SERMON ~ 04/24/2022 ~ “Receiving the Spirit” ~ VIDEO OF THE FULL SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HglA9IGCPlk

04/24/2022 ~ Second Sunday of Easter ~ *Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31 ~ *During Eastertide a reading from Acts is often substituted for the lesson from the Hebrew Bible ~ VIDEO OF THE FULL SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HglA9IGCPlk

Receiving the Spirit

“The disciples were filled with joy when they saw Jesus, who said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As Abba, God, has sent me, so I am sending you.’ After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” — John 20:20b-22.

I once did a three day battery of psychological and skills testing. Or as I like to call it, “Three days of ‘Tell me, what does this ink blot mean?’” In all seriousness, the point of this kind of testing is to assess the skill set of an individual.

To say the least, it was an intensive, multifaceted process. And certainly, the reason anyone does this type of skills testing is to help that individual better understand, cope with and interact with the world.

Now, one of the cautions offered to me about both the results which were presented and the very process itself was do not— under any circumstances— think in terms of this three day experience as being finished. It is not. It was not.

I was told I would still be thinking about and processing what was presented to me, the challenges, the work ahead of me for many, many years. That sentiment is still true as even now I occasionally find myself reflecting on the insights I gained and occasionally make new discoveries about how I interact with the world.

In short, the experience equipped me with tools for life, helped me move forward. The tools I acquired in this process help me to be renewed constantly… if I choose to use the tools. (Pause.)

My mother died when she was only 58. It would be foolish to say the experience of the death of a parent or any loved one— especially at that fairly young age— does not linger with us for many, many years.

Mom died 39 years ago but I still think about it, occasionally reflect on it. And so, I am also given to wonder if my mother might be able to tell me about some information concerning my family history. But any information she might have offered, any information she might have had is just not available.

Hence, all I have is a reflection about things I will probably never know with any certainty. And perhaps the finality I might have sought— some form of definitive answer from her— is itself artificial, an illusion. (Slight pause.)

We all like closure. We all like finality. But is that simply what we like, as opposed to what we need?

Is it possible that the idea of process— living through time, through space, through experience— is it possible that process is the only thing of which we can be certain. Perhaps process is not just a different way of looking at and assessing life. Perhaps process the prime way of looking at and assessing life. (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the Gospel According to the School of John: “The disciples were filled with joy when they saw Jesus, who said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As Abba, God, has sent me, so I am sending you.’ After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (Slight pause.)

There are three distinct sections in this reading. The first two, the encounter of the disciples with Jesus but without Thomas and later with Thomas there, are clearly tied together, part of the same story.

But I maintain the third section, that part that says (quote:) “Jesus did many other signs— signs which are not recorded in this book” can be seen as a lynchpin for the story of Thomas. It offers instruction on why, on how the story of Thomas and the disciples is of import.

The Spirit, you see, kept moving, keeps moving. And so there are many other things which happened but this story is there to let us see process in action. (Slight pause.)

There is a great American heresy. (There are probably a very large number of great American heresies, but let me point out just one.)

This particular great American heresy says once an incident has passed it is done, over, complete, final, finished. There are no more effects. There is only now and once now has passed it is over. As that relates to faith, many American Christians might express that heresy using words like this: “I was born again on April the 3rd, 1997 at three o’clock in the afternoon.”

The implication of that is straightforward. Everything is now done, over, complete, final, finished. The possibility that the Spirit of God might be still active, working, moving, feels negated because this event is named and resides at a specific time in the past. And that time is now gone.

Indeed, many of us see the Gospel stories as located in the past. But the words we heard from the Gospel today are not meant to illustrate an event in history. To take a narrative approach to the resurrection, the real topic of this reading, to say it happened once, long ago, is simply an inaccurate way to look at what we Christians claim about Jesus.

The resurrection is not just an event that happened. It is an event which changes everything for all people for all time. And the point of the story of the resurrection is the resurrection continues. Jesus lives, now. The Spirit is alive and dwells among us, now.

What is, perhaps, even more important is this: because of the resurrection, because the Spirit dwells among us, we are invited by God to learn from our experience of God. Because of the resurrection, because the Spirit dwells among us, we are invited by God to change.

Because of the resurrection, because the Spirit dwells among us, we are invited by God to process. Because of the resurrection, because the Spirit dwells among us, we are invited by God to grow. (Slight pause.)

I believe the Spirit invites us to learn something new for today and for each and every day. I think the Spirit constantly invites us to not just live in the Spirit but live by the Spirit, into the Spirit.

Living in the Spirit means we are invited to be renewed. Living in the Spirit means we are invited to develop, to hone who we can be, who we are willing to be, to fully be the person God invites us to be. Living in the Spirit means we are invited to change, invited to use the tools God gave us. (Slight pause.)

In the world God created, things are not static, ever. And living in and into the Spirit also means we are invited to see the world as God sees the world.

This world God sees is a world where freedom can be a reality, in which equity is not a dream, a world in which the love God offers reigns. This is a world whose boundaries are limited only by our willingness or lack thereof to use our God given talents to participate in the Dominion of God. What is the Dominion of God?
The Dominion of God is the world not as we see it. The Dominion of God is the world as God sees it— active, changing, alive, growing— a world of hope, a world of peace, world of joy, a world of love. Amen.
04/24/2022
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: “As I mentioned earlier thank you for putting up with me and as you know this is my last Sunday in this pulpit. And as many of you know I served one church for 23 years. And I did what I do here— say something at the end. And the first Sunday I was there and last Sunday there I said essentially the same thing. Part of the work of a pastor is to share their understanding of the Gospel. That cannot be done in one Sunday or a month of Sundays or, as it turned out, in 23 years of Sundays. Why? The Gospel is that rich. And so, as you embrace Sean Patrick— and please do embrace him— remember that part of his work will be to share an understanding of the Gospel one Sunday at a time. It is a process.”

BENEDICTION: Hear now this blessing, commonly known as the Irish Blessing: May the road rise up to meet us. May the wind be always at our back. May we have a full moon on a dark night. May the sun shine warm upon our faces. May the rain fall soft upon our fields. And until we meet again, may the hand of God hold us and the wing of God offer us shelter, and the peace of God be with us, always. Amen.

