Monday, November 13, 2017

A Sermon in the Series on Practicing our Faith: Courage, Change, Hope

A Sermon in the Series on Practicing our Faith: Courage, Change, Hope 
OCTOBER 29, 2017 
SECOND CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH OF BEVERY, UCC ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE 
Because today many churches are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I decided to preach on how that reformation resonates with Second Church. When Martin Luther challenged the dominant ways religion was practiced he was advocating a huge change. And in demanding that change, he had to be a man of courage. Courage and change, courage to change. Those were the practices of faith I thought I’d emphasize.

This congregation has had to make some daring choices. It is said that the greatest disloyalty one can offer to our pioneers is to refuse to move an inch from where they stood. In order to survive, we must embrace change; in order to embrace change, we must be brave. So, change it was. And I thought change and courage were the qualities we would have to draw on in the coming year. But then, I got stuck. Every time I turned my thoughts to what it meant to be courageous, or how we navigate change, there was this neon sign flashing in my brain. It said HOPE … HOPE!

Yes, I think hope needs to precede change. Hope needs to motivate courage. We don’t take a leap of faith if we do not believe there is something worth leaping into.

I’ve chosen a Psalm of hope to anchor this sermon. But it sure doesn’t start out very hopeful. In fact the whole Psalm comes from a place of deep pain. And I think that is important. Hope isn’t a rosy optimism that denies reality. Hope is often rooted in despair.

Read the Psalms. They are full of anger, misery, fear, grief, impatience, blaming. Yeah, we know those emotions. We read them in blogs and tweets, we hear them from our children, we express them ourselves. They are in the air we breathe. War and terror, killings and chaos, leaders let us down, institutions crumble. So much negativity. It was the same for the writers of the Psalms. They complain for themselves, they complain on behalf of their people, and mostly they complain to God. But it's important to realize that the Psalms don't stop with the complaint. They go on to hope. Listen to these excerpts from Psalm 130

PSALM 130 
     Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the               voice of my supplications! 

     If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you,       so that you may be revered. 

     I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in God's word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more            than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. 

     O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with God is great power         to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities. 

During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and placed in refugee camps. Even though they received food and good care many who had lost home, parents, everything … they could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All though the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.” (Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life. Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn)

The Psalms function as our bread. They remind us of God's faithfulness in the midst of despair. These poems may be laments but they almost always end with bread to hold on to; inspiring statements of confidence that God will provide because that is their experience of God. God carried them through dire times in the past, God will do it again. Somewhere in a cathedral in New York City this inscription is carved on a wall. "Hallelujah anyway! God is with us." That’s kinda the lament Psalms in a nutshell.

One of the reasons we come to church is to hear testimonies of hope. These are the crusts of bread that help us sleep at night. These are the reminders that God has given us what we need in the past and will do so again. We hold this bread so that we can have courage in the midst of change.

BREAD FROM OUR WITNESSES During our stewardship campaign, people in our congregation have offered us bread – testimonies of God’s faithfulness made real through the church.

Martin Luther gave us bread in his great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” He was often in danger. The emperor declared him an outlaw and made it a crime for anyone in Germany to give him food or shelter. He permitted anyone to kill Martin without consequence. Yet Luther sang, “Our help is he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”

Mahatma Gandhi offers us bread from his tradition: He writes. When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been murderers and tyrants, and for a time they can seem invincible. But in the end they always fall. Think of it, always. 

And here is a piece of bread from the Benedictine theologian, Joan Chittester: Despair says that there is no place to go but here. Hope says that God is waiting for us someplace else. Begin again.”

In a church I served, there was a family – parents and two teen-aged daughters. Three of those four family members were diagnosed with cancer at the same time. The mother wrote:
It's overwhelming, tiring, and discouraging. There is worry and fear. But, now that everything is stripped away, I know what really matters. I know what family means, how true friends behave and how many true friends there are— even among people I don't know. And I know more about God than I ever thought I would. 
Bread of hope from a family besieged.

We can become paralyzed by despair or cynicism, enslaved by fear to the point that we cannot act. Hope presents us with the belief that things can be different. Hope gives us courage.

The historian Howard Zinn writes:
 To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. But we must remember those times and places —and there are so many— where people behaved magnificently. This gives the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this … world in a different direction. …. To live now as we think a human being should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory. And this is what the church encourages; to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us.

Stories of hope are sustaining to all of us. We feed on them. And there is something even more sustaining. This is the trustworthiness of God. The truly safe place is that quiet center within us where God resides. And that safe place remains whether our body lives or dies.

We may "hope for" certain outcomes and successes and sometime our hopes are fulfilled and sometimes we do not get what we hope for. But what never fails is "hope in." My soul hopes in the Lord. God is the mighty fortress, the bulwark never failing. Have hope in God in times of trouble. With this assurance we too can say, "Hallelujah anyway! God is with us."

One: Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

All: No! For we are convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Give to God What is God's

tewardship Sunday ~ Practicing Our Faith ~ Generosity JUDITH B. BRAIN 
TEXT: MATTHEW 22:15-22 
OCTOBER 15, 2017 
SECOND CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH BEVERLY, MA—UCC ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
The scene is the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus is surrounded by many of his followers. He is there to make his religious pilgrimage, to pray, and to teach. There was a delicate status quo at work in Jerusalem, this outpost of the Roman Empire. Religious leaders made deals with the Roman conquerors keeping their own people in line in order maintain a fragile peace. They had to make compromises to avoid violent oppression. Who could blame them?

