integrity. Integrity insists on constant action, insists on constantly working toward the justice of God. And so, here again we are faced with a question.

Are we willing to work with integrity toward God’s justice in this world, God’s world, and be filled with hope in so doing no matter what happens? I know. Being hopeful no matter what happens— that’s hard. Can we do it? Your call. 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: “We had a Baptism today. And yes, it’s kind of easy to say baptizing a child gives us hope. But hope will become real if and when we engage that child, any child, any other person and seek to know them, to mentor them, to encourage them, to love them no matter what the trails or the circumstance or the difficult times are, times which we will inevitably face.”

BENEDICTION: Let us go in joy and in love and in peace, for our hope is in the one who has made covenant with us. God reigns. Let us go in God’s peace. And may the face of God shine upon us; may the peace of Christ rule among us; may the fire of the Spirit burn within us this day and forevermore. Amen.

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SERMON ~ 11/14/2021 ~ “Community”

READINGS:11/14/2021 ~ Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost ~ (Proper 28) ~ 1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25; Mark 13:1-8 ~ Stewardship Sunday ~ Video of the Full Service:


“…let us always think about how we can help one another to love and to do good deeds. Do not stay away from the meetings of the community, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another;….” — Hebrews 10:24-25.

I want to share a family story but it’s a story which ties into American sociological/economic history. I know— big concept; I’m sorry. The story has to do with the family of my wife, Bonnie Scott Connolly.

The family has owned property in Maine since 1898 but Bonnie was born in Philadelphia. When she was young her parents moved to Westport, Connecticut.

So she came to maturity, went to Grade and High School there. Now, in the 50s and 60s, the era of her youth, Bonnie describes Westport as a normal town.

Bonnie and I have a running disagreement about that. Me— the kid from Brooklyn, and that’s not Brooklin, Maine, that’s Brooklyn, New York— I say in that era the town of Westport was at least somewhat privileged. It was a suburb. From my perspective, suburbs meant privilege.

However, Bonnie is right. The town was normal, at least the way we used to describe that. This gets into sociological/economic history. In the mid-50s a typical CEO made about 20 times the salary of an average worker at the same firm. Last year, CEO pay at a Standard and Poor’s 500 firm averaged 299 times more than the average worker at the same company.

When that spread was smaller I think it meant a closer community or it least seems like a closer community was more of a possibility. But Westport, Connecticut has become an enclave for CEOs and celebrities, largely cut off from what most people call normal.

Well, Westport is still Bonnie’s hometown, her community. Just like I still keep track of news of the theater scene, my community— also not a particularly normal community— Bonnie keeps track of news from Westport and regularly checks a Westport blog, even though she never went back after she left for college in 19 (mumbled). Bonnie asked me to do that.

A while back that blog posted this local news. “Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, had to cancel an appearance at the Anti-Defamation League fund-raiser here. But the replacement is Whoopi Goldberg.”

Westport… is no longer normal— Trevor Noah, Whoopi Goldberg— big trade. But that’s not that point. That post from the Westport blog got re-posted on a site not particularly friendly to people of color and linked back to the Westport blog.

What happened? Hate comments started to flood that Westport page. The person who runs the blog, a contemporary of Bonnie’s, said the comments were vile, racist. He disabled commenting on the story, took down the worst ones but left others up. He wanted readers to see what’s out there beyond the Westport bubble. (Slight pause.)

This is clear: the writer of Hebrews refers to community as if it were a place. And community can mean a place since local communities often self-identify in that way.

Groups meet at clubhouses, restaurants, designated rooms. I once regularly met with a Bible Study group in a room just off the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. An odd location? Yes. But we identified as a community in a location.

Of course, communities also meet in churches, synagogues, mosques, ashrams. The bottom line: the community label can be applied to nearly any small group no matter where they meet, especially groups who meet for guidance, for study, for mutual support.

But is that what the writer of Hebrews is trying to highlight, just the local community? My answer is yes and no. I think we have to pay attention to a number of things in an effort to define community as it is laid out here.

To do that let me throw out two fancy words, $64 words to use the old term: orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Orthodoxy is defined by accepted creeds. And laying out Orthodoxy is what this writer is doing in telling us who Jesus is, linking Jesus to Jewish history and practice. [1]

Please note the explanation quotes Jeremiah. (Quote:) “This is the covenant / I will make with them….” Covenant— the Hebrews live by the concept of covenant and here Jesus is tied to covenant. That’s identification through orthodoxy.