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SERMON ~ 04/17/2022 ~ Easter Sunday ~ “Peter and the Women”

04/17/2022 ~ Sunrise Service ~ Easter Sunday, More Appropriately Known as The Feast of the Resurrection *Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12; Note— Used: 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 [ILV].

Peter and the Women

“Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Upon getting there this apostle stooped and looked in but could see nothing but the linen cloths, the wrappings, on the ground. Then Peter left, amazed at what had occurred.” — Luke 24:12.

The disciple headed back down the road, exhausted. Peter had been running. Despite his age he was not in bad shape. He was a little older than the others in the group so they looked to him for leadership.

It may not have simply been running which led to the exhaustion. There were other reasons. First, he expected to see the remains of his friend, the Rabbi, in that tomb.

But his friend, Jesus, kept saying, “Wait three days. Just wait three days.” And somehow, some way Jesus was no longer there, no longer in the tomb where Peter knew the earthly remains of the Rabbi had been placed.

So at least in part, the exhaustion was not from running. It had to have come from the recognition that there was nothing in the tomb except wrappings on the ground. That reality left Peter emotionally exhausted.

After all, when Jesus preached all over Galilee, Peter was there. When Jesus healed the sick, fed five thousand, recited parables, Peter was there.

Peter was the one who had the answer to the pivotal question, “Who do you say that I am?”— the Messiah, the Christ. And when Jesus was transfigured Peter heard that voice which insisted Jesus was the Chosen One. Peter… was… there. (Slight pause.)

And yes, when Jesus was taken as a prisoner of the state, Peter… was… there. (Slight pause.) Then Peter’s friend, Peter’s teacher, Peter’s guide, Peter’s companion— Jesus— was murdered by the state, crucified by the Romans. Peter watched from afar as his friend died. Peter… was… there.

But now, now this… this… empty tomb— the wrappings… so yes— Peter was… exhausted. This was emotional exhaustion. Peter was spent. (Slight pause.)

Peter trod toward Jerusalem, toward the house where the other disciples waited, knowing there was yet another emotional hill to climb. He needed to face the women who all the others had doubted.

It was the women who, on the first day of the week, at dawn, went to the tomb and found the tomb… empty. It was the women who were told “Why do you look for the Living One among the dead? Jesus is not here; Christ has risen.”

It was the women who told everyone about the empty tomb, about what they heard, saw, felt. It was the women who no… one… believed. It was the women who were told their tale was… idle, nonsensical.

Peter was the only one who even went to the tomb, the only one willing to face the reality of the empty tomb. Why? Peter realized if what the women said was true he needed to affirm them. He wondered if they would, in turn, ridicule him because of how the others had ridiculed them.

When Peter burst through the door into the large room where the whole group was gathered there was a cacophony of chatter. Peter raised a hand. What had been a wall of noise turned into immediate silence.

“It’s true,” he said, gesturing toward the women who were gathered together. “They spoke truth. The tomb is empty.” (Slight pause.) “I’m exhausted. Let me sit.”

And so he sat on a bench. Perhaps the flood of emotions had finally caught up with him. It suddenly felt like the weight of the world was pressing down on his back.

The women were the first to notice his distress. From the corner of the room, this question was asked: “Peter, are you all right?”

Peter knew that voice. It was Mary of Magdala. She was perceptive. She knew when something was amiss before anyone else knew.

Peter, his eyes closed, responded. “Yes. I’m all right. I’ll be fine.”

That’s when his body began to quake. Peter sobbed. Tears streamed down his face, his beard. He wept and wept and wept.

“Peter? Peter?” It was Mary’s voice. He was sure it was Mary’s voice.

The disciple felt a hand softly touch his shoulder. The touch was tender, healing. “Mary is offering solace in my time of need,” thought Peter.

After a bit the crying began to cease. He tried to force a sense of logic, order on the multiple emotions.

Slowly Peter wiped the tears away. The hand resting on his shoulder patted three times and then lifted away. He opened his eyes.

Across the room he saw Mary of Magdala and the other women. Quickly he looked around. No one was behind him, near him. No one had dared come near him.

“Mary! Were you just near me? Behind me?”

She offered a quizzical look. “No.”

“Someone was behind me. Someone was touching me.”

Everyone in the room stared at him not knowing what to say. This was, after all, Peter, the first one to see Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. Peter saw everything clearly.

He pointed toward the women. He shouted as loud as he could. “You have given us the greatest gift imaginable!” he shouted. “Yes! Jesus is risen and you were the first to be told and so you told us.”

In unison the women smiled. It was a knowing smile. But they said nothing.

Peter was emotionally drained but at the same time somehow filled with joy. Softly, Peter said it again: “Jesus is risen!” (Long pause.) Amen.

04/17/2022 ~ Sunrise Service
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 a précis of what was said: “I need to say two things: first, in Aramaic, which would have been spoken in Roman Judea in New Testament times, to be saved meant to be made alive. We moderns do not seem to understand that. Second, I want to suggest to merely say ‘Happy Easter’ is not a Christian sentiment. So, let me make a suggestion: if someone walks up to you today and says, ‘Happy Easter’ smile and say, ‘Christ is risen.’ Why? ‘Christ is risen’ is the Christian sentiment. And Pastor Jeremy will offer the Benediction and the Easter Acclamation.”

BENEDICTION AND EASTER ACCLAMATION
ONE: May the love of God, the power of the resurrection in Christ, Jesus and the presence of the Spirit be with us always.
MANY: And the blessing of God surround us this day and forevermore.
ONE: So, indeed, rejoice! Rejoice people of God! Christ is risen!
ALL: Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

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SERMON ~ 04/17/2022 ~ Easter Sunday ~ “The Women”

04/17/2022 ~ Easter Sunday, More Appropriately Known as The Feast of the Resurrection *Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Luke 24:1-12; Note— Used: 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 [ILV] ~ This was offered at two services. 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. From service to service there may be minor differences in the text. Below are the URLs for the full videos of both services. There was a Sunrise service at the town dock with a different meditation. There was no video for that service.
9:00 a.m.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBH-kZpi4b4
11:00 a.m.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRUq4KG4yOw

The Women

“Terrified, the women bowed to the ground. One of the two said, “Why do you look for the Living One among the dead? Jesus is not here; Christ has risen. ’” — Luke 24:5.

She had been running a long time. Mary wasn’t quite sure how long, but she knew the muscles in her legs were beginning to scream in pain.

