SERMON ~ 02/06/2021 ~ “Traditioned”

READINGS: 02/06/2021 ~ Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Known in Some Traditions as the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13); Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11~ VIDEO OF THE ENTIRE SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JPWzW-66XA.

Traditioned

“For I, Paul, handed on to you first of all, as of first importance, what I, myself, had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that Christ was buried, and that, on the third day, Christ was raised in accordance with the Scriptures.” — 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.

When I sensed a call to ordained ministry together with my Pastor at First Parish Church in Brunswick we set up a discernment committee. I had not been inside of a classroom for 20 plus years so they suggested I take a class at Bangor Seminary to see how it went. I took survey course in Hebrew Scriptures with Dr. Ann Johnston.

A couple weeks ago I mentioned Ann sometimes assigned a creative paper— write a play, a poem, do a painting. And that was the first paper she assigned.

I was a playwright so I wrote a play, a comedy based on the story of the Burning Bush. That’s right: a comedy based on the Burning Bush. Here’s an example.

Moses speaks to God and says: “The bush— it burns but it is not consumed. How does that work?”

God says, “Yes…. my special effects people do it. They are very, very good. Someday I might let a guy named Cecil B. DeMille use them. But right now, they are my people.”

I got A+ on the paper. Ann said that grade was because I had been faithful to the Scripture, to what the passage said and I understood it. Faithful? I had used every single word in the third chapter of Exodus. I just added extra words between the original words.

Understood it? I realized the story was a dialogue. Moses was arguing with God. I, personally, know about arguing with God. What do you mean get ordained?

Ann also explained I had engaged in an ancient Hebrew tradition called Midrash. That was the first time I had ever heard the word Midrash. I wound up doing my Master’s Thesis on Midrash.

Anyone who was here at the Christmas Eve service or saw my mediation on video heard me employ Midrash. In that meditation I used my words to retell the story in Luke. Midrash, it is hoped, restates the story in a way which helps people better understand it.

The best explanation I know of Midrash was written by Roman Catholic theologian Richard Rhor. What follows is some of Rhor’s explanation. (Slight pause.)

Rather than seeking unchanging answers, Midrash allows for many possibilities, levels of faith-filled meaning relevant and applicable to the reader. This builds a relationship with the text. Ideally Midrash lets Scripture challenge in a spiritual way and helps people grow, be enticed to respond with questions. ‘What does this passage ask of me?’ ‘How might this apply to my life, family, church, neighborhood, country?’

Rhor states biblical passages often proceed from historical incidents but never try to communicate events with factual accuracy. The writers of Scripture are neither journalists nor historians. They are theologians.

Also, since ancient times rabbis have used story telling, Midrash, to reflect on and communicate the four of the levels we find in Scripture. These levels are literal meaning, deep meaning, comparative meaning, hidden meaning— four levels.

Literal meaning is not insightful so it is rarely helpful and can be dangerous. Again, Scripture is not history. Deep meaning offers symbolic, allegoric applications. Comparative meaning compares different texts to explore new understanding.

Last, hidden meaning gets at mystery. When hidden meaning is explored with the story telling of Midrash it encourages growth, learning and discourages literalism.

This is also clear. Jesus consistently ignored exclusionary, triumphalist, punitive texts found in the Hebrew Scriptures in favor of passages which emphasize inclusion, mercy, honesty, love. Midrash does this quite well— explores inclusion, mercy, honesty, love. All that was a reflection offered by theologian Richard Rhor. (Slight pause.)

And I Corinthians says this: “For I, Paul, handed on to you first of all, as of first importance, what I, myself, had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that Christ was buried, and that, on the third day, Christ was raised in accordance with the Scriptures.” (Slight pause.)

Paul here refers to handing on the Scriptures. What Scriptures? The Hebrew Scriptures— there was no New Testament. (Slight pause.)