But not everyone was pleased with this arrangement. Jewish rebels, separatists, and insurrectionists wanted to overthrow the Roman government. These rabble rousers had to be nipped in the bud. Rome would come down hard on them but their own leaders tried to keep them in check too. Some regarded Jesus as a threat to this fragile detente, not because he advocated violent revolution, but because he was an ally of the poor and a critic of tyranny wherever he found it—among the Roman occupiers or the rigid authoritarianism of his own religion. He is being watched; the goal is to silence him. Here's what happened the day they set a trap.

MATTHEW 22:15-22            PAYING TAXES
The Pharisees plotted a way to trap him into saying something damaging. They sent their disciples, with a few of Herod's followers mixed in, to ask, "Teacher, we know you have integrity, you teach the way of God accurately, you're indifferent to popular opinion, and don't pander to your students. (Wow, they're laying the flattery on pretty thick.)

        So tell us honestly: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"

     Jesus knew they were up to no good. He said, "Why are you playing these games with me? Why         are you trying to trap me? Do you have a coin? Let me see it." They handed him a silver piece.

    "This engraving—who does it look like? And whose name is on it?"

     They said, "Caesar."

     "Then give Caesar what is his, and give God what is God's."

     The Pharisees were speechless. They went off shaking their heads.

A simple story that seems to confirm American ideology of separation of church and state. Keep state taxes and religious loyalties strictly separated. But there's more here than meets the eye. Jesus taught about human dignity, about how important people were in the eyes of God, even the poor. Especially the poor! He taught people to seek God's best for themselves. This would not have been bondage to Rome. The authorities regarded this teaching as dangerous.

Thus, the trick question. "Should we pay taxes to Caesar?" If he said, "No, Caesar is a tyrant," as they were pretty sure he would, the Roman soldiers would arrest him on the spot. If he said, "Yes," he would lose the confidence of the people who loved him and looked to him for courage and guidance. He couldn't win.

I like this story. We often think of Jesus as serious and concerned only with saintly things. We also imagine that he was brave to the point of being foolhardy—putting himself in danger constantly. This story shows Jesus as a trickster with a sense of humor; and a person who would just as soon stay out of trouble with the bullies, thank you very much.

What was his answer to that trick question? Remember the response? "Give to the state what belongs to the state. Give to God what is God's."

They couldn't arrest him for that, could they? Caesar's picture was on the coin, that meant the coin belonged to Caesar. But somehow, the crowd didn't turn on Jesus in disgust. Wasn't he saying they should support that evil government? Why didn't they regard him as a traitor to their cause? How do you suppose he got away with that answer?

I think I know why. The clue is found in a Psalm. "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it. The world, and all who live in it." Many of them there that day would have been able to quote the psalm: “The earth is Lord’s and all that is in it. … ” Everything is God's! Nothing belongs to Caesar.

Not the earth, not their homeland. Not their bodies. Not their minds. Nothing belongs to Caesar. They belong only to God! We belong only to God! Give to God what bears God's image, which is nothing less than the whole of us. I can imagine the faithful Jew in that mob who would have caught on to that clever response. I hear him whispering “Touché” under his breath.

 Today we kick off our stewardship campaign. Today I give what one of my friends calls “The Sermon on the Amount.” But when we encourage ourselves to pledge to the church, we are talking only about part of our stewardship – the way we use our money.

 Christian stewardship is not fund-raising, it is a way of life, an expression of who we are. This story is about a basic spiritual orientation. New Testament Professor, Donald Senior writes, " … one of the crucial meanings of money in our culture is self-expression." One could translate that, "We are what we spend." Our credit card printout is probably a better window into our character than our Facebook profile.

I remember launching a church stewardship campaign at the lowest point of the financial crisis in 2008. One of our Sunday school teachers was an editor of the Harvard Business Review. She knew a thing or two about finances. I asked her advice about how to encourage giving. She replied, "We need to say that the investments that we make here at the church never lose their value."

We heard a moving testimonial from Doug today and we will be hearing more from other members of the congregation about those investments—our commitments to caring for one another, our reaching out in solidarity to those in need, providing solace in worship, music, and prayer, a beautiful, sacred space in which the community can gather. We'll be hearing about feeding people body and soul and extending a welcome that knows no boundaries. And we’ll hear about teaching our children these values. We need to know that when we give, we're supporting something that is worthy.

I remember a 100-year old saint. Depression era survivors she and her husband were people who did not know the meaning of luxury. They never had more than one car, lived simply, and cared for their belonging so they would last a lifetime.

Every year, they would assess their finances to decide if they could take a vacation. Whether they did or not was based on their church pledge. Unless they knew there would be enough money for the church, they did not take a vacation. Their pledge was a priority.

Their kindness and generosity was a way of life. And then there were the young parents of two kids. A military family, they lived on Hanscom Air Force base. I was with them at a booth selling children’s religious books. They were discussing two books that they thought their daughters would love. Which one should we get? I jumped in. “Get them both!” “No,” Annie responded, “our budget only allows for one.” Later that year, I was to discover that this frugal family gave one of the five largest pledges to the church.