Behind her, she could hear her friend shouting— to wait, to stop. Mary was tall, lean and athletic but she was no longer young.

She knew it was time to slow down, time to stop. Besides, the dusty road was mostly uphill in this section. It made running harder.

They had asked Joanna and the other women to stay behind at the tomb. She was not even sure why. Perhaps it was just to ensure that someone stood there just to be with the reality of what they had just witnessed— an empty tomb.

She came to a halt near a boulder just the right size to sit on. So she sat and waited there for the other Mary.

She fondly called the other Mary Mags, even though her real name was also Mary. In fact, everyone she knew called the other Mary “Mags,” because she was from the town of Magdala. [1]

It did not take long before Mags approached. She came at a sure, steady pace, her face flushed, eyes intent; she was breathing heavily. Mags was shorter, squatter than Mary. She was also more emotionally volatile, more intense than her companion.

“I shouted! I told you to stop! Didn’t you hear me?” Mags glowered at her friend.

Mary simply nodded. “We need to recover,” she said, her own breathing still a bit labored. “So I stopped.” (Slight pause.) “Sit,” she said, taping the top of the bolder with her palm.

Mags sat down on the rock next to her friend. “Yes, I’ll sit for a little. But we also need to find the others.”

“I don’t think they will be hard to find, Mags. My guess is they still haven’t left the upper room.”

Magdala turned toward Mary, a quizzical look on her face. “What should we say to them? How can we explain this?” At that point she suddenly realized where they were and pointed to the hill across the valley from where they sat. “Look!”

Mary looked up and realized they were directly opposite the place called Golgotha, the skull. On that hill there were several dozen crosses.

The cross was, of course, the method of execution employed by the Romans. Those in the know, those with political savvy, knew the occupying army from Rome killed, executed at least several thousand men and women each year.

It had now been many years since the hoards of infantry from Rome had invaded. Only a relatively small contingent remained. Their numbers were large enough to keep the peace, not large enough to provide security. Roadside robbery was a fact of life.

The limited number of Romans was able to maintain the balance between peace and security by deftly collaborating with the local government run by King Herod. Herod, himself, was a Jew, but was held in contempt by most.

The Roman crosses on the far hill reminded the women what they had seen just three days ago. They saw their friend die. They watched while others had fled. They were there with the Rabbi until the end.

His name was Yeshuah, Jesus in the Greek. The name means ‘God saves.’ And that is what they thought every time they saw him–– ‘God saves.’

Because of Jesus they had confidence— hope— that the dominion of God could be and was present, real— that the justice and equity of God might have a place in society. (Slight pause.) Then they watched… as Jesus died. (Slight pause.)

The reality of the death, the murder, the reality of the execution of Jesus by the Romans was still present with them on this morning as they made their way to the tomb. (Slight pause.) Magdala started to cry.

“Mags! Mags! Are you all right?”

“Oh, yes. I’m fine. It’s just, you know, I get emotional. It’s what we heard this morning. ‘Jesus is not here; Christ has risen.’ I am frightened, happy, confused.”

“I really don’t know what to do or how to explain what’s happened or what to say. What are we to tell our friends?”

Mary turned toward Magdala and hugged her tightly. She felt tears dripping down her own cheeks and whispered, “Maybe we should just say what we felt, our experience. We can try to say what it meant for us, what it meant to us. ”

Her voice got stronger. “The truth is Jesus was not there; the tomb is empty; Jesus is risen. No matter what we saw over there with those crosses, we know the Rabbi lives.”

“We know the hope God promised is reality. Faith, trust, love matters. And yes, we knew the truth of this all along, that the promises of God were real. But it’s as if right now everything has changed. Nothing is the way it was before. Somehow we can touch it, see it, feel it.” (Slight pause.)

They both stood. Then there on the road they held one another, hugged one another and they both cried. (Pause.) Finally, they let go. Mags reached up and wiped the tears off Mary’s face. Mary reached down and wiped the tears off Mags’ face.

“Well,” said Mary, “what should we do?”

“I think we had better go find the others.” (Slight pause.) “But I think you’d better go at my pace,” said Mags. “We need to do this together.”

“I think maybe that’s part of what this is about— being together,” said Mary. “God is with us, all of us, together.” (Pause.) Amen.

04/17/2022 ~ 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. Service
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 a précis of what was said: “I need to say two things: first, in Aramaic, which would have been spoken in Roman Judea in New Testament times, to be saved meant to be made alive. We moderns do not seem to understand that. Second, I want to suggest to merely say ‘Happy Easter’ is not a Christian sentiment. So, let me make a suggestion: if someone walks up to you today and says, ‘Happy Easter’ smile and say, ‘Christ is risen.’ Why? ‘Christ is risen’ is the Christian sentiment. And Pastor Jeremy will offer the Benediction and the Easter Acclamation.”

BENEDICTION AND EASTER ACCLAMATION
ONE: May the love of God, the power of the resurrection in Christ, Jesus and the presence of the Spirit be with us always.
MANY: And the blessing of God surround us this day and forevermore.
ONE: So, indeed, rejoice! Rejoice people of God! Christ is risen!
ALL: Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

[1] The Inclusive Language Version of the Gospel by Priests for Equality was used in the service. That translation says “Mary of Magdala” which is more accurate than the traditional Mary Magdalene.

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04/10/2022 ~ SERMON ~ “What Is Church?”

04/10/2022 ~ The Liturgy of the Palms ~ Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Luke 19:28-40 ~ The Liturgy of the Passion ~ Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49 ~ Used: Luke 19:28-40 and Philippians 2:5-11 ~ VIDEO OF THE FULL SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxjyzAWt6_c

What Is Church?

“When they reached the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples joined in and began to praise God loudly, joyfully for all the display of power that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!’” — Luke 19:37-38a.

I have already said this here so many of you know it. I am a proud graduate of Bangor Theological Seminary. As you also probably know, Bangor closed as a seminary.

But it remains a vital part of spiritual life in Maine as the BTS Center in Portland with programs which strive to equip faith leaders, both ordained and members of the laity. You can treat that last sentence as an advertisement; please check out that web site.

And as you know, Maine is a rural State with a lot of very small churches. Back when I was at Bangor many churches could only afford to have a seminarian come preach. These days that need is often filled by students of the Maine School of Ministry. You can treat that last sentence as an advertisement also; please check out that web site.

