Monday, January 2, 2017

Sermon: "Danger in the Manger"

Scripture Intro - Matthew 2:13-23

Our text this morning is often titled: “The Slaughter of the Innocents” – and you will soon understand why.
In this story an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and urges him to flee with his family to Egypt. King Herod has heard that the Messiah has been born, and he has ordered the killing of every child in Bethlehem under the age of 2.

We may wonder why this story is included in our lectionary so soon after Christmas. This is supposed to be a season celebrating joy and hope, and a scripture text that centers on the killing of children appears to have none of that.
We may wonder where the Good News is found in this Christmas story.
But before we read this story it’s important to know something about its context.

This story about Herod appears only in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth.
The gospel of Luke mentions nothing about the holy family traveling to Egypt or the slaughter of children.
It’s also important to know that Matthew as a writer borrows elements from other stories that the people of Israel knew well and uses them to present Jesus as the next great prophet, the new Moses, the one who had come to set them free.
There are many ways in which Jesus’ story in the gospel of Matthew parallels the story of Moses.
Jesus gives a sermon on the Mount, just as Moses delivered the law from Mount Sinai, Jesus fasts for 40 days and nights in the wilderness just as Moses did, and the baby Jesus, like the baby Moses under the Pharaoh, escapes a slaughter of the innocents, when all children under two have their lives taken from them.
When the danger is over, Jesus comes up out of Egypt and returns to the Holy Land to lead the people to freedom, just as Moses did hundreds of years before him.

As we often discover, the message of hope we find in scripture is not necessarily found in the factual details of the stories but in the outcome.
Love wins. Fear does not.
Because love will set you free. 

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
January 1, 2017 – First Sunday after Christmas
Matthew 2:13-23

“Danger in the Manger”

Welcome to the year 2017.
Well, according to our modern Gregorian calendar this is the year 2017.
If you’re using the old Julian calendar, today is actually December 19th
and New Years Eve is still 12 days away.
Which is why our Eastern Orthodox friends will celebrate Christmas this Friday.
If you favor the Chinese calendar, we’re currently in the year 4714,
and the New Year doesn’t begin until January 28th.
It will be the Year of the Rooster, in case you were wondering.
And if you follow the Hebrew calendar, like our Jewish brothers and sisters, we’re currently in the year 5777, and the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, won’t roll around again until September 20th.

So, if you’re like me and break your New Years resolutions by the end of this week, no need to worry, we have several opportunities to wipe the slate clean and start all over again. 

One thing we learn as we mature in life, is that time is arbitrary.
Which is why it’s amazing that for the most part our entire world has agreed to follow one calendar and celebrate today as New Year’s Day.

While we owe our current way of tracking time to the Italian Pope Gregory, who corrected a slight miscalculation in the old Julian calendar,
it’s really the Romans and Julius Caesar who we have to thank for the 365 day, 12-month year that is linked to the movement of our sun.
Prior to Julius, the Roman calendar followed the waxing and waning of the moon, much like the Hebrew calendar still does.
But this resulted in a year with only 355 days – leaving it 10 days out of sync with the seasonal changes dictated by the sun. 

To account for this discrepancy and to bring things back into sync, every 3 to 4 years the ancient Romans added an extra month to their calendar.
They called it Mercedonius and wedged it between February and March.
(and those of you born on February 29th thought you had it bad – imagine being born in a leap month)

The decision of when to add this extra month and when to leave it out was left up to the chief astrologers, who also happened to be politicians.
These elected officials would often arbitrarily add an extra month in back to back years to extend their term in office, or eliminate it in years that it was scheduled to occur, to shorten the terms of their rivals.

Having a calendar that could be changed on a whim caused mass confusion and frustrated Julius Creaser to no end, so he declared that from the year 45 onward, the yearly calendar would have 365 days and remain aligned with the seasonal movement of the sun, without any human intervention.   

Time may be arbitrary, but people – and politicians - remain the same regardless of the age.

Which brings us to King Herod – and the place that he holds in our timeless Christmas story.

As many of you know, only two of our four gospels have an account of Jesus’ birth.
Matthew and Luke.
And the Nativity story that we tell every Christmas weaves together the individual elements of both these accounts.

When we look at a traditional Nativity scene we find Mary and Joseph, and Jesus in the manger, with shepherds and angels and Wise Men gathered all around them.