I have to say, that our 100 year-old lady and the young family were some of the most contented people I know. They did not find meaning in things but in joyful giving. To this day, their examples inspire me. And, I felt accountable to them. I wanted to make very sure that the church was worthy of their sacrifice.

 It is also very important to acknowledge that there are seasons in our lives when we are capable of giving lavishly and seasons when any pledge is a stretch. Stewardship is who we are: That’s where our “Body of Christ” image comes in again. We carry each other.

People in my generation with our children grown, our houses almost paid for, and some money in the bank, we can afford to pitch in a little more to cover for our brothers and sisters who are drowning in college loans. People bowed down with debt need to find a place at church where they are free from anxiety about money and held with respect no matter what their financial circumstances.

 So, I’ve shared some inspiring stories about giving and not just money. Giving to God what is God's is how we express our personality in positive, life affirming directions.

Stewardship has been defined as “what we do with what we have all the time.” I could not, in good conscience, ask you to support the maintenance of this building, the salaries of the staff, and the programs of this church, if I hadn't already asked you to be faithful to Jesus Christ with what you have all the time.

I would not be able to muster much enthusiasm for any church if I did not believe that we are part of something awesome. What we hold here; the message of God's love and faithfulness is sustained by financial gifts yes, but it is utterly priceless.

Ways to Pray

OCTOBER 21, 2017 
SECOND CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, BEVERLY—UCC ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE 
Today’s sermon topic in the series on “Practicing our Faith” is “Prayer.” Here’s a question we hear a lot. “Do you believe in prayer?” 

Hmmm, would we fill our worship with prayers if we didn’t believe in them? In this Sunday’s worship bulletin alone, there are 8 prayers if you count the hymns addressed to God as prayers set to music. 

 The book of James talks about the importance of prayer in a church community. He says we need to pray for each other. 

13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 

Prayer. In a 12 minute sermon, one can hardly crack the surface of this deep and vital Christian practice. It is one of the cornerstones of faith. It is what makes a church different from a support group or a community action network or a self improvement seminar. We want to help others, better ourselves, learn, promote justice. But we do that not only by our own efforts or with our own energy. No, we add prayer! We call on the resources of God so we can be powerful and effective.

Do you believe in prayer? It’s often asked with a skeptical tone. What’s behind that question? Sadly, it often means, “Do you believe that God intervenes supernaturally and changes the course of nature in order to answer prayer?” 

Well, I certainly believe in miracles. No-one could spend decades listening to the stories of prayerful Christians and not know that there is something mystical happening in the connections between human beings and God. People testify about coming through scary medical procedures with a sense of peace. They say, “I know I made it because of all the prayers that surrounded me. I felt them!” People talk about directly experiencing the “touch” of God through prayer. 

 Or there is this story: “I was so discouraged. Then out of the blue I got a note that said just the right thing and set me on the right track. It was too perfect to be coincidence. I know it was an answer to prayer.”

 Yes, we are more “soul connected” than we recognize. There is a spirit that flows among us and out of us, to each other and to strangers. That connecting essence is God. God is not “up there,” God is right here. 

And yet, all prayers are not answered the way we hope. The “healing” and “saving” and “raising up” that James promises may not mean we are restored to perfect health. I met someone recently who told me. “I lost my faith a long time ago. I prayed and prayed that my father would not have to go through chemotherapy for cancer. But he did. He got some good years, but finally he died of the disease. God didn’t answer my prayer at all. I don’t believe in prayer and I don’t believe in God.” 

You know, how many of your wishes are granted is not a very good test of the value of prayer. Life is filled with random illness, death, pain, and losses. If you measure God’s effectiveness by how well you manage to escape these inevitabilities, God will always lose out. Nobody escapes. It’s not good theology to regard God as a fairy godmother that grants wishes or a “cosmic bellhop” as Martin Luther King names it. 

The Rolling Stones neatly summed it up. “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try some times, you just might find, you get what you need.” 

Undoubtedly, the most common form of prayer is the one we practice every Sunday. Intercessions and petitions. It’s what James encourages us to do. 

But there is more to prayer. Prayer is, at its core, coming into the presence of God. As Woody Allen says about life, the most important part is showing up. So it is with prayer. I believe in that kind of prayer too. It has nothing to do with supply and demand or asking, asking, asking. So what are some other ways to pray? 

Coming into God’s presence with thanksgiving doesn’t mean talking God’s ear off. Perhaps the deepest form of prayer is listening. The time we take to just be with God and listen is invaluable in determining the next step when the way is not so clear. I like that hymn, “Here I Am Lord.” It’s just about putting ourselves in a place to attend to God. Quiet listening is a too-often neglect form of prayer. 

There is also the form of prayer that seems to have no utilitarian purpose. The prayer of adoration. It’s a prayer about developing a relationship. 

I have a friend who is a Catholic priest. Every day he observes what he calls his “holy hour.” One day he showed me the place in the sanctuary where he sits before the cross. “What are you thinking about?” I asked him. “Nothing,” he said as he gestured to the crucified Christ. “I just look at him and he looks at me and we love each other.” Here I am. 

“Here I am.” Prayer is mindfulness. Constantly turning the mind toward God. Constantly reminding ourselves that we are in the presence of God no matter when or where. That might be the time for conversational prayer. 