Here’s one more item I have already said here: as a student I did a lot of supply preaching. In fact, once I even filled in for a settled pastor on a Palm Sunday.

To supply on a Palm Sunday is not usual. Normally a settled pastor preaches on Palm Sunday no matter what, no substitutes. But because the pastor at the First Congregational Church in Belfast had a family emergency I wound up subbing on a Palm Sunday. And by Maine standards Belfast is not a small church.

This is how it all came about. The Maine Conference Minister called me late on the Thursday evening before Palm Sunday and asked for a favor. (Here’s a life hint: when a Conference Minister asks a seminary student for a favor the response should never be “no.”) The favor? Preach at Belfast in three days, on Palm Sunday.

So… Friday morning the parish secretary called. The first thing she did was apologize because the bulletin was already printed but she said she could reprint it.

Then she let me know what was in the bulletin. The Palm Sunday readings were being used, not the Passion Sunday readings, and the sermon title was “When Is a Church Not a Church?” Much to her surprise I said, “That’s great. Let’s go with it. No need to reprint.”

Why not? The Palm Sunday readings and the title When Is a Church Not a Church? lead to a basic question: what is a church? Contrary to popular belief a church is not a building.

As I am sure you know, in the Congregational tradition the building in which we worship is not called a church. It’s a meeting house. You’re all sitting in a meeting house, not a church.

Among the many reasons for that distinction is we understand the people gathered are the church. And that is the real and true meaning of the word church: people.

Now in the Gospel called Matthew Jesus says, “…where two or three are gathered…” So even where a small group gathers there can be church.

But what is it which really makes gatherings church? After all, 37,000 people gather to see the Red Sox play baseball. And my bet is some gathered in Fenway do treat that as church. Yeah.

Sometimes baseball stadiums are even referred to as cathedrals. But does that mean those 37,000 people are church, true church? (Slight pause.)

What is church, really? What is it about people gathered which makes a gathering a church? Were those who shouted: “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!” church? (Slight pause.)

I want to suggest those who shouted on the road had it right about church in only one sense. You see, the reason shouting the One who comes in the name of God is right, is that this was or at least seemed to be a worshipful proclamation of the presence of the Messiah. In that sense it’s worship and a little like a praise hymn in any church service.

But I want to suggest what makes church, what makes two or three gathered church, is not just one thing, not just gathering and praise, not just worship. Church takes at least three things.

First yes, gathering with an understanding that Jesus is the Messiah and praising God is vital because it is an aspect of worship. To that extent, the gathered crowd qualified.

But the second step is those gathered then need to share this good news with others. These are the first two parts of being church: worship and proclamation.

Third and last— and this is where those who first praised Jesus and then abandoned Jesus clearly and totally missed the boat— third and last when it comes to what makes people gathered church is follow through… action. What action?

Feed the hungry, clothe those wearing tatters, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, the dying, console the distraught, stand in solidarity with the outcast. These three parts— first, worship with understanding, next, proclamation and last action, are what makes church.

Theologian John Dominic Crossan says this: “In the Hebrew Bible God never says ‘I reject your justice because of your lack of worship.’ God says ‘I reject your worship because of your lack of justice.’” (Slight pause.)

How can we be church? The Word of God needs to be… heard. The Word of God needs to be… shared. The Word of God needs to be… acted on.

This is a poem by Ann Weems. The title is Between Parades. It’s in the bulletin if you care to follow.

We are good at planning!
Give us a task force
and a project
and we are off and running!
No trouble at all!

Yes, going to the village and finding a colt,
even negotiating with the owners
this is right down our alley.
And how we love a parade!

In a frenzy of celebration
we gladly focus on Jesus
and generously throw our coats
and palms in the path.
And we can shout praise
loudly enough
to make the Pharisees complain.
It’s all so good!

It’s between parades that
we don’t do so well.
From Sunday to Sunday
we forget our hosannas,
Between parades
the stones will have to shout…
because we don’t.

Amen.

04/10/2022, Palm Sunday
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 once had a conversation with a young pastor in their first call. That pastor said to me ‘It’s a pastor’s job to preach the Gospel.’ I said, ‘No. It is a pastor’s job to be heard preaching the Gospel. There is a difference.’ As to action, there is saying attributed to Saint Francis which sums up the action to which we are called as church. ‘Preach the Gospel. Use words when necessary.’ And maybe that is how the Gospel is really heard— through action.”

BENEDICTION: God has written love within us, on our hearts. We are empowered to live according to that love through Jesus. In Christ, we can together experience God’s presence. Where Christ leads, let us follow. Where God calls us to service, let us go. And may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge of God, the love of Jesus, the Christ, and the companionship of the Holy Spirit, this day and forevermore. Amen.

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SERMON ~ 03/27/2022 ~ “Ripped from Yesteryear’s Headlines”

03/27/2022 ~ Fourth Sunday in Lent ~ Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 ~ FULL VIDEO OF SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAKL8BRak9c.

Ripped from


Yesteryear’s Headlines

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from what might be called a human point of view, mere human judgment.” — 2 Corinthians 5:16.

I can guarantee this. Like me, some here and some watching remember the 1950s and the 1960s. Those too young to remember have probably or might have studied the era in school. I hope so.

The mix of international relations of that era and even beyond that era were given the name Cold War. The Cold War was not very cold— Korea, Vietnam but also Bay of Pigs, Lebanon and more— hot wars all. We also know all these hot spots were really proxy wars between major powers.

Given what we see today in the Ukraine the cold and the hot seem to have melded yet again, probably also a proxy. I get the feeling the more things change…. Well, for a moment let’s go back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, the 50s and the 60s, as I offer a story from my childhood, a time when we were being told hiding under a desk might help us survive a nuclear attack— yeah, right. (Slight pause.)

As I have already said here, the faith tradition of my youth was Roman Catholicism. And as I have said also, my father was a teacher at a Jesuit High School. My mother entered the convent but left before taking final vows, met my father, married and they had three children.

Given that familial background it should have been no surprise to them (although I think it was) that in me they were rasing a theologian. Indeed, I got into a deep theological discussion with my parents when I was in… the Fourth Grade.

I stated this: the grace of God is not natural, not normal. Further, the grace of God is, itself, a gift from God. And that is not normal, not natural either.