Most of the elements that we know from the traditional Nativity story come from the gospel of Luke –
the census that had Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem,
the gruff innkeeper who turned them away,
the baby Jesus lying in an animal feeding trough.

Missing from this scene is King Herod.
Yet, when we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth we see that Herod is as much a part of the story as any of the others.

For Luke, who mentions Herod's name only as an aside, Jesus’ birth is heralded as a joyous event that was witnessed and celebrated by many.
But then curiously this new born King is whisked away to the small town of Nazareth where he seemingly lives a life of anonymity,
and no one gives him a second thought until he’s a full grown adult.

Matthew’s version of the story is quite different.

In Matthew’s gospel there are no kneeling shepherds, no heavenly chorus of angels singing Hallelujah, there’s no Little Drummer Boy playing “Ba Rumpa Bum Bum.”

For Matthew, Jesus’ birth itself is pretty uneventful, in fact he doesn’t include any details other than Jesus was born in a house in Bethlehem, presumably because that’s where his parents were living at the time.

Matthew is more concerned with what happened after Jesus was born –
As much as 2 years after, when Magi arrived from the East following a star, and looking for the child who was said to be the “King of the Jews.”

The news that a new king had been born proved to be very disconcerting to the current King of the Jews – Herod.

We know from historical records that Herod was a polarizing leader to say the least.
He’s been championed as the greatest builder in Jewish history –
he rebuilt the Second Temple in Jerusalem so that “he would have a capital city worthy of his dignity and grandeur.”
In fact many of the buildings erected in Herod’s name still stand and serve as tourist attractions to this day.
But Herod’s taste for wealth and luxurious living are often cited as one of the reasons why the people he ruled lived in such poverty.
He built his empire on their backs and they were given little compensation in return. 

And then there was Herod’s even darker side.
Herod’s critics have described him as "a madman” who was "prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition."

At varying times, he accused his wife, his sons, and his mother-in-law of plotting against him and one by one he had them killed.
Any rabbi who disagreed with him or mocked him met the same fate.
Jewish historians have called him "the evil genius of the Judean nation."  

This is the man that Matthew placed at the center of his Nativity story. 

Because like Luke, who had the pregnant Mary singing about the powerful being brought down from their thrones, Matthew was leading with the idea that the birth of Jesus was a radical and world changing event.

Not in the sense that heavenly angels gathered over his birth and everyone held hands and sang Kumbaya, but in the sense that those in power –
those who had the most to lose – were frightened to their core at the thought of this Messiah existing in their world.

The two accounts of Jesus’ birth that we have in our gospels may differ in many of the details, but they agree on this:
The Christmas story – the story of Jesus’ birth – is not just a feel good story, it’s meant to be a story that is challenging, and life altering, and dangerous.

One that has us imagining the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt to protect the precious gift that had been entrusted to them

One that has a madman slaughtering innocents in his desperation to hold on to his wealth and his power.

One that is rooted in the belief that this tiny baby represented a dire threat, because he alone would hold commoners and Kings alike accountable to the core teachings of their faith – to love God with all your heart and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.

This is a dangerous idea, because if enough people start believing in a loving and merciful God, and start living as if they were created to be vessels through which God’s love, compassion, and grace flow into this world –
then the world IS going to change.
There’s no doubt about that.

We can’t crawl inside the minds of the Herods of our world and change who they are.    
But we can change who we are.
We can change how we react to the injustice that they create and feed off of.
We can change how we respond to and treat those who are marked as threats by the Herods of our world and resist being used as vessels for hatred and bigotry and fear – and instead allow God to use us as vessels of love, compassion, mercy, and grace.


You may have noticed that the title of this sermon that’s printed in your bulletin is “Dare to Dream.”
That’s partly because I had to come up with a title two weeks ago to meet our holiday printing deadline.
And at the time I thought we might focus on the dreams that Joseph had regarding his families future, and how they connect with the dreams that we have for our future here on this New Year’s Day. 

Yet when I sat down a few days ago to write this sermon and further reflect on this Nativity story from Matthew, the actions of Herod kept rising up for me, and I wondered if a better sermon title might be “Danger in the Manger.”

It’s certainly one that grabs our attention and gets us to slip out of autopilot as we pack away our Nativity Sets and Christmas decorations and think again about what a radical story this was in its time.
And how it’s still a radical story in our time.