The writer Annie Lamott, has a very prosaic practice of prayer. She talks to Jesus while she drives on the L.A. freeways. From her conversation with Jesus, it sounds as if he’s buckled into the seatbelt right next to her. She might say, “You know, Jesus, I’ve been a real jerk today. That perfect mom in my son’s kindergarten class is getting on my nerves. I know I shouldn’t dislike her because she wears size 8 Calvin Kleins and makes Pokemon cookies for each kid in the class with their names written on them. But I feel jealousy taking root. I’m definitely going to need your help here.” 

“Here I am.” We can pray always—conversing with God as a friend as we goes about our work. We can even emulate the Psalmists and rage and cry and shake our fist in anger when we feel lost, abandoned, scared, and lonely. Just let go with all our negative feelings. God can take it. 

One can pray wordlessly. Perhaps the most meaningful prayer of all happens when words are beyond us. When we are so distraught or depleted that we cannot think, never mind put a coherent sentence together. Would you believe that the Bible tells us then God prays for us? 

To me, one of the most hopeful and comforting Bible passages on prayer is found in Romans 8:26. 

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 

That’s a promise to hang on to. And I do!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Redeeming Laughter

Psalm 126
Redeeming Laughter
Christmas Eve 2016

I have a friend who, every Advent, posts really, really bad Christmas jokes on her Facebook page, jokes so punny and bad they would make Bob Lague proud.  Here are a few examples, and tell me if you don’t agree:
How much did Santa pay for his sleigh?  (Nothing – it was on the house.)
What do you call a singing elf?  (A wrapper.)
What kind of hat does a snowman wear?  (An ice cap.)
What did the Gingerbread man pull over his bed?  (A cookie sheet.)
When are old Christmas trees like clumsy knitters?  (When they drop their needles.)
See what I mean?  Some of them are so bad they actually make you laugh.
Psalm 126 is a psalm about holy laughter.  “When God restored the fortunes of the people, we were like those who dream.  Our mouths were filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy.  Then it was said throughout the world, ‘The Lord has done great things for them!’  The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”  The Lord has done great things for us:  “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all the people – to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  This is a time filled with joy, with good news, and with holy laughter.
Tonight of course, we are also mindful of those things that work against gladness and laughter and joy.  We are mindful of the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey; we are mindful of the terrorist attack in Berlin; we are mindful that our LGBT brothers and sisters still face obstacles to full equality and inclusion; we are mindful of the friends and neighbors we have lost to the epidemic of addiction; we are mindful that for many people, these are stressful days and uncertain times.  And none of this is easily wished away, not even on this holy night.  But because of this night, we are confident that the One who is born to bring joy and peace, justice and redemption, compassion and healing, not just to us but to all creation, makes us better people and our world a better place.
Through this season of Advent here at Second Church we have been reading through and talking about Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Christmas Carol.  I’m guessing nearly everyone here has either read it or seen one of the many movie or television versions of the story.  Tonight we come to the very last chapter:   after Ebenezer Scrooge has been visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet-to-Come, he awakens Christmas morning with a new sense of himself:  “I am as light as a feather,” said Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath.  “I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy, I am as giddy as a drunken man.  A merry Christmas to everybody!  A happy New Year to all the world.”  In the fifth and final stave, or stanza, Ebenezer Scrooge is a changed man.  And the most palpable sign of the change in him is laughter.  As Dickens puts it, Scrooge let out a laugh that, “for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh, the father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs.”  And he literally laughs his way through to the end of the book.  He laughs as he sends the poulterer’s prize turkey to the Cratchit family.  He laughs as he goes to Christmas dinner at his nephew Fred’s house, accepting an invitation he had earlier spurned with a trademark “Humbug!”  He even laughed at the laughter of others who had never seen Scrooge act quite this way before.  And the following day, he laughed when, in response to Bob Cratchit’s being late for work the day after Christmas, he doubled his salary.  “His own heart laughed,” Dickens writes, “and that was quite enough for him.”
There are many lessons to be drawn from Dickens’ classic story, and the one we take away from this last chapter is that Scrooge’s laughter is a signal of his redemption.  Scrooge is a changed man, and we see it and we hear it in his laugh.
Actor Peter Ustinov once said that “Laughter is the most civilized music in the world.”  There is a lot of music associated with Jesus’ birth, and I don’t just mean the Christmas carols you and I sing every year.  There are also four different Christmas carols in Luke’s gospel, and it is important that each song includes the message of salvation and redemption.  When Mary learned she had conceived and would be having a baby, she sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”  When her cousin Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah named his son John, who would grow to be John the Baptist, Zechariah sang “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for God has looked favorably on us and redeemed us.”  When Simeon saw the infant Jesus brought to the temple for his dedication, he sang, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”  And of course, on that first Christmas night the angelic chorus sang to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and good will.”  There was a lot of singing and music surrounding the events at the manger.  And if laughter is the most civilized music in the world, what could be more musical than the laughter of a little baby.  We’ve all heard babies giggle and coo and laugh – and it’s magical, it is like no other laughter in the world.  Among all the other sounds that first Christmas night, the sounds of livestock and of a woman in labor, I imagine that both the cries and the laughter of an infant were among them.  And in that moment, in that laughter, was the promise of the redemption of the world.
We all know what it means to call someone a Scrooge.  The name is synonymous with parsimony, penny-pinching and skinflintery.  As Bob Cratchits’ wife puts it, to be a Scrooge is to be “odious, stingy, hard and unfeeling.”  But this is not how the story ends.  The story ends with a Scrooge who is generous, lavish, charitable, and most of all, filled with the kind of great-hearted laughter that signifies his own redemption.  This is the Ebenezer Scrooge who remains standing at the end of the tale.  While there is scarcely a trace of religion to Dickens’ story, this is how it concludes:  “[I]t was always said of [Scrooge], that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if anyone alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every One!”