And where does the writer take us next? We are taken to a community, a place where people meet people. (Quote:) “…let us always think about how we can help one another to love and to do good deeds. Do not stay away from the meetings of the community, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another;….”

This is where that other word— orthopraxy— orthopraxy concerns practice comes into play. And yes, a community relies on practice, on action, on participation. No participation, no action, no practice equals… no community. Participation, action, practice— all necessary.

So, orthodoxy— belief— needs to be worked out in orthopraxy— action. What we say we believe is merely that, what we say. Unless there is consequential action which focuses on, fosters and encourages community… words are simply words.

I need to be clear about this. Orthodoxy, what we believe, and orthopraxy, what we do, are and need to be intertwined, inseparable. Put another way, God is faithful. If we approach the house of God filled with faith and sincerity in our hearts— orthodoxy— what needs to be the result?

We need to (quote:) “…think about how we can help one another to love and to do good deeds.” That is action. Orthodoxy, belief, leads to orthopraxy, action. And not just action— action together, action in community. (Slight pause.)

This takes us to a pivotal question. I kind of hit on it in the children’s time. [2] What is community? Is community simply a group that meets in a church, synagogue, mosque, ashram or near the floor of the Stock Exchange? Or is community something different, something more? (Slight pause.)

That presents the issue I addressed earlier. I think communities often act as a protective bubble. That’s what the writer of the Westport blog was pointing out. I say community cannot isolate itself in a bubble and be a real, a valid community. Why?

If in our practice we are called to help one another to love and do good deeds, if in our belief we are bound in covenant, then the community is where we gather for guidance, for study, for support. And you kind of heard Vicky say that earlier. [3] But that same community, if it is true to loving and true to doing good, also points outward to other communities, points to never being isolated.

So indeed, community is larger than small groups, larger than us, here today. And yes, community is built by helping one another to love, to do good deeds. A community invites people to be a part of that local community. But next, if what that local community shares among its own members is helpful, why not spread the word and spread the help?

I think when a community helps one another to love and does good deeds that practice needs to go out from the group. The local community then recognizes, becomes involved with other people, involved with other communities. (Slight pause.)

This is Stewardship Sunday. You heard that, didn’t you? Last week I said my comments then were part 1 of stewardship and this week is part 2. What is part 2?

Stewardship is not about money. Vicky also said that. Stewardship is about community, about helping one another to love and to do good deeds. And community is the local place our beliefs first need to meld with our practice.

And, if our practice is to help one another to love and to do good deeds, where should this practice of mutual support lead? It should lead to stewardship which supports what we do here. And since community should not be a bubble, our stewardship also supports what we do to help others outside this community. Stewardship— it’s about community; it’s a result of community. Amen.

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: “Two things, the first one a little theological the second one not so much: it is said the Hebrews did not have a theology. Rather, the Hebrews did theology. Western Christians are susceptible to thinking having a theology is enough— simply think right thoughts and I don’t have to worry about anything else. Clearly the writer of Hebrews did not think having a theology was enough. Doing theology— building community is vital. Second, my friend, the composer Tom Rasely with whom I have written a number of works for the church, says this: remember, at the end of the word community what we have is the word unity— think about it.”

BENEDICTION: Go forth in faith. Go forth trusting that God will provide. Go forth and reach out to everyone you meet in the name of Christ. And may the face of God shine upon us; may the peace of Christ rule among us; may the fire of the Spirit burn within us this day and forevermore. Amen.

[1] This is what was said for the introduction to the reading:
To our Twenty-first Century ears this reading may sound a little strange perhaps because, as the name of Letter to the Hebrews might suggest, this work is clearly a message to the Jewish population in the First Century and addresses First Century Jewish practice. The passage even directly quotes the Prophet Jeremiah. However, I think for us and our Twenty-first Century ears these words could be reduced to a paid of questions: ‘Who is Jesus?’ and ‘what is our response to our own answer?’ Therefore, that presents us with two other questions. How did Christians in the First Century respond and how do we respond to that initial question? Hear now this reading from the work known as the Letter to the Hebrews.