As we stand on the threshold of a new year – this year 2017 –
may we continue to reflect on this timeless story of Danger in the Manger. 

This story of a baby who came to change the world.  

And allow it to seep into every word,
every action,
every darkened corner of our lives –
and dare to dream of a better future for us all.

Thanks be to God.
Amen. 






Sermon: "Christmas Wish"




The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 24, 2016 – Christmas Eve

“Christmas Wish”

Every year, in early December, I haul out all the Christmas decorations that we keep in our storage area in the parsonage next door and set about decking the halls with bows of holly.

During the cold, dark nights of winter, somehow the house looks a little less dreary – a little less ordinary – with a Christmas tree in the living room,
a festive wreath on the front door, and a single white light burning in every window.
But that’s as far as my decorating usually goes.
Here in Amherst village, there’s an unwritten rule that the external Christmas displays should be simple and understated, in keeping with the historic character of the homes and the age in which they were built.

Which is why you’ll see most of the homes in the village sporting a single white light in every window.

Those of us who live in the village have been known to joke on occasion that one year we’re going to shake off the chains that restrain us and plant plastic reindeer and giant inflatable Santas on our front lawns,
and deck out our homes with multicolored neon lights that flash in time to the music of Mannheim Steamroller.

But in reality, I think most of us much prefer the understated white lights,
and are quite happy to leave the more elaborate displays to those who have no unwritten expectations holding them back.

It certainly makes decorating a lot easier and less time consuming.
And there is something magical, about driving through the village in the weeks before Christmas and seeing a single white light glowing in every window.

In our culture, where individuality is celebrated and we feel compelled to plant public displays of our identity and our allegiances on our car bumpers, on our Facebook pages, and on our front lawns – it’s comforting to see us come together with one subtle and simple expression of this season –
a single while light – a symbol of this season of hope, peace, joy, and love.

Often times it’s the more subtle, and simple, things that we encounter in life that have a greater impact and turn out to be much more meaningful than something that smacks us in the face with its grandiosity and complexity.

This may seem counterintuitive for those of us who live in a country that prides itself on going big or going home.
We supersize our meals, drive cars that are large enough to haul around half a soccer team, and build 10,000 sq ft homes with the expectation that every occupant should have their own bathroom and their own walk-in closet.
Simple and subtle is not our forte.

A few years ago, the British actor Stephen Fry did a TV series in which he traveled to every state in America, to explore the beauty and the bounty that our country has to offer.
There was one episode where Fry attended a college football game between the University of Alabama and their closest rival, Auburn University.
Fry stood on the sideline just prior to the start of the game with his mouth agape at the pomp and pageantry that surrounded him.

National television coverage, 200 member marching bands, pyrotechnic displays, military color guards, fighter jets zooming loudly overhead while an American flag the size of a the entire football field was unfurled below.
As Fry astutely noted, “This event had the scale, intensity, and hoopla of an English Football League National Cup Final when in reality it was just a local match between amateur students.”

As Fry discovered, subtle and simple, tends not to be the American way.

Which is why it may seem surprising that once a year we step away from all the hoopla and the multitude of things that occupy our time, and we huddle into churches like this one, and lean in to hear the Christmas Story.

This story of weary travelers, gruff innkeepers, simple shepherds, and a baby, born in a manger, who was said to be the savior of the world.

This is not to say that we don’t do Christmas over-the-top as well,
with two-month long advertising campaigns, maxed out credit cards,
and the aforementioned giant inflatable Santa displays…

But it’s the simpler, much more subtle story of this baby in a manger that captures our attention on the Eve of Christmas Day.
Why is that?

We might say it’s because the story captures our hope and our anticipation and our expectations of all the joyful rituals, memories, and experiences we associate with Christmas.
Gathering with our families and our friends, exchanging gifts, eating way too much food.

But I’m not that cynical to think that this story of the birth of Jesus is just the appetizer we partake in before we consume what we’re really looking forward to – The four course meal of joy, pleasure, gratification, and overindulgence that we experience on Christmas Day.

I think this simple little story is about so much more than that –
and it means so much more to us than perhaps we even realize.

It can be a scary world out there.
On this Christmas Eve, there’s no need for us to list off all the ways in which our world is broken and in need of healing.
There’s no need for us dwell on all the ways in which WE are broken and in need of healing.
We already know all of that.