Why? Grace is a free gift, said I, and there is nothing normal, natural about a free gift. Even though I was young I knew that one. So if the grace of God is not normal or natural it is, thereby… supernatural. I think I really emphasize that “super” that way. Natural is what we humans do; supernatural is the work of God.

I apologize. Yes, I was young but I guess I was precocious when it comes to theology. I really wanted to be precocious at baseball but it was not to be. (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work known as Second Corinthians: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from what might be called a human point of view, mere human judgment.” (Slight pause.)

This— what I’m about to say— is a standard definition of grace. Grace is a supernatural gift, undeserved help, that God gives us so we can respond… to the call to become children of God.

Free gift? What? How? Indeed, that brings us to Paul’s writing. Something true in the overall message of Paul but especially true in these words from 2 Corinthians is that in God we find restorative love.

As Paul sees it, this reality happens because the Christ has opened up a new way of knowing, opened up a new way to see the world. Further, in the Christ the reconciling love of God is clearly revealed. And then Paul pushes this idea still one step further.

Paul’s claim is that because of the grace of God through Christ we— we— are commissioned to be engaged in a ministry of reconciliation, ambassadors for God in a ministry of reconciliation. A ministry of reconciliation— this is not normal, not what humans do naturally. This is… supernatural. (Slight pause.)

One of my commentaries on this reading says (quote:) “Nothing may be more difficult for Christians in North America than adopting the new way of discernment inherent in the gospel.” Why?

(Quote:) “The seductive voices from the culture condition us to make moral decisions according to a logic of acquisitions and achievements. We even turn the gospel into a self-help message to enable us to acquire and achieve more.” (Unquote.)

That commentary then reminds us of Paul’s thrust. (Quote:) “To be reconciled to God means to be an agent of reconciliation for the world.” (Slight pause.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, theologian, an anti-Nazi dissident. He died in a Nazi concentration camp on April 9, 1945, just before the end of WWII.

In a sermon on Second Corinthians Bonhoeffer said this (quote:) “Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible rights of the strong.” (Slight pause.)

What was Bonhoeffer getting at? What was Paul getting at? I may be wrong but I think they are getting at… the supernatural. (Quote:) “…through Christ, the world was fully reconciled to God, who did not hold our transgressions against us but instead entrusted us with this message of reconciliation”— entrusted us with a message of reconciliation.

If that does not turn the world as we know it upside down, I do not know what does. That is not natural. That is supernatural.

Supernatural is the work of God which is, effectively, what I said back in the Fourth Grade, back in the era we call the Cold War, a war which was too often not cold. Reconciliation is something not ripped from the headlines of WWII with which Bonhoeffer dealt, or the Cold War which was so often hot, or today’s headlines. But reconciliation is our calling. (Slight pause.)

AS to current conditions, I said this earlier: the more things change… so what can we do now about this new cold/hot war? Unless one of us here is the President or the Secretary of State, there is probably not a lot we can do in terms of the large scale.

However, my bet is you’ve heard this phrase before: think globally, act locally. So this is my suggestion.

We humans are empowered by God through grace, entrusted by God to be a part of reconciliation. Yes, not natural— supernatural.

This grace, this work of reconciliation, is a gift is from God and the work of God. Hence, this question is set before us: are we willing to participate in the work of reconciliation but not on that aforementioned global scale?

Are we willing to do the work of reconciliation, locally, among those whom we know, those we see every day, among those around us, and indeed those who may come to us from afar. Are we willing to do that work, here, now? Let us pray that we may be empowered by the grace of God to do this work called reconciliation. Amen.

03/27/2022
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: “Two things: Our job is not to judge others but to lift those who are fallen, restore those who are broken, heal those who are hurting. Simply striving to do that is supernatural and will turn the world as we know it upside down. Here’s another way to put it. Theology is not a hammer. Hammers are only good at hitting nails. Our theology needs to be the glue which mends the world and holds it together. Second, think globally or we become isolated from reality. When we act locally it can be the glue which holds our social fabric together.”

BENEDICTION: Let us seek to love as we have been loved by God, welcoming our brothers and sisters. Let us rejoice in God’s goodness and steadfast love. Let us follow where God leads. Let us go on our way with Christ as our companion. And may the steadfast love of God and 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 ~ 03/06/2022 ~ “No Distinction”

03/06/2021 ~ First Sunday in Lent ~ Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13 ~ VIDEO OF THE FULL SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fb1QtYjnF4A.

No Distinction

“…there is no distinction between Jew and Greek— all have the same Creator, rich in mercy towards those who call.” — Romans 10:12.

I have over my time with you mentioned that I grew up in New York City. This next statement sounds like a joke but it’s true. I’ve got all five boroughs covered. I was born in Manhattan, raised in Brooklyn, lived in Queens, went to school in the Bronx and way before I met Bonnie I dated a girl from Staten Island.

I know a lot about how to survive in New York. I even know there are codes on the lampposts in Central Park which tell you at which the east/west cross street you’re located. That’s helpful since the park is big— 843 acres big.

Now, I grew up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Back then that area had a lot of poverty. And my family was not exactly rich. Parochial school teachers like my father were not well paid, paid even less than public school teachers.

The classic 1950s Jackie Gleason TV show The Honeymooners was set in that neighbor of my youth. Gleason grew up there. I grew up there. Some of you may remember the show, those of a certain age, certainly. Younger folks may have seen it on a cable channel. But if you haven’t seen it at all you can check it out on YOUTUBE, all 39 episodes are out there.

Set in Bushwick, the program showed some of that aforementioned poverty, life in that time and in that place. There were advantages and disadvantages in growing up in that time and place. I’ve already mentioned a disadvantage— a lot of poverty.

Here’s an advantage. Because I was in that time and place, in New York City in the 50s and 60s, I was exposed to and in touch with world class music and art. And I could access a lot of it for free, which is still a possibility there.

For some reason I was attuned to classical music, to the great art in the museums. I was more a fan of Bernstein and da Vinci than of Elvis and comic books. That made me the black sheep of the family since I sought out things in which my siblings and my parents had little interest. Growing up in that time and that place, that atmosphere, is a part of me, contributed to who I am today.

The phrase sociologists use to describe one’s time and place of origin and even one’s current time and place is social location. We all have both a time and a place of origin and a current location. We all have a social location, both historic and current.