[2] In the Children’s Time (A.K.A. A Time for All Ages) the pastor asked about what it meant to belong to a club and said the first club to which one belongs is family. Then a comparison was made between the church and a club. The pastor asked people to raise their hands if they had been members 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, 50 years. The it was said these folks were voting members. Anyone who is present is a member.

[3] Victoria Devlin, Stewardship Chair, addressed the topic this way:
Ten years ago this month, the day before Thanksgiving to be exact, my husband Stuart Jones died very suddenly. To say that our family was devastated is an understatement.

We moved by instinct and planned the service, but it was Peter Foss, Denis, David and our admin, along with SueAnn, head deacon at the time, and the late Peter Gerquest who arranged for the ushers, who got us through our public good-bye.

We got through the holidays and then, I felt very alone. I hadn’t realized what a community of love South Freeport Church is and that the community was watching. There were casseroles, but there were also invitations to dinners, to movies, to take a walk. There were visits and there were hugs at coffee hour with the question: “How are you doing? What can we do for you?”

I suddenly realized that I could never leave this Church and had to give back as much as I could. And this is why I give time, talent and treasure to the Church.

South Freeport Church is a community of people making loving connections, because we know that we are people of the loving God. We are the church.

It would be wonderful if connections alone supported the church, but they don’t. We need to provide salaries for our minister (now Rev. Joe) and the amazing staff that brings its talents to us every day. We need to support our building, pay the utilities, and keep the lights on.

We also need to carry the love and connect to the community through Mission work, help educate our children, and comfort the elderly.

So, stewardship is not about money. It is about keeping those connections strong. It’s about maintaining our community of love.

This is why I give. Please join me.

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SERMON ~ November 7, 2021 ~ “Charity”

November 7, 2021 ~ Proper 27 ~ Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost ~ Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Psalm 127; 1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44 ~ Communion Sunday.


“For all of them have contributed out of their surplus; but in her poverty, she has put in everything she possessed from the little she had— all she had to live on.” — Mark 12:44 [1]

Let’s try an experiment. I am going to intone the first five words of a very well known song. When I stop, I’ll ask that softly with your masks on you sing the next four words and only the next four words Ready? O.K.

“Oh, give me a home…. (the pastor holds out his hands and the congregation responds) …where the buffalo roam….”

That’s it! “Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam.” There is only one problem with those words. You probably know this. There are not and there never has been buffalo on the North American Continent.

Several kinds of buffalo inhabit Asia, Africa, Europe. But there are none here. What this song and popular culture refers to as buffalo are bison.

Bison are relatives of buffalo, but they are not buffalo. To be clear, popular culture often calls bison buffalo. And popular culture is… wrong… just plain wrong.

Let’s try one more song, and again please sing softly with masks on. Do any of you remember this Tennessee Ernie Ford song: “Have faith, hope and charity / That’s the way to live successfully / How do I know,…” (“…the Bible tells me so.”)

Except there’s a problem with this song also. That’s not what the Bible says. Popular culture may say it. The Bible does not say it.

Well Joe, you might say, does not a passage in First Corinthians say this: “And now abide faith, hope, charity”? The answer is, “Not really.”

Now, to explain why the answer is ‘not really,’ I need to address how the Bible has been translated over the last 2,000 years. You probably know the original languages of the Bible are mostly Hebrew and Greek. But the version of the Bible used for about the first 500 years in the church was entirely in Greek.

By the late Fourth Century of the Common Era that presented a problem. Most people, even learned ones, did not know or read Greek. The language of the Roman Empire was Latin.

Saint Jerome, who lived from the mid-Fourth Century to the Early Fifth Century is said to have translated the entire Bible from Greek into Latin. Amazingly, this translation was the basis of the Bible used in the Roman Church for about 1,5000 years.

Jerome’s translation is commonly known as the Vulgate because the style of Latin Jerome used was not the classical Latin of Cicero and Horace. It was the language of common people and, hence, seemed like a vulgar dialect, at least to the elite. Therefore this translation became known as the Vulgate Bible.

Well, fast forward 1,100 years. The Bible gets a new translation. (Rumor to the contrary, the Bible is constantly getting new translations but that’s a longer story.) This translation is the King James Bible.

The translators did consult other versions, including the much revered Vulgate. And the King James translates 1 Corinthians 13 this way: “And now abide faith, hope, charity” because the Latin word is charitas.

But they were wrong. Charitas does not mean charity. Charitas means love and not just any kind of love. Charitas very specifically means love of God. (Slight pause.)