But every year in late December, after immersing ourselves in all of the “stuff” that being human in an unpredictable and unforgiving world throws at us….we come here.

We come here
to peer into a manger.
To see the Christ Child be born.
To look at this baby - and pour out all our Christmas Wishes –
All our hopes, our dreams, our desires, our longings –
for a better world.
A better us.
A better tomorrow.

One where we treat one another with more compassion, and empathy, and grace.
One where we find happiness – and healing – and wholeness.
One where we love each other fiercely,
And forgive each other often.
One where we seek to understand one another
as much as we seek to be understood.

This may seem like an impossibility.
But as our faith continuously tells us, nothing is impossible with God.

Which is why we celebrate this story that is both simple and subtle.
This story about God letting go of everything that makes God infinite and all powerful and all knowing – and choosing to step into human skin -
To experience what it’s like to be finite – and powerless – and fearful
of a future that is unknown and unsettling.

When we peer into the manger and look at the baby called Jesus –
Jeshua – Emmanuel – God with Us…
We see a God who reached into our world to give us a glimpse of all that we are meant to be.
A glimpse of our potential.
A glimpse of our future.
A glimpse of all our hopes – and dreams – and longings
Bundled into one tiny package.
In the one gift that we all long to receive on Christmas Day.
The gift that makes our Christmas Wish come true.

What is it that you’re wishing for this Christmas?

More time with your kids? 
The healing of a relationship?

To get through Christmas Dinner with your extended family without anyone bringing up politics?

Perhaps you’re wishing for fewer personals upsets and fewer unexpected challenges in the coming year.

Or perhaps you’re optimistic and hopeful enough to wish for world peace…
Or at the very least, that we’d all spend less time talking at one another and more time listening.

Regardless of what it is we’re wishing for….chances are it has little to do with the presents that we all have wrapped underneath our trees….
…and more to do with this presence we find in this simple manger.

This presence of God.

This presence that tells each and every one of us what we long to hear -
You are loved – 
You are wonderfully and beautifully made –
As is everyone around you.

So be good to yourself.
Be good to one another.

For your Christmas Wish – on this day - has come true.

Thanks be to God.  
Amen


Friday, December 23, 2016

Carrying Advent


Carrying Advent

Sunday morning sanctuary
People dotting the pews
Sitting back
Leaning forward
Pulled inward
Cautious and content
Saddened and shaken
Neutral and numbed
Voices raised
Candles ablaze
Prayers for peace, joy, love,
Hope
Swirling around us
Up and over our heads


Thursday morning sanctuary
Silent and cold
Empty pews stare up
At an empty cross
Wind howling outside
Blackened wicks inside
Stiffened wax
In purple and pink
Clinging to candleside
Waiting for the light to come
The light that will warm
And soften
What has grown hard



Everyday sanctuary
Carried in our hearts
Where the flame
Forever burns
Forever warms
Even when we can no longer
See it
Or feel it
Or imagine it
The light
of God
is always there

Carrying Advent
To us
And with us
Wherever we may be.




Photo by Adam Hawkes

Monday, December 12, 2016

Sermon: "Mary, Did You Know?"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 11, 2016 – Third Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:46-55

“Mary, Did You Know?”


On Wednesday evening I was upstairs in the third floor youth room with members of our Christian Education team going through the costumes for next Sunday’s intergenerational Christmas Pageant.

We pulled out old boxes and clear plastic bins containing the remnants of Christmas pageants past.
We found the usual assortment of shepherd’s robes and head scarves,
many of which have been lovingly crafted from discarded tablecloths, curtains, and dishtowels.
We found angel halos made of silver and gold garland,
and angel wings made with real feathers that unfortunately have begun to molt, leaving a trail of white tufts across the carpet.
And we found an odd assortment of animal costumes –
fuzzy sheep hats, cow print robes, mouse ears, and cat tails.
Because no nativity scene is complete without a dairy cow, a herd of stray cats, and a smattering of field mice.

We set aside one of the nicer more brightly colored shepherds robes for Joseph, recognizing that he needs to stand out in the crowd of field hands.
But then we pondered what to do about Mary.
Our usual Mary costume consists of three plain pieces of fabric in varying shades of blue that get draped, tucked, and bobby pinned onto the girl chosen to be Mary in such a way that one would never know that the elaborate costume consisted of just 3 simple pieces of cloth.
Talk about an immaculate conception.