Let us pray.

Christmas Presence

Isaiah 35.1-10
Luke 1.46-55
Christmas Presence
(God Bless Us Every One!- III)
Third Sunday of Advent

When I was seven or eight years old, there were times that I was so excited about Christmas that I couldn’t get to sleep.  So instead I would tiptoe down the hallway in the wee hours of the morning past my parents’ bedroom, turn the television on very softly, and watch whatever happened to be on – and since those were there was only a handful of stations, and since it was usually around 2 or 3 a.m., this meant whatever happened to be on were mainly old movies – which is how I was first introduced to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  I remember it vividly - it was the 1951 version that featured Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, and it became the standard by which I measured all other versions of the story.  There was one earlier version, in 1938, with Leo G Carroll as Marley’s ghost and a young June Lockhart as one of the Cratchit girls.  Others came later:  There were two animated versions, one in 1962 starring Mr Magoo and the voice of Jim Backus, and one in 2001 with the voices of Nicholas Cage and Kate Winslet; and at least two other live-action versions that I know of, the 2009 one with Jim Carrey not only playing the role of Scrooge but also all the ghosts but Marley’s; and the 1984 version with George C Scott as Scrooge, the version we’re going to be showing this Saturday night right here in the sanctuary.  Now, I’ll admit it is probably because I saw them both before the Froggatt house had a color television, but it is the two earliest versions that I tend to prefer; I guess Victorian London just seems more authentic in black and white.
Our two scripture lessons this morning are twins, of a sort, and I think you could hear that when we read them.  Both passages are songs of redemption:  “The wilderness and the dry land will be glad,” Isaiah proclaimed, “the desert will rejoice and blossom… the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  It describes a time when God will lift up the weary and heal infirmity.  In a similar way, Mary’s song, the Magnificat, draws a like picture:  “[God’s] mercy is for those who revere God from generation to generation… [God] has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things.”  In Mary’s song, which could also be called her prophecy, the one who is about to be born will be a champion of the poor and outcast, will lift up the weary and will heal the infirm.
In certain theological circles, both these passages reflect what has sometimes been called God’s preferential option for the poor.  As Catholic canon law puts it, “The Christian faithful are obliged to promote social justice, and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor.”  When I was in seminary, Latin American Liberation Theology leaned heavily in this direction.  But I confess, I was more than a little surprised to find the same sentiment in Dickens’ Christmas Carol as we have been reading through it this Advent.  As the Spirit of Christmas Present leads Ebenezer Scrooge through the streets and homes of London on Christmas Day, and they are jostled by people coming and going to and from church and on to their Christmas dinners, the Spirit invisibly sprinkled what Dickens called a kind of incense on the passers-by and on their dinners from the tip of the torch he carried.  As Dickens tells it,
“There emerged from scores of by-streets, lanes and nameless turnings, innumerable people, carrying their dinners…  The sight of these poor revelers appeared to interest the Spirit very much, for he stood with Scrooge beside him at a baker’s doorway, and taking the off the covers as their bearers passed, sprinkled incense on their dinner from his torch.  And it was a very uncommon kind of torch, for once or twice when there were angry words between some dinner-carriers who had jostled each other, he shed a few drops of water on them from it, and their good humour was restored directly.  For they said, it was a shame to quarrel upon Christmas Day.  And so it was!  God love it, so it was! “Is there – is there a peculiar flavor in what you sprinkle from your torch?” asked Scrooge.  “There is [the Spirit replied], my own.”  “Would it apply to any kind of dinner on this day?” asked Scrooge.  “To any kindly given,” the Spirit said, “To a poor one most.”  “Why to a poor one most?” asked Scrooge.  “Because it needs it most.”