Remember I said earlier popular culture is sometimes wrong? Well, sometimes translators of the Bible are also wrong.

But then on top of that sometimes popular culture makes things worse by perpetuating misconceptions, as did that Tennessee Ernie Ford song. It is not faith, hope and charity. It’s faith, hope and not just love but love of God. (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work known as Mark: “For all of them have contributed out of their surplus; but in her poverty, she has put in everything she possessed from the little she had— all she had to live on.” (Slight pause.)

If we read this passage and then think about of how much money the wealthy people give to the temple and think about how much the poor widow gives to the temple we are reducing the passage to a comparison about monetary value. I maintain this passage is not about how much or how little people give. This passage is not about anything which can be counted, especially money.

You see, as was suggested when the reading was introduced, this widow is not just poor. Poor is too kind a word. This widow is destitute.

Hence, I maintain the amount being given is not the issue being raised. And if the amount is not central, we then need to ask, ‘what is it this widow is really giving?’ (Slight pause.)

I think the widow is giving her heart to God. She is giving not just everything she has. She is giving everything she is. She is giving her entire being to God.

To reiterate, this story is not about an amount of money, about how much or how little is being given. In short, what the widow gives cannot be quantified. So this story is not a lesson about charity. That’s the way popular culture might have it. And popular culture would be… wrong.

The Bible sees this story as a lesson about love and what it really means to love God. And that is a constant Biblical message. We are invited to give our heart, to give who we are, to give our entire being to God, to love God. Indeed, loving God is what true stewardship is about. Amen.

South Freeport Congregational Church UCC, South Freeport, Maine

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: “As was said earlier next week, November 14, is Stewardship Sunday. The observant among you might have thought— ‘Wait Joe! That message we heard today sounded an awful lot like a stewardship message.’ And my reaction would be, ‘Yep, guilty.’ I even used the word stewardship in what I said. Here’s my take: to a certain extent all sermons in some way are or should stewardship sermons. Tune in next week, same time, same station— part 2.”

Let us be open to the possibility that the whole of our being should rest in the will and wisdom of God and that the whole of our being should rest in the ways of love taught by God. In short, let us trust God. And may the face of God shine upon us; may the peace of Christ be among us; may the fire of the Spirit burn within us this day and forevermore. Amen.

[1] INTRODUCTION TO SCRIPTURE Rev. Mr. Joseph Connolly
In the King James Version of the Bible today’s Gospel reading was known as the widow’s mite— a mite in the England of King James being the smallest of coins, a half a farthing. A whole farthing was worth a fourth of a penny. This widow is not, as this translation suggests, poor. She is beyond poor. A better word for the underlying Greek would be destitute. She is destitute. Here now this Word as it is found in the Gospel we have come to know as Mark.

A READING FROM – Mark 12:38-44 [ILV]

[38] Jesus taught and said, “Beware of the scribes, the religious scholars, who like to walk around in long robes, be greeted with respect in market squares, [39] and have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  [40] They are the ones who swallow the property of widows and, yet, for the sake of appearances, say long prayers.  They will be judged all the more severely.”
[41] Then Jesus sat down opposite the collection box at the Temple, and watched people putting money into it.  Many rich people put in large sums.  [42] But an impoverished widow came and put in two small coins, worth a very small amount.
[43] At that point Jesus called the disciples together and said, “The truth is, this woman has put in more than all those who have contributed to the treasury.  [44] For all of them have contributed out of their surplus; but in her poverty, she has put in everything she possessed from the little she had— all she had to live on.”
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SERMON ~ 10/31/2021 ~ “Listening”

10/31/2021 ~ Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost ~ Known in Some Traditions as the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Proper 26 ~ Ruth 1:1-18 or Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Psalm 146 or Psalm 119:1-8; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34 ~ All Hallows’ Eve ~ A.K.A. as Halloween or Hallowe’en on the Secular Calendar ~ VIDEO OF THE FULL SERVICE:


“Hear, O Israel: / Yahweh, our God, Yahweh alone, is one. / You are to love Yahweh, your God / with all your heart, / and with all your soul, / and with all your strength.” — Deuteronomy 6:4-5 [ILV]

[The pastor moves to a pedestal on which there is a pitcher and several glasses, pours water into one glass until it is approximately half full, holds up the glass, then asks the following question.] So, is the glass half full or is it half empty? [The pastor moves back to the pulpit.]