To unpack that academic idea just a little, is how much money you have— does that have a strong influence on how you see the world? Yes. Is your race an influence? Yes. Indeed, if we do not recognize race matters, we have our eyes closed to reality.

In short, our social location has an overwhelming influence on our view of the world, our view of life. Whether we are aware or of our own social location or not, that location still helps us shape, conceptualize, understand and make sense of the world around us.

Social location even has an affect on what gets through to our brain. It can either block or illuminate features of the world which are salient, relevant, forceful, credible.

Well, that’s all somewhat academic. This is a less academic way to put it. If you grew up familiar with wealth, your take on a lot of things is likely to be different than if you grew up familiar with poverty.

If you grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, your take on a lot of things is likely to be different than if you grew up in San Francisco, California, in London, England, in Tokyo, Japan. And if you grew up in South Freeport…. well, you get the idea.

The bottom line: exploring our own social location invites us to ask some basic even hard questions. Who am I? How does who I am affect those around me? Because of my social location am I aware or blissfully unaware of my own prejudices? (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the Letter to the Church in Rome, often called Romans: “…there is no distinction between Jew and Greek— all have the same Creator, rich in mercy towards those who call.” (Slight pause.)

There was a label which was flung around for a couple years. “Loser!” Most of the time those who used this were attempting to utter a pejorative, an insult, a put down.

But the real purpose of invectives like “loser” is to set up us/them dichotomies since what’s left unsaid is, ‘If there are losers, there are winners.’ Winners and losers— that’s the way the real world works, right? Indeed, separating people like that begs the question: ‘Why are these us/them lines, these separations drawn?’ (Slight pause.)

That brings me back to Paul’s proclamation about there being no distinction between Jew and Greek. The season of Lent, you see, always brings the church back to the basics, to issues that are bedrock, essential.

The texts assigned in Lent tend to invite us to reflect on where we, as communities and individuals, stand in relation to basics. One part of those basics is an invitation to a process of self-examination, forgiveness, new life, repentance. And remember repentance means turning toward God; it’s not about being sorry.

And so the text challenges us to ask who is to be included in my community, our community? Clearly the answer offered is everyone— no distinction.

Given Paul’s time and place, Paul’s social location, there are only two choices of location: Jew and Greek. And given Paul’s social location the Apostle to the gentiles, the Apostle to the Greeks, insists social location is not a determining factor about who is acceptable and who is not. So what is Paul really saying? To put t in perhaps more modern language, there are no winners or losers, no outcasts. (Slight pause.)

Let’s come back to our own social location for a minute. Compared to Paul who thought in terms of two social locations, today we have a vast array of social locations which affect us. But the prime issue for us is still the same one Paul was addressing. Why? Our tendency is to break humans out into a pair of tribes: winners and losers.

Here’s my take: the call of the Gospel counters that. The call of the Gospel is to live by the grace, in the grace, with the grace God offers. The call of the Gospel, the call of that grace, is to see everyone as being gathered into in one tribe— the tribe of God.

I don’t think the idea that everyone might belong to one tribe comes naturally to us. Why? I think we like to catagorize, make groups.

Thinking in terms of all humanity as one tribe invites us to explore, to identify, to examine our own shortcomings, our own failings. I would also suggest through this examination of self, we can at least strive to, try to avoid choosing up sides, avoid choosing winners and losers.

Sociologist Robert Putnam puts it this way. ‘Relentlessly exercising individual freedom at the expense of others can unravel the foundations of society.’ [1] I would add that relentlessly exercising individual freedom at the expense of others can unravel the foundations of God’s tribe, humanity.

And yes, it is a challenge to refrain from picking sides, to love as God would have us love. But I am convinced that the call of the Gospel is a call to examine and explore the world not as we see the world but as God sees the world. Let us pray for the vision and for the grace to accomplish this task. Amen.

03/06/2022
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 a précis of what was said: “Yes, I was a Catholic altar boy who grew up in Brooklyn and the nuns taught me an examination of conscience was an important method to use in exploring a Christian way of life. When I was just a little older I became familiar with classical literature and I learned Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ And so let me once again point you to one or our thoughts for meditation in today’s bulletin (quote:) ‘Lent is not a “penitential season.” Lent is a “growing season.’” Indeed, Lent is a time for growth. So, let us pray for the grace to grow in service, grow in friendship, grow in love.”

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.

[1] This is a paraphrase of the words of Putnam from The Upswing, 2020 Simon & Schuster, pg. 19.

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SERMON ~ 02/27/2022 ~ Transfiguration Sunday ~ “My Name Is Peter”

02/27/2022 ~ Transfiguration Sunday ~ Last Sunday of the Season of Epiphany and the Last Sunday Before Lent ~ Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a) VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bRjXCaFZRo

My Name Is Peter

“Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here;…’” — (Luke 9:33b) [Long pause as the pastor changes to a white robe and moves to a stand away from the pulpit.]

My name is Peter. (Pause.) I saw my friend die today. I do not know what to think. I do not know what to say. I am frightened. That’s because I saw my friend die today. (Pause.)

No. That’s not right. I watched as my friend was executed today. No, that’s not right, either. I saw my friend murdered today.

And it was brutal–– what they did to him. In fact, I could not watch to the end. I ran away. I hid. I was fearful, ashamed, sad, angry. I wanted to lash out, to hit someone, anyone. I did not know how to react. I did not… know what to do.

And I do not know what this means… that he was executed, murdered… by the state, by the government, by Rome. He was… my friend. (Pause.)

His name was Yeshuah, Jesus in Greek. The name means ‘God saves.’ That is what I thought every time I saw him–– ‘God saves.’ That is what I thought I saw in him–– ‘God saves.’

What I thought I was seeing in Yeshuah was that God’s dominion could be and was present, real. What I thought I was seeing in Yeshuah was that God is with us, God is present to us and that God is in the here, God is in the now!

And I knew, I was confident, that the things which had been written about, those things which are foretold, things which say the time of God’s dominion is here— those things, that time had finally arrived.

Did Yeshuah not fulfill the very things about which the prophets speak? Did those who are blind see? It happened! Did it not? Did those who are lame walk? It happened! Did it not? What had been prophesied about God’s dominion happened!

It happened here, in this time, among us! It was real! (Softly.) It happened in Yeshuah! And now this, now this— murdered by the state. (Pause.)