Now, there is no adequate translation for the words we translate as “I handed on.” The closest we can come is to say “I traditioned”— that’s not good English so we don’t translate it that way. However, “I traditioned” makes sense in a peculiar kind of way.

Here’s an example. We all have family traditions about Christmas. But do we celebrate it the same way our parents did? Probably not. Why? It is likely we took what they did, held what they did in high esteem but also modified them, made them our own.

What has Paul done with the Hebrew Scriptures? Paul explored them, understands them and traditions them. That brings up something I think is often misunderstood about this passage. (Quote:) “…that Christ died… that Christ was buried… that… Christ was raised.” (Slight pause.)

What is Paul doing here? Is Paul saying this is a prophecy found in the Hebrew Scriptures? I think we often take it that way. But is that what the Apostle to the Gentiles is getting at? (Slight pause.)

Let me restate something noted when this passage was introduced. The earliest writings in the New Testament are not the Gospels but Paul’s letters. And here Paul quotes a statement of faith which pre-dates Paul’s writings. So, the passage may reflect some of the earliest testimony about the resurrection.

Next, Paul’s writings say very little about the life of Jesus. In fact, the statement of faith found in this passage is one of the few places Paul says the Christ even lived.

So Paul takes what the Hebrew Scriptures say about the Messiah— not about Jesus— about the Messiah— and expounds on that. And what is said about the Messiah?

Promises are made about the Messiah. Do note, these are not prophecies about the Messiah. These are promises about the Messiah.

Paul sees the promises about the Messiah and the reality of what happened to Jesus as one. Paul takes what was handed on, the promises, traditions them, makes them his own, brings new understanding to them and passes them on.

Paul’s thinking is clearly in line with what the Hebrew Scriptures say. So Paul has done nothing radical but is simply being a good theologian. And in so doing Paul practices Midrash because Paul explores meaning.

Paul encourages growth, allows for learning. And therefore, just like Jesus, Paul does not settle for mere literalism. (Slight pause.)

I want to suggest we need to make Scripture our own, by first trying to understand what Scripture meant in ancient times. Next we need to try to understand Scripture for today, for our time, for us. So just as Paul did we need to be faithful to Scripture, understand Scripture and, thereby, make Scripture our own. (Slight pause.)

So, what is a call to ministry, not ordained ministry but all ministry? Perhaps a call to ministry is about Midrash, in the sense that it’s about making Scripture our own.

You see in the Protestant tradition we say are all called to ministry, called to be a priesthood of all believers. Thereby, I say we are all called to make Scripture our own.

Making Scripture our own should not break with tradition but needs to be faithful to what Scripture says. So how can we be faithful to Scripture?

We can be faithful in the same way Jesus was faithful. We can be faithful by understanding we need to emphasize inclusion, mercy, honesty and love. Indeed, we especially need to emphasize the love of God for all people. Amen.

02/06/2021
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: “In the passage today Paul says the Christ was seen by Peter, the twelve, five hundred, James and Paul. What Paul is addressing is the experience commonly called witness. Now generally, we say we are Protestants. What does Protestant mean? It’s from the Latin protestari— testari means testament or witness, pro means for. We are witnesses for— for what? We are witnesses for the reality of God, the Christ, the Spirit, the reality of the presence of God, witnesses to and for the transformative love of God.”

BENEDICTION: God heals and restores. God grants to us the grace and the talent to witness to the love God has for us. Let us be ready as we go into the world, for we are baptized in the power of the Spirit. 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.

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SERMON ~ 01/30/2022 ~ “Agape”

READINGS: 01/30/2022 ~ Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany ~ Known in Some Traditions as the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30 ~ VIDEO LINK OF THE COMPLETE SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcyZ1FWIW3w.

Agape

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and can endure all things. Love never ends.” — 1 Corinthians 13:7-8a

You may be tired of me saying I spent 23 years at one church in the New York Conference. But that is true; I did. Now, just like churches, conferences have annual meetings. I was, in fact, at one point on the Board of the New York Conference.