A daughter of a friend of mine once lived for ten years in Turkey. A person of some where-with-all, my friend Bill, went to see his daughter each year and spent about a month. Early on he started a little habit.

Handy with a hammer, saw and screwdriver, while there he would build her a small piece of furniture, a cabinet, an end table. The first year this of this endeavor he went with his daughter to the Turkish equivalent of a lumber yard to get some wood and learned some interesting lessons about cultural differences.

First, lumber is stocked in a pretty raw form. Indeed, in the yard you could see whole sections of trees— bark still in place.

How do you buy lumber? You tell a worker what is needed. Then it’s cut to order. On their first trip to the yard Bill and his daughter arrived about 8:30 a.m. but waited some 45 minutes for anyone else to arrive. The owner was first.

That’s when clear cultural differences came into play. Bill’s daughter was fluent in Turkish but it was obvious the owner would be doing business only with Bill.

But first the owner offered cups of tea to the pair. Refusing was useless. If tea had been refused, then coffee would have been offered. If that had been refused, water with lime would have been next.

If everything had been refused, no business would have been done. Bill’s daughter nudged him to accept the tea.

Then negotiations started for real: the measurements of the wood required, choosing pieces from the raw wood, the milling, the cutting were all accomplished. Last a price was determined. It was a slow process.

It got to be about noon. Some wood still needed to be planed. But the worker who did the planning had gone to lunch.

“When will he be back?” asked Bill.

“Sometimes he comes back; sometimes he does not,” was the answer.

“Can any one else do that work?”

“Well, you can talk to my brother. He owns the other side of the yard and has someone who does that.”

Bill and his daughter walked about half a mile, moving the cut wood on a rickety cart. They then encountered the brother. (Slight pause.)

“Would you like some tea,” he asked? (Slight pause.) The transaction was totally completed about 4:30 in the afternoon. Through it all, no one in the yard seemed concerned this sale was progressing at a snail’s pace. (Slight pause.)

Shortly after arriving back in the States Bill stopped by a box store. There were fifteen cash registers. Two were open. He got on the end of a long line and heard people grousing.

“I’ll miss my game shows.”

“I need to pick up my kid.”

“I left my laundry in the dryer.”

Bill just smiled. He had internalized two things he suspected were true all along: nearly all perceptions are cultural. And stress is, often, a cultural attitude and is, often, a self imposed condition.

The second piece, that stress is often self imposed, was a reaffirmation of something he discovered when he visited Bosnia. In that country at that time people went about their business as if it was normal to have bombs crashing about them.

So, why was there any stress at all exhibited by those standing in this box store check out line? Perceptions, especially self imposed ones but certainly also cultural perceptions, are pivotal in one’s own sense of well being.

[The pastor moves to a pedestal on which there is a pitcher and several glasses and pours water into a second glass until it is approximately half full, then asks the following question.] And is that glass half full or is it half empty? [The pastor moves back to the pulpit.]

These words are from the work known as Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: / Yahweh, our God, Yahweh alone, is one. / You are to love Yahweh, your God / with all your heart, / and with all your soul, / and with all your strength.” (Slight pause.)

So this says love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength. Jesus reiterates this ancient instruction in the Gospel we know as Mark and adds words found in Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Slight pause.)

It’s all so easy, is it not— love God, love neighbor? (Slight pause.) Then why don’t more of us love God and love neighbor more readily? After all, these words seems pretty clear. (Slight pause.) Is it possible we’re missing something? (Slight pause.)

This is a given: we all have cultural blinders. We Americans see some things Turks do not. Turks see some things we do not. But we are human. Blinders exist. But is it possible that, no matter what the cultural biases of a given group, the largest human cultural blinder is that we all often fail to recognize Who is the source of all love?

You see, given what the ‘great commandment’ says, there is something which needs to happen before love can be experienced and expressed to its fullest. (Quote:) “Hear, O Israel.” (Slight pause.) We need to hear the voice of God before we can listen for love. (Slight pause.)

A widespread feature in all of Scripture, but especially here in the Shema, is it points out the necessity for nurturing an appropriate attitude toward and about God. We cannot have that attitude unless we develop our hearing skills, our skills of hearing the Word of God, hearing the will of God, listening for the voice of God.