But to simplify things for this year’s impromptu pageant, we took a leap of faith and ordered a new Mary costume out of a Christian supply catalog.
Unfortunately what we received was a light blue satin dress with sparkly gold trim running up and down the front and around the sleeves.
It would have been perfect  - if Mary were a Disney Princess. 

But in the end we decided to stick with the simple blue swaths of cloth that are more befitting of a young peasant girl, even if she is the Mother of God.

Of course, it is the baby Jesus who is rightfully at the center of every Nativity scene and every Christmas pageant, but in many ways it is Mary who holds our attention until the final act.

She is the one we see approached with a proposition by the Angel Gabriel.
She is the one who goes into labor on a cold night far away from her home.
She is the one who gives birth to the savior of the world.

Mary plays a prime roll in the nativity story, but we catch only small glimpses of her in the rest of the Jesus story we have in our gospels. 

In Luke’s gospel, we see her anxiously fretting when 12-year-old Jesus goes missing on a journey home from Jerusalem, and we then witness her publically scolding him when he turns up in the Temple oblivious to the worry he has caused her.

In John’s gospel, it is Mary who prematurely prompts Jesus’ first miracle, when she complains to him that the wine they had on hand for their wedding guests was beginning to run low.  Jesus’ curt response to his mother before he turned the water into wine was, “Woman, it is not yet my time.”

In Matthew’s gospel, as Jesus is surrounded by an ever growing crowd of admirers, he is told, “Your mother and brothers are waiting outside and wish to see you.”
But Jesus waves them off by saying, “My family is right here before me, in all of you who follow God.”

The last image we have of Mary is of her kneeling in anguish at the foot of the cross. Jesus looked towards his young disciple, John, and said, “Woman this is now your son.” It was his dying attempt to reassure his mother that the young man would take her into his care, and she would not be alone.
As if this would mean anything to her in the rawness of her grief. 

We have to wonder if Mary knew that this is was the life she was signing up for, when the Angel Gabriel came to her when she was an unmarried teenager and told her she had been chosen to give birth to the Messiah.

Did she know it would be a life of worry, rejection, and pain?

Regardless of what we believe about angelic visitations or how Jesus came to be conceived, when Mary discovered that she was pregnant, and sang the Magnificat – a song of rejoicing – we have to wonder if she had any inkling of what the future held.

I believe she did.
Mary sang of a future world where God’s love would reign.
She sang of a world where the powerful would be brought down from their thrones and the lowly would be lifted up beside them.
Where the hungry would be filled and the rich would be sent away empty.
Where the proud would be scattered – and the meek – including young women like Mary – would be called blessed, for generations to come.

It’s no mystery where Jesus got his strong convictions and his passion for justice, given the song his mother sang when he was still growing in her womb.

Even as a teenager, Mary was a prophet in her own right, speaking about issues of inequality, tyranny, and oppression.

When we hear the Magnificat, we might rightfully assume that Mary was not a simple young girl who concerned herself only with young girlish things – working by her mother’s side – baking bread, weaving baskets, washing clothes, sweeping out the living areas of their home.

While the boys her age sat at their rabbis feet learning how to recite the Torah and engage in theological discussions, Mary must have been leaning in to listen – to the words of Isaiah – the teachings of the wisdom writers – the songs of David – the call of the prophet Micah, who asked, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”

I believe that Mary did know what she was getting herself into when she said “Yes” to being the mother of Jesus. 

She already knew a life of hardship and pain.
She had to know that anyone who came to challenge a system that benefited the rich and the powerful would not be greeted with open arms.
Mary was young, but she was not naïve, the Magnificat tells us that.

Mary sings in the face of suffering.
She finds joy in a world that has not yet been redeemed.
She finds hope in a future that she may not live to see.
Because she knows that the baby that is growing inside of her will plant the seeds that will change the hearts of men and women for generations to come.

But there are some things about the future that I suspect Mary would not know if we had the chance to ask her.

Mary, did you know that one day your Magnifcat, your song of joy and justice – would come to be banned in some countries because it was considered to be “subversive, politically dangerous" and "might incite oppressed people to riot"?

Mary, did you know that your iconic image would come to be emblazoned upon and worshiped in stained glass windows, in stone garden statues, in plastic dashboard decorations, and in grilled cheese sandwiches?