It appears that the Spirit of Christmas Present also possesses a preferential option for the poor:  imagine, finding Liberation Theology in a nineteenth century novel!  Now to be sure, Charles Dickens was not a particularly religious man; in fact on more than one occasion he expressed his contempt and disdain for visible religiosity, particularly of the evangelical and Roman Catholic varieties.  Dickens was more prone to Unitarianism, and for a while attended Anglican services.  But his was really a civil religion, and this is what comes through most in his Christmas Carol.  Scrooge reflects Dickens’ conviction that salvation comes from an authentic encounter with the self, and is achieved through loving one’s neighbor, and offering a cup of water to one who is in need.  As Steven Rost wrote in Christianity Today, “The New Testament teaches that such acts are the result of spiritual conversion; for Dickens they were the means.”  To Rost’s citation of the New Testament, I would add that the same can be said of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah included.
But what really begins Scrooge’s transformation in this third chapter of the story is not the Spirit’s encounter with the poor, but rather Scrooge’s encounter with himself as seen through the eyes of two families at Christmas dinner – the Cratchit family, and that of his nephew Fred, whose invitation to join them Scrooge spurned with his characteristic “Humbug!”
At the first, Bob Cratchit raises a Christmas toast to his employer – over his wife’s strenuous objection.  Lifting his cup, Cratchit says, 
“I give you Mr. Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast!”  “The Founder of the Feast!” cried Mrs. Cratchit; “I wish I had him here.  I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it!”  “My dear,” said Bob, “the children!  Christmas Day!”  “It should be Christmas Day, I am sure,” said she, “on which one drinks to the health of such an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man as Mr. Scrooge.  You know he is Robert! Nobody knows it better than you do…  I’ll drink his health for your sake and the Day’s, not for his.  Long life to him!  A merry Christmas and a happy new year.  He’ll be very merry and very happy, I have no doubt.”  
And they all drank a toast to Mr. Scrooge.
The scene at Scrooge’s nephew’s home is a similar one.  The conversation turned to how Scrooge had been invited there for Christmas dinner, but rudely declined.  Fred’s sisters have little good to say about their uncle, but Fred, a good humored young man, refused to defame him.  “He’s a comical old fellow,” Fred said, 
“that’s the truth; and not so pleasant as he might be… [But] I am sorry for him; I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried.  Who suffers by his ill whims! Himself, always.  Here, he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence?  He don’t lose much of a dinner… I mean to give him the same chance every year, whether he likes it or not, for I pity him.  He may rail at Christmas till he dies, but he can’t help thinking better of it – I defy him – if he finds me going there, in good temper, year after year and saying ‘Uncle Scrooge, how are you?’”
These two scenes which unfolded in the presence of Scrooge and the Spirit constitute a kind of turning point in the story.  While they had every reason to find fault with Scrooge, as the women of the families did, both Fred and Bob Cratchit found something positive to say about the man.  And as if to punctuate this, Fred finally convinces his sisters and household to toast the man:  “He has given us plenty merriment I am sure, and it would be ungrateful not to drink his health.  Here is a glass of mulled wine ready to our hand at the moment; and I say, ‘Uncle Scrooge!’”  “Well, Uncle Scrooge!” they cried.  “A merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to the old man, whatever he is… Uncle Scrooge!”  And then Dickens reports, “Uncle Scrooge had imperceptibly become so gay and light of heart that he would have pledged the unconscious company in return, and thanked them in an inaudible speech, if the Ghost had given him time.”
If those people most adversely affected by his penny-pinching and meagerness can find something good to say about Ebenezer Scrooge and find something good in him, odious, stingy, hard and unfeeling as he may have been, there is the beginning of Scrooge’s redemption, such as it is.  And turning of his own heart to the needs of the poor are the means of getting there.
Turning our hearts to the needs of the poor – both Isaiah and Mary use this kind of language as a way of preparing to receive the promised one of God.  “Strengthen the hands of the weak,” Isaiah said, “make firm the feeble knees.”  Mary sang, “God brings the powerful down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; God fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.”  God’s clear preferential option for the poor.  If we are still looking for ways to make this Advent season meaningful, this is a very good place to begin.