A couple of years before I came back to Maine someone approached me at one of those annual meetings and they told me they felt I was an institution in the Conference. I had no desire to be an institution of any kind, so I was actually a little upset by that accusation. But I kept my cool.

I responded with a smile and said, “Change is good for institutions. It must be time for me to leave.” A couple years later I did just that, I left. (Slight pause.)

At the first Conference board meeting I attended, the General Counsel of the United Church of Christ at National Church level offered a short course on the ethical standards expected not just of church boards but of all non-profit boards. Many points were made; lawyers do that.

What stuck in my brain from that talk? As is true of many non-profit boards, members of the Conference Board come from specific segments of a broad constituency. I was elected as a representative of the Susquehanna Association, the Association to which my church belonged. The Conference board at least in the New York Conference is structured that way— constituencies are taken into account.

However, the ethical standard for a board member of any non-profit says, once on a board, that constituency, that specific affiliation, from which you come is a moot point. Each individual board member is responsible for representing the whole.

Back then I was also on the Church and Ministry Committee of the Susquehanna Association. And even though I’ve been back in Maine a fairly short time I am already serving on the Church and Ministry Committee of the Cumberland Association.

On those Committees I did and now do my best to represent the whole. As a member of those boards that’s what I was supposed to do and what I am supposed to do.

To be clear, representing the whole does not mean you fail to bring your own sensitivity, sensibility, insights and intelligence to what is being considered. It means you strive to represent the whole to the best of your ability. That… is the ethical standard. (Slight pause.)

These words are found in 1 Corinthians: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and can endure all things. Love never ends.” (Slight pause.)

As was mentioned when this reading was introduced, there are six words in Greek for love. We speakers of English are confined to just one word.

Here is the list of those Greek words with a brief explanation of each. Eros is a physical expression of love; Philia— friendship sometimes referred to as brotherly or sisterly love; Ludus— playful love; Pragma— longstanding love; Philautia— love of self but this indicates vanity and is not about a protective love of self.

Last we have Agape. Agape is unconditional, altruistic, universal, inclusive love. (Slight pause.)

It is fairly well known that, in this passage, Paul addresses Agape. And yes, as a community we should be aware that we need to have a special affinity for one another. As a community we need to be aware that we are bonded in and by Agape, this unconditional, altruistic, universal, inclusive love for one another.

But the very meaning of the word should also instruct us about the greater impact, the effect of Agape love. Agape love should not and does not end in this place, with those we know.

The very meaning of the word should instruct us that we, this community of faith, having bonded here in this place, at this time, in and by unconditional, altruistic, universal, inclusive love— we need to move beyond this place, this time. (Slight pause.)

You may not be aware of this. In terms of our polity each member of this church is a member of a another church group. We are all members of the Cumberland Association and yet another church group the Maine Conference. So, therefore yes, you guessed it: we are members of yet another church group, the United Church of Christ at the National level.

In terms of our polity your Agape love, as it relates to the church community, this unconditional, altruistic, universal, inclusive love, does not end with this local community, this church. Agape love, your unconditional, altruistic, universal, inclusive love extends to the Conference, to the Association, to the church at the national level. Indeed, broadening this is an outgrowth of the universality of Agape love.

But there is more. Agape love invites us to look at things with the eyes of another one of those Greek words for love— Philia is love for all our brothers and sisters, for all humanity. But Philia is not just love for all humanity. Philia extends to love for all of God’s creation. (Slight pause.)

I need to add one thing. We Congregationalists have another name for Agape. We call it covenant love. And covenant love understood well is demanding.

You see, what covenant love invites us to… is growth. Covenant love invites us to… learning. Covenant love invites us to… engagement. Covenant love invites us to see new horizons constantly.

Covenant loves invites us to the idea that as we move forward, we remember the past but understand it is past. Last, perhaps the most important aspect of covenant love is that it invites us to hold one another’s humanity and well being as precious. (Slight pause.)