He was kinder and more giving than any one I’ve ever met. And he was filled with wisdom. He knew the writings we hold sacred in an intimate way.

He did not just know what they said. Anyone can memorize the sacred writings, even gentiles. But he knew what the writings meant. He knew what was written in the law. The Rabbi knew the spirit of the law, the Spirit of Yahweh, the Spirit of God. (Pause.)

I remember the day I first met Yeshuah. We, my brother Andrew and I, had been trying to catch fish all night— nothing— we caught nothing. We came in.

Yeshuah was on the shore and asked to come on board, asked us to pull out a short way onto the lake. That was so all the people who had gathered to listen could hear what was said.

After he spoke Yeshuah told us to go to go deeper into the water out on the lake and put out our nets. We did. Suddenly there were fish— more than I had ever seen before! The nets were breaking.

Next I heard this: “Follow— I will make you fish for people.” I wasn’t sure what it meant— ‘…fish for people.’

What I do know is when Yeshuah spoke I suddenly knew the reality of God, knew God’s will for my life. I abandoned the nets. I followed.

There were twelve of us who were very close to him. But there were more than just the twelve. And this group was like no other group I had ever been a part of before.

It did not seem to matter to Yeshuah if those in the group, those who followed, were in many ways different. He treated each of us as individuals and yet seemed to be able to connect with all of us simultaneously, met each of us where we were at and yet met all of us together, as one.

I do not know how he did that. We were young, old, children, adults, men, women, rich, poor, wise, foolish, tax collectors, tent makers— none of us were alike. Yet what seemed to matter to the Rabbi was not our differences but our willingness to know God, to participate in the work of God, to be in relationship with God.

He told us that the most important thing we could do was to love God and love our neighbors. When we asked who our neighbors were, he said our neighbors included everybody— Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles, men, women— everybody.

He told us if we had two cloaks give one away, turn the other cheek. He told us to avoid judging others. I had never heard any teacher, any rabbi say these things before.

He said all of these things, but he didn’t just say them. He did them. He lived life not just by words, but by choices, by actions. He lived a life centered on God.

He told us to not worry and to trust totally in God. And Yeshuah did that. Yeshuah trusted God totally, called God abba, daddy. (Pause.)

We traveled throughout all of Galilee with him, right by his side. And he taught. He befriended the poor. He healed the sick.

He sent us, the twelve, out, told us to preach, to teach about the good news of the dominion of God and to cast out demons and cure lepers. And this I still do not believe, but we preached, taught, cast out demons and cured those who were leporus! We did it! All of us. (Pause.) It was awesome!

And then… and then there was that day on the mountain. Yeshuah took us up the hill. There were four of us, myself, James, John, Yeshuah. The day was hot, but it was very clear. The sky was as blue as I had ever seen it.

We reached the top and just sat, stared out at the countryside, all of us together. It was beautiful. Then we prayed. But we were tired. The climb was hard. We slept.

Suddenly we were all awake at the same time. Perhaps we had sensed something had happened.

We all experienced it but I’m not sure how to describe it. The face of Yeshuah was as bright as the sun. His clothes were dazzling.

Then both Moses and Elijah were standing there with Yeshuah. I don’t even know how I knew they were Moses and Elijah. I just knew.

I said something stupid like, ‘It is good for us to be here;…’ I was so tongue tied, I didn’t know what else to say.

Then there was a cloud, a voice. We all saw the cloud. We all heard the voice.

The voice rang out loud and clear and strong: “This is my Own, my Chosen; listen!” I fell to the ground, covered my eyes. I did not know what to do. I was very, very frightened. (Pause.)

Suddenly Yeshuah touched me. I had felt that touch before, a touch only the Rabbi seemed to have— warm, friendly, sensitive. I felt that touch on my back.

Yeshuah could touch you with his hand, with his voice, with his eyes. I always seemed to know when he was looking at me. Yeshuah touched me. I looked up.

He was alone. I stood. We all stood. We did not tell anyone about this. We simply did not know what to say. (Pause.)

I do not know what to make of this. I do not understand it. My name is Peter. (Pause.) I saw my friend die today. I watched as my friend was murdered today. I do not know what to think. I am… frightened. (Sit with one hand held over the face. Very long pause.)

{Note: This is followed by a solo voice singing Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?}

02/27/2022
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: “As was said in our time of prayer, this week we witnessed a sovereign state invade by another. [1] And some might think I failed to address it in my sermon today. I would suggest I did. Last I heard the Christ was murdered by the state. Despite what has happened, I maintain hope. Or as the Rev. Dr. William Sloane-Coffin the late anti-war activist said (quote:) ‘Hope is a state of mind independent of the state of the world. If your hearts are full of hope, you can be persistent when you can’t be optimistic. You can keep the faith despite the evidence, knowing that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing. So while I’m not optimistic, I’m always very hopeful.’”

BENEDICTION: God heals and restores. God grants to us the grace and the talent to witness to the love God has for us. So let us live in the light God offers. And, therefore, 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, transform us and keep our minds and hearts in the companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.

[1] . It should be noted that during the time of prayer the pastor lifted this poem by Ann Weems as a prayer. It was said that despite the fact that Weems had written this a number of years ago or perhaps because of that fact, this poem seemed like an appropriate prayer given the war waged against the Ukraine.

“I No Longer Pray For Peace” ~ By Ann Weems (1934-2016)

On the edge of war, one foot already in,

I no longer pray for peace:
I pray for miracles.

I pray that stone hearts will turn
to tenderheartedness,
and evil intentions will turn
to mercifulness,
and all the soldiers already deployed
will be snatched out of harm’s way,
and the whole world will be
astounded onto its knees.

I pray that all the “God talk”
will take bones,
and stand up and shed
its cloak of faithlessness,
and walk again in its powerful truth.

I pray that the whole world might
sit down together and share
its bread and its wine.

Some say there is no hope,
but then I’ve always applauded the holy fools
who never seem to give up on
the scandalousness of our faith:
that we are loved by God……
that we can truly love one another.

I no longer pray for peace:
I pray for miracles.

The pastor added “amen.”

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SERMON ~ 02/20/2022 ~ “Golden Rules”

02/20/2022 ~ Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Known in Some Traditions as the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 2 ) ~ Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40; 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50; Luke 6:27-38~ THE VIDEO OF THE FULL SERVICE IS HERE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3MldggUlx8.