Let us pray.

Opening Lines

Isaiah 2.1-5
Matthew 24.36-44
Opening Lines
(God Bless Us Every One – I)
First Sunday of Advent

Let’s have a little literary fun this morning to start the season.  I’m going to give you the opening line to a well-known piece of literature, and ask you to tell me the title of the work.
“Call me Ishmael.”  (Moby Dick)
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  (A Tale of Two Cities)
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  (The Bible)
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone 84 days now without
  taking a fish.”  (The Old Man and the Sea)
“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.”  (1984)
Sometimes an exercise like this is easier when it is done with poetry.  Let’s do a few poems, shall we?
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of
forgotten lore /while I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping,
rapping at my chamber door.”  (The Raven)
“Whose woods these are, I think I know / His house is in the village though –” 
(Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening)
“Sing in me, O Muse, of the cunning hero, the wanderer, blown off course time and again after he plundered
    Troy’s sacred heights.”  (The Odyssey)
“Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me / the Carriage held but just Ourselves /
And immortality.”  (Because I Could Not Stop for Death)

“Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon
a table.”  (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.”  (Sonnet 116)
It is very often the case that the opening lines at the very beginning of a work foreshadow and even shape the theme of entire piece, whether it is poetry or prose.  And so as you and I stand at the very beginning of Advent, with Thanksgiving’s leftovers likely still chilling in the fridge and the entire expanse of the season of waiting and anticipation spread before us, what are the opening lines for us this Advent that will foreshadow and perhaps shape the entire season for us?
During Advent, Tara and I are taking our cue from another well-known piece of literature in order to examine Advent’s meaning for us.  Our opening lines are these:  
“Marley was dead, to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.  Scrooge signed it.  And Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.  Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
And these are the opening lines to...?   Of course, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  The first lines are memorable ones, partly because they are so dark, and partly because we know the story so well we know we will not remain in darkness throughout – although, this being Dickens, it isn’t until we come nearly to the very end that of the story that we are allowed to glimpse the light.  So the dark tone in the opening lines really permeate the work in its near-entirety.
Now to be fair, it isn’t just Dickens who opens this season with notes of foreboding and darkness and yes, even death.  This morning’s lesson from Matthew paints a similarly dark and foreboding picture.  Where so much of the world, in its anticipation of that certain holiday come December 25 is all candy and confection and merriment and light, the church contrariwise begins in a dark place, with but one solitary candle to pierce the darkness of Advent and near mid-winter.  Matthew writes,
“For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.  Then two will be in the field – one will be taken and one will be left.  Two will be grinding meal together - one will be taken and one will be left.  Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day the Lord is coming.”  
I guarantee you will not find these verses on the inside of any Hallmark Christmas card.  And it isn’t just that Matthew is having a bad day either.  Every first Sunday in Advent the church’s prescribed scripture lessons, or lectionary readings, have a similar theme.  The parallel reading from Mark’s gospel includes these verses:  “But in those days, after the suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”  And Luke’s lesson for the start of Advent tells us “There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world…”  It’s funny – most of the time folks in the church can be heard complaining that Christmas comes too soon, but after reading a few passages like these, we might be persuaded that it cannot come soon enough!
But perhaps there is the lesson in this:  before we can welcome the light, it is necessary to walk for little while in darkness.  It is not for nothing that Isaiah reminds us, in one of the passages most closely related to the birth of the messiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light - those who have lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
Early on in A Christmas Carol, a lonely soul, a poor shivering caroler stands outside the door of Scrooge and Marley – Scrooge being too stingy even to remove his dead partner’s name from the office door – singing the carol that will end our service this morning, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”  As Dickens tells us, the caroler, “…gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol:  but at the first sound of, ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen!  May nothing you dismay!’ Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.”
Sometimes it is necessary to walk for a little while in the cold, dank frost before we can know the light that will bring warmth and life to the world.
When I think of the cold and the frost I think of those people who have come together at Standing Rock in an attempt to preserve the sacred ground of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, bearing the bitter cold, soaked by water cannons in the freezing night.  I wonder what the good people of North Beverly would do if an energy company began to plow up the cemetery out there to plant a pipeline?  In a kind of parallel to Matthew’s dark prophecy, the Sioux also are inheritors of a dark legend, which tells of a giant, winding black snake that would one day rise and slither into the sacred lands to destroy the earth.  You can understand why the arrival of an oil pipeline might remind them of this ancient prophecy / giant winding black snake.  For the Sioux nation at Standing Rock, these are indeed cold dark days, both literally and metaphorically – which helps explain why people from around the country, including more than a few from our own United Church of Christ, have chosen to join them, bringing food and medicine and supplies and perhaps more than all this, a sense of respect and dignity for what the Sioux believe to be holy.
It was, of course, the ghost of Jacob Marley who came to warn old Ebenezer that, if he continued his life of avarice and the pursuit of profit at all costs – including the ruination of lives such as Bob Cratchit’s and Tiny Tim’s – then he himself was also doomed to ruin.  But it did not have to be like that; change was possible, though not guaranteed to be easy.  In fact Scrooge was required to come to grips with his past, his present and his future if there was to be any hope for him.
The season of Advent is only a few hours old this morning, and Christmas is still fully four weeks away – exactly four weeks from today.  Where are the places you and I need to walk together in order to be ready to greet the light of the world that is born to all people everywhere?  Where are the hungry, the cold, the frightened, the threatened, with whom we might stand, or whom we might feed and bring warmth, encouragement and hope?  And is there any resentment, any bitterness, any barrier to generosity within ourselves that might keep us from doing so?  If so, that’s all right – we have an entire season to walk through whatever dark places exist for us and come into the light.  The light itself is slow in coming.  One candle this week, two the next and so on – it isn’t much, but at the end it brings us to the brightness of a star that will reveal to us not just God with us, but also our own better selves.
But for now, it is enough to stand in a place that is illuminated only faintly.  The entire story is still waiting to be spread out before us.  Marley’s midnight visit to Scrooge is only a foreshadowing, a hint of both Scrooges- and Christmases-yet-to-come.  For him and for us, it is the start of a journey, the opening lines that both anticipate and shape the story of our own Advent preparation.  How will that story unfold?  For every person and for every Advent the story will be different, but what is certain beyond all doubt, is that it begins today.

Let us pray.

Lost Luggage

Luke 4.1-15
Mark 6.4-13
Lost Luggage
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