We all know and can probably recite by heart Paul’s famous words. (Quote:) “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and can endure all things. Love never ends.” The challenge for us is can we meet the standard proposed by Paul, the standard proposed by Paul, the standard proposed by agape love? Amen.

01/30/2022
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: “I have said this from the pulpit here already. I want to repeat it. The Bible does not tell us about faith, hope and charity. Agape translates into Latin as Caritas. Caritas was then translated into the Anglo-Saxon language tree as charity. But when that translation happened the underlying word was still Agape, unconditional, altruistic, universal, inclusive love, not charity, not giving something to someone. And I hope I have just illustrated that Paul’s challenge is much more demanding than mere charity.”

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 ~ 01/23/2022 ~ “Understanding”

READINGS: 01/23/2022 ~ Third Sunday after the Epiphany ~ Known in Some Traditions as the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21 ~ VIDEO OF COMPLETE SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zj1xHIM-5tA.

Understanding

“So they, the Levities, read from the book, from the Torah of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” — Nehemiah 8:8.

When I was in my last year at Bangor Seminary a well known New Testament scholar, the Rev. Dr. David Trobish, took over the reigns of the New Testament Department. Trobish came to Bangor from Heidelberg University in Germany.

Was it strange that a scholar with an international reputation might choose to come to a small Seminary in a rural State? No. Why? Dr. Trobish filled the slot of the late Rev. Dr. Burton Throckmorton, the professor with whom I studied the New Testament, a scholar with an international reputation.

This is just one of Burt’s books, The Gospel Parallels. [1] Often used in college and seminary courses on the New Testament, the book lays out the three synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke while referencing the original, ancient Greek manuscripts. In three columns it shows where the words of the Gospels are, indeed, in parallel— meaning the underlying Greek is the same word and where they are not in parallel.

Back to Dr. Trobish— I was never in a classroom with him since I was in my final semester when he arrived but we spoke, shared meals— that happens at a small Seminary. Just in doing that I heard many fascinating stories. This is one.

In Germany everyone is taxed by the government to support churches. Hence, seminaries are paid for by the state. Mind you, I think there is actually more separation of church and state in Germany than there is here, but that’s a topic for a 3 hour lecture, not a sermon, so I think you’re probably glad I am not going there.

In Germany, if a person wants to be a pastor at a state supported church, even someone whose background is fundamentalist, that person has to go to a state sponsored seminary. David started a New Testament Survey Course at Heidelberg by asking students to examine ancient Greek manuscripts. There are thousands.

Each manuscript of exactly the same passage has many words which are different from one manuscript to another to another. It was at that point, when the students who thought Scripture should be taken literally, said David, that he could see the scales of that idea fall from their eyes.

In short, it is impossible to read Scripture literally once you examine ancient manuscripts. The reality is, in order to understand what is there, the text needs to be interpreted. Meaning is not obvious. Meaning needs to be gleaned. (Slight pause.)

This is what we hear in Nehemiah: “So they, the Levities, read from the book, from the Torah of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (Slight pause.)

One of the great precepts of the Protestant revolution is everyone should be able to read Scripture in the vernacular, in their own language. Before that time people died, were burned at the stake, for simply trying to translate the text into another language.

But one of the things we fail to ask about the era in which this idea, that anyone should be able to read the Bible in their own language was promulgated, is ‘who could read?’ Those who could read were a fairly small percentage of the population.

Further, if you could read, odds were you could also read Greek. Why? That literate people studied Greek was a given back then and the Scriptures were available in Greek. Indeed, when Calvin came to the pulpit in Geneva Scripture passages were read in Greek. It was assumed everyone there would know what was being said.

Now, you may have noticed I do not say Jesus Christ. I say Jesus, the Christ. Why? Jesus holds the office of the Christ, the Messiah. I say it that way because that’s what the Greek means, that Jesus is the Christ, and most people don’t know Greek.