Further, it is only when we hear God that it is possible to move onto the resulting attitudes: loving God and loving neighbor as ourselves. I maintain the loving relationships of covenant happen when we hear God. And it is the very hearing of God which empowers listening to the fullness of the message God offers. (Slight pause.)

So, what happens when hearing transitions to listening. I think the cultural blinders we all develop, binders which attempt to block out God start to fall away.

When we hear God— God Who is still speaking— the love of God starts to become more real to us and more sacred for us than that love has ever been before. And yes, we begin to deeply understand God invites us to be in relationship with all people.

But still, we need to work at being attuned to the fact that God speaks— God still speaks. Otherwise, the noise of our culture, the noise created in the context of any culture, will lead us to believe God is… silent.

[The pastor walks back to the pedestal with the glasses and pitcher and fills yet another glass about half way and holds it up.] So is the glass half full or is it half empty?

[The pastor picks up the two half glasses and pours them back in the pitcher. There is another glass filled with colored “Kool Aid” from the Time for All Ages. The pastor pours that back into the pitcher which changes the water in the pitcher into colored water and holds the pitcher aloft.] When we hear the voice of God, the world can become more wonderful than it has ever been before. Hear, O Israel. Hear, O South Freeport Congregational Church. God is with us. Let us listen for God. Amen.

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 Benediction. This, then, is an précis of what the pastor said before the blessing: “We Congregationalists have long believed that God still speaks to us. English Puritan minister John Robinson, said this to the Pilgrims as they left for these shores: “I am verily persuaded God hath more truth yet to break forth out of the Holy Word.” Well, let us continue to listen.

BENEDICTION: Go now— go in safety, for you cannot go where God is not. Go now— go with the purpose of fulfilling the will of God and God will honor your dedication. God now— go in freedom as we know God is the One Who sets us free from all that destroys. Go now— go in hope, for hope sees clearly the promise of God to walk with us. Go now— Go in love, for the love of God endures. Go now— go in peace for it is a gift of God to all people whose hearts and minds honor, respect and love. Amen.

INTRODUCTION TO SCRIPTURE: When people talk about the ten commandments as if they were, pardon the pun, set in stone, my reaction tends to be which set are you talking about? There are at least three sets of the so called Ten Commandments to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures and they are all somewhat different. Additionally, some Christian traditions actually count eleven. And, in the strict sense, there are 613 commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures. Then, of course, many who adhere to both the Christian tradition and the Jewish tradition would claim there are but two: love God and love neighbor. Last, most scholars say there is but one commandment and it is the starting point of all Scripture— the so called great commandment— the Shema. We find that commandment in this passage in verses 4 and 5 of this reading, a reading from Tanakh, in the section called the Torah, in the work known as Deuteronomy.


[1] Here, then, are the statutes, the ordinances, the commandments, the decrees— that Yahweh, our God, charged me to teach you.  Observe them so that you may enter into the land Yahweh, the God of your ancestors gives to you and that you are about to cross into and occupy.  [2] If you and your children and the children of your children revere Yahweh, your God, all the days of your life and if you keep the statutes, the ordinances, the commandments, the decrees I lay before you, your days may be long.  [3] Hear, listen therefore, O Israel, and observe carefully, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may increase your numbers greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as Yahweh, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
[4] Hear, O Israel:
    Yahweh, our God, Yahweh alone,
                is one.
[5] You are to love Yahweh,
                    our God
                            with all your heart,
        and with all your soul,
                and with all your strength.
[6] Let these words
                that I command today
                        be written in your heart.
[7] Recite them, teach them diligently
                    to your children
repeat them constantly
    when you are at home
        and when you are walking down
                a road,
when you lie down at night
    and when you get up
            in the morning.

Here ends this reading from Scripture.

[2] At A Time for All Ages the pastor filled a glass with water and suggested water in a glass is hard to see. And some people say God is hard to see. However, perhaps you can see God in the smile of a friend or when a parent says, “Job well done.” But is that seeing God or is that feeling God. The pastor then picked up a second glass. At the bottom of this glass there was Kool Aid powder. But, of course, that powder could not be seen. So then the pastor poured water into that glass and the water immediately changed color. The pastor then said perhaps it was not that you saw God. Perhaps it was that you felt God and God really is there just like you can see the colored water.

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