So, Jesus, let me get this straight:  you want your disciples to go out in the world and do your work, to heal the ailing, welcome the stranger and declare the gospel, and your specific instructions amount to this:  we can’t bring any food with us, we can’t carry any money, no change of clothes, not even a hotel reservation.  Would anybody here undertake a journey like this?  I’m not at all certain I would, and I have a little bit of experience in this kind of thing.  It was right around this time last year, on the cusp of our trip to Greece, that I will admit to having lost a few nights’ sleep when I learned the Greek currency crisis was about to close every bank in the country, on the very day of our arrival, for an indeterminate amount of time, which turned out to be nearly three weeks.  So I can’t begin to imagine what my state of mind would have been if someone had told me that not only would I not have access to cash, but that I couldn’t take any food or any clothing except for what I wore when I left.  Yet essentially, these are Jesus’ instructions to the disciples when he sent them out into the countryside to minister.  “He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.”  And yet guess what?  The disciples were successful – the disciples were successful:  “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”  Perhaps it is possible to do God’s work in the world without carrying a lot of baggage.
Dana Ciolli is a childhood friend of my daughter Clare, and was returning from a conference last month in the Virgin Islands when she found herself sitting in the Miami airport, waiting for her connecting flight home to Hartford.  She was flying American Airlines, and had downloaded an app to her phone that let her track her luggage on the trip.  So just to be sure that her bags were on the same track as she was, she opened the app as she sat in the departures lounge, just in time to watch her suitcase taking off for Trinidad and Tobago.  Immediately she went to the closest airline rep and told her what was going on only be given the Zen-like reply, “The app lets us know when mistakes happen; it does not fix them!”  No wonder people try to stuff all their things in a carry-on!
Now, a close look at our text this morning shows there were some good, practical reasons why Jesus sent his disciples out for mission and ministry with so few provisions.  For example, they were told not to bring a bag for the journey because that was something that common street preachers, who were prevalent in those days, often carried with them, begging for money in return for their message.  They were like street performers - they’d put their beggars’ bag out, and stand there and preach, like a busker in Harvard Square.  So Jesus said, don’t bring a bag – that’s not who we are.  He also directed them to bring not to bring any food or a second tunic, which would have been for warmth at nighttime, because Jesus expected them to be reliant on the hospitality of others.  And they didn’t need money because this was to be a missionary journey, not a shopping trip.  Like I said, just underneath the surface of the story lie some good practical reasons to deliver the gospel message practically empty-handed.
But the practical reasons only touch the surface level of the story.  With just a little more imagination we might discover some other, equally sensible explanations for these unusual travel instructions.  For example, taking a lesson from Clare’s friend Dana, you can’t lose your luggage if you don’t bring any, right?  That’s why a lot of travelers put their valuables – jewelry, prescriptions, money and passports – in their carry-ons; the only person responsible for your carry-on is you.  As somebody once said, “Don’t take any more than you need, and you won’t miss what you don’t have.”  But Jesus’ direction to the disciples also suggests that they really aren’t traveling very far.  Yes, they required a place to stay – “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.”  But most of their work was done in nearby villages, where they could expect to receive hospitality – a welcome, a meal, a roof over their heads.  These were villages and neighborhoods they knew, that were part of their own wider community.  Perhaps the implication here is that some of the most successful work of discipleship can be done not very far from home.  Who are our neighbors?  Who is our community?  These places are where some of the disciples’ most fruitful work was accomplished.
And of course the whole metaphor of excess baggage is at work here as well.  What are the things we carry around with us that we know deep down inside we would be better off without?  Worry and anxiety?  Possessions and prestige?    The weight of the past or the familiarity of the status quo?  What are the things that prevent us from being our best selves, that tempt us to settle for second-best?  What baggage do we carry that keeps us from being true disciples of Jesus Christ?  The things Jesus asked the disciples to forego are worrisome, are they not?  Go out there without food or money or enough layers to stay warm against the chill of night?  Are you serious, Jesus?
This morning after church you and I are going to begin the most exciting and the most possibility- and opportunity-laden chapter of our Crossroads/New Beginnings conversations.  We have already assessed our church’s past and we have taken the measure of our present; this morning we are going to begin both to dream and to design the shape of our future and the continuing ministry of Second Church.  We too are about to embark on a journey not all that different from the one the disciples undertook in Mark’s gospel.  Who are our neighbors?  Who is our community?  And if these are the places where some of the disciples’ most fruitful work was accomplished, then what is the Christ-centered mission and ministry we might undertake that will reveal God’s good news and good deeds within this community of faith, and convey them into the community around us?
And to put it in the context of this morning’s gospel story, what is the luggage, or baggage, we need to take on this journey, and what do we need to let go?  If the disciples’ experience is illustrative, then we need to be prepared to travel lightly.  There are likely to be some things we think we need, because we have always carried them with us before, but these may be the very things that slow us down or prevent us from being fully engaged in God’s mission.  For the disciples, it was food and money and an extra layer – an insurance layer – of clothes.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if the disciples thought to themselves, “That’s crazy talk!  How can we be the church and engage in effective mission without food and money and an extra layer of comfort?”  But here’s the clue:  they were successful – they were successful – precisely because they left behind the things they thought they needed to carry with them.
Our other gospel today is the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  He too went out into a place set apart without food, without any visible means of support, and came into deep communion with God, when temptation intervened.  What is telling about this encounter is the form the temptations took.  The tempter made Jesus three offers:  he could have food in abundance, he could have kingdoms and wealth, and he could have command of the angels.  But Jesus reminded the tempter that in each instance there was always one thing better:  living by the word is better than living by bread alone; honoring God is greater than the honor and adulation of kingdoms and their glory; and trusting God is superior to commanding all the legions of heaven.  We might say that in each case Jesus was tempted to settle for penultimate glory, for what is only second-best.  But settling for second best was never an option for Jesus, and his insistence on focusing on the realm and righteousness of God led to this conclusion:  “[He] was filled with the power of the Spirit, [he] returned to Galilee… word about him spread through all the surrounding country, [and] he began to teach in the synagogues and was praised by everyone.”
Easy answers will always be tempting.  Quick fixes will always be tempting.  Low-hanging fruit will always be tempting.  Second-best solutions and penultimate proposals will always prove tempting.  But we know from experience, and we know from the disciples’ success in their own ministry, that maintaining our focus on the realm and righteousness of God, and on God’s mission for our church, will lead us, not into temptation, but into the next chapter of life and vitality for Second Congregational Church.  As Tara likes to say, May it be so, dear Lord – may this ever and always be so.

Let us pray.