So one of things we need to consider when we, today, read Scripture is there may be a need for some extra information about the underlying documents and information about the eras in which the texts were composed. Hence, I always recommend when Scripture is read privately it’s good to have a reputable commentary next to the Bible you’re reading.

Why? In order to understand what’s there, the text needs to be interpreted. Meaning is not necessarily obvious. Meaning needs to be gleaned. A little more show and tell: this is a reputable one volume commentary. [2]

And please don’t worry about the books I’ve displayed and what they are. The text verison of this sermon published on the church web site will have footnotes where the books are named. (Don’t tell anyone; I even put an AMAZON link in there. You could buy them.)

Back to Nehemiah— as we just heard, the Hebrews in the Fifth Century Before the Common Era, were no different than we are today. Scripture needed to be interpreted; to draw a modern parallel, the Levites were the Rabbi’s, the teachers of that era, and it was the Levites who helped interpret Scripture.

There is something else to consider. How do we interpret Scripture? With what premise do we start? Theologian Bruce Epperly says many have forgotten about the reality of Scripture and portray God as a distant, coercive power, Whose Word will separate humankind from lifeless nature.

Therefore, many turn away from the biblical vision of the goodness of creation. Many turn from our vocation as God’s agents of Shalom, God’s agents of justice, God’s agents of love.

But, says Epperly, our call as beloved children of God is to repair breaches, to strive to mend the world, to use our intelligence to work out healing. God invites us to use our intelligence and experience God’s wisdom and love. God invites us use our intelligence to live in harmony with the world rather than see the world as a place to be afflicted with domination.

Indeed, It is up to us to use our intelligence to be agents of God, to take action. What action? The actions of peace, justice, equity, freedom, joy, hope, love.

Where are these actions made explicit? These actions are made explicit in Scripture… when we read it with understanding. Let us pray that we are up to the task. Amen.

01/23/2022
First 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: “A couple weeks ago I said we need to study the Bible. This week I tried to explain how we can do it and why we need to do it. Last, I have an aphorism to share. Theologian Walter Brueggemann said this: ‘The Gospel is a dangerous idea. Our task is to see how much danger we, ourselves, wish to perform in our own lives.’ I might be wrong but I suspect the dangerous idea in the Gospel to which Brueggemann refers are actions. We know these actions as peace, justice, equity, freedom, joy, hope, love.”

BENEDICTION: Through God’s grace, by being attentive to God’s will, our deeds and our words will change our world for we will discover ways to proclaim release from the bondage of narrowness. Let us seek the God of Joy. Let us go in peace to love and serve God. Amen.

[1] Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels, New Revised Standard Version; ISBN-13: 978-0840774842.

Amazon Link:
https://smile.amazon.com/Gospel-Parallels-Comparison-Synoptic-Standard/dp/0840774842/ref=sr_1_2?crid=BJ666OCZLTXJ&keywords=gospel+parallels+5th+edition+%2C+burton+h.+throckmorton+jr&qid=1642962727&sprefix=the+gospel+parallel+Burton+throckmorton%2Caps%2C77&sr=8-2

[2] The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press; ISBN-13: 978-0687334117.

The Amazon Link:
https://www.amazon.com/New-Interpreters-Bible-One-Commentary/dp/068733411X/ref=sr_1_1?crid=24YR9F0A3EOMY&keywords=new+interpreter%27s+bible+commentary&qid=1642816291&sprefix=new+interpreter%27s+bible+commentary%2Caps%2C269&sr=8-1

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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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTGIkH_5RlE
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.

01/16/2022
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.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aR80qiXgMuQ

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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.

01/02/2021
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x54NggMJtmc.

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.

12/26/2021
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 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gL9QaPYJD98; VIDEO OF THE COMPLETE 9:00 p.m. SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HO_qFgwSmQQ.

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rt_k9ogbTUM.

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.

12/12/2021
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RURrZcdwvk.

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.

12/05/2021
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BK57fvrnKBk.

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.

11/28/2021

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: “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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