Golden Rules

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” — Luke 6:31

When I was at Bangor Seminary the background of an adjunct professor, Dana Sawyer, was interesting. A member of the Penobscot Tribe who grew up near Old Town, he had a Ph.D. in Far Eastern Religion.

Having visited the Far East numerous times he decided to return to Maine and teach. At Bangor he, appropriately, taught World Religions.

He claimed the religion most practiced in America and most practiced world wide was what he labeled as shamanism, perhaps better categorized as folk religion or cultural religion. I could spend an hour unpacking that— don’t worry; I won’t.

The American example he used is Fundamentalism. He said it is a folk religion because Fundamentalism has absolutely no basis in historic Christianity and began to be practiced only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Following the Civil War, tensions developed among Christians in America. Why? Scholarly Biblical criticism, a kind of Scriptural study practiced for at least a millennia, started to be seen by some as encouraging social and cultural change. Just this encouragement toward change was unacceptable to some.

Funded by a Gilded Age oil baron who wanted to resist social change because of his social location, a series of papers known as The Fundamentals was published in Los Angeles between 1910 and 1915. Christianity had never seen anything like organized Fundamentalism before. And it was organized by big money.

In short, Fundamentalism is not ancient. It is a little more than 100 years old and largely an American idea. Further it is not a theological reevaluation of Christianity. It is a social, cultural movement. Its mission is to resist change in society.

I am not saying people who follow Fundamentalism are insincere in their belief. I am saying the movement itself stems from social, cultural origins and is recent. The Christianity I know cannot be labeled as folk religion or cultural religion as it is not based on a recent cultural, social trends and is theological in its basis. (Slight pause.)

My father taught at a Jesuit High School so I sometimes say I have Jesuit training. But I was never in a classroom or taught by Jesuit priests. Rather, they were my friends.

Jesuits came to family parties. I went on trips with them. When I was young they staffed the Summer camp I attended. I played softball and basketball with Jesuits.

Question: Most of the time how do we really learn, learn about life, learn how to behave, learn how life should be lived? We learn from family and from family friends.

Any competent teacher will tell you a lot of learning happens outside the classroom. When Jesuits are your friends you are influenced by their thinking. You learn from it.

Now, every ten years the Jesuit order publishes a list of four priorities, the mission for the order over the next ten years. They recently published a new list.

First, “Show the way to God through discernment and… Spiritual Exercises.” Next, “Walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice.” Third, “Accompany young people in the creation of a hope-filled future.” Last, “Collaborate in the care of the earth, our common home.” (Slight pause.)

We find this being spoken by the Christ in the work known as Luke/Acts in the portion called Luke: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Slight pause)

The quote you just heard is often called The Golden Rule. It is found in many faith traditions, in many social traditions, in many cultures. (Slight pause.)

Now, you may be aware I had what might be called multiple careers before seminary. One piece was a stint of several years working on Wall Street.

Do you know what The Golden Rule on Wall Street is? (Slight pause.) Those who have the gold make the rules. Its corollary is those who have power hoard power. Another corollary: Those who dominate strive to perpetuate dominance.

These are cultural, secular golden rules, not often voiced but very real. The question for us here is simple: are we too often overwhelmed by the culture and thereby, perhaps unknowingly, follow cultural, secular golden rules like these? (Slight pause.)

Occasionally someone will say to me there are liberal interpretations of the Bible. Others will insist there are conservative interpretations. Nether position is accurate.

What I am about to say is neither liberal nor conservative. The challenges to understanding with which Scripture presents us as we explore God’s Word and seek God’s will are multiple. This is a vital one: we need to identify the cultural trappings we find in Scripture which are solely based on the era in which Scripture was written.

That is not easy. After all, the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, contain at least four different documents written over the course of a number centuries then woven together around the Sixth Century Before the Common Era.

But they appear to someone who reads the text only in translation and not in the original language to be one, single, singular, seamless document. If you’re reading in the original language the differences in language from era to era become more evident.

These documents, woven together as one, written in different eras, need to be unpacked to explore the cultural content of the era in which each was written. All that is to say, not only do we need to identify the cultural, social content. As well as we can we need to try to neutralize the cultural, social content of the era as we seek the will of God.

But there is another similar challenge. What does our culture, today, say to us? You see, to identify what our culture today says, to identify its influence on us, maybe an even harder task than looking at the ancient cultures found in the Scriptural text.

Why? We are living in and with our own culture. We are so immersed in our culture it is second nature to us to the point where sometimes we do not even notice it.

And just like we should strive to identify cultural practices in ancient times when we read Scripture and eliminate those, we need to try to identify today’s cultural trends and neutralize those. Having done all that then we should ask some key questions. ‘What is God saying?’ ‘To where does God call us?’ ‘To where does God call the church?’ (Slight pause.)

Let me return to my friends the Jesuits. You probably know Pope Francis is a Jesuit. Just two weeks ago he was interviewed by a primetime Italian talk show. [1] This is what he said (quote:): “…to be forgiven is a human right.” (Slight pause.)

Do me a favor. Roll that idea around in your brain. To be forgiven is a human right. If there ever was a counter-cultural idea, that’s it! Christianity is not about a past culture. Christianity is not about the current culture. Christianity is about a way of life which walks with God.

Perhaps the idea behind studying Scripture is to strive, as well as we are able, to see the world as God sees the world. How does God see the world? (Slight pause.)

I think just one of the things Jesus taught about how God sees the world is this: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” That, my friends, is not just the golden rule. That is a counter-cultural idea since those words are not about human culture. Those words are about God’s culture. Amen.

02/20/2022
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 do not know if I have used this quote from Maya Angelou here before but even if I have used it this is a quote worth repeating. (Quote:) ‘I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it, which means that I try to be kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being.’”

BENEDICTION: Let us go in joy and in love and in peace. God reigns. Therefore, let us go forth in the name of Christ proclaiming the peace of God which surpasses understanding. And may the face of God shine upon us; may the presence of Christ be with us; may the fire of the Spirit burn within us this day and forevermore. Amen.

[1] https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2022/02/07/pope-francis-interview-italy-242340?fbclid=IwAR1xGnQ_YwYKRkRWFdABdbVwa6HsPCaZGuJoufXgPyR-eV_6oWV2zAgkFsY

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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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