Mary, did you know that religious tradition filtered through a patriarchal lens would come to hold you up as an example of the perfect woman?
Perfectly obedient.
Perfectly pure and untainted.
Perfectly preserved and revered for your Sainthood, not for your humanness?

Mary, did you know that one day little girls all over the world would drape blue cloth over their heads and kneel at a manger, and imagine what it’s like to be you?

What it’s like to be strong while still being able to admit that they are fearful.
What it’s like to sing out with joy when the world is telling you there is no reason to be hopeful.
What it’s like to raise up your voice when everything about you says you should remain silent – because you are poor, female, Jewish, young, uneducated, unmarried, expendable.
What it’s like to take a tremendous leap of faith and say “Yes” to birthing God into our world.

Mary did you know that your words of joy and praise would still be recited and sung in churches like ours 2000 years after you breathed them into being – because we too feel your passion for justice, for joy, for peace, for God’s love come to life?

Next Sunday, during our intergenerational Christmas pageant, some lucky little girl is going to have the opportunity to be draped in those simple blue swaths of fabric and kneel before us all as Mary.
But we’ll have extra pieces of fabric on hand for any of you who would like join in and play Mary as well.

In the face of sorrow, grief, injustice, injury, illness, and all the other joy-sapping things that befall us as human beings may we embrace our inner Mary.

May we all know what it’s like to have her strength.
Her resilience.
Her faith. 
Her vision.
Her hopefulness.
Her joy.

May we all sing the Magnificat.
And rejoice
Because we have been chosen to give birth to God in the world.

Amen. 


Here is one of my favorite songs about Mary, by Patty Griffin... 
"While the angels are singin' his praises in a blaze of glory, Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place." 




Monday, November 7, 2016

Sermon: "It Gets Better"


Intro to Luke 6:20-31

Today’s reading from Luke gives us the familiar words of the Beatitudes.
“Blessed are you who are poor, Blessed are you who hunger, Blessed are you who weep.”

We may be more accustomed to hearing Matthew’s version of these Beatitudes –
also known as the Sermon on the Mount - where Jesus leaves behind the crowd that has been following him and ascends up a mountain to proclaim these blessings from God, just as the great prophet Moses once did.
It’s from this lofty perch that Jesus makes equally lofty pronouncements like,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and “Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness.”

But from Luke’s vantage point, Jesus delivers a slightly different sermon.
In Luke’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount is known as the “Sermon on the Plain.”
Here Jesus comes down off the mountain and stands among the people on level ground, where he can look them in the eye and engage them face to face.

Here Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,”
instead he says, “Blessed are you who are poor now.”

Instead of “Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness,”
he says “Blessed are you who are hungry now

The spiritual hunger becomes a physical hunger.
For Luke, Jesus words are more personal, more immediate, more concrete.

While Matthew and Luke give us slightly different versions of the Beatitudes,
where they converge is in the hope that Jesus has to offer to those experiencing suffering – be it spiritual or physical.

Those who hunger will be filled.
Those who are poor will experience the riches of God’s bounty.
Such suffering is only temporary, says Jesus.
And justice will be realized in the end.







The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst
November 6, 2016 – Youth Sunday – All Saints Sunday
Luke 6:20-31

“It Gets Better”


In 1981, when I was 15 years old, I saw the movie Breaking Away and fell in love with the sport of cycling.
I was drawn to the speed and freedom of movement,
the exotic sounding French and Italian names on the bikes,
the sleek looking clothing and shoes – it all appealed to me.
Seeing the movie inspired me to register for a 50-mile charity bike ride that involved riding 50 laps around a local park.
The farthest I had ridden at that point, was the 2 mile round trip to school.

I decided I needed some “serious” cycling gear for my 50-mile ride, so my mother took me to the sporting goods section of the local TSS department store.
They didn’t carry “serious” cycling gear, so I came home with a hockey helmet and a pair of leather golf gloves.

On the day of the ride I showed up with my new bike gear and my 1976 Columbia 10-speed, with it’s bicentennial red, white, and blue decals.
At the start of the ride, I found myself briefly keeping pace with a “real” cyclist, who had a real bike helmet and real bike gloves.
He said he did 50-mile rides all the time. 
I was in awe.

Of course he was much faster than I was.
He offered a word of encouragement as he left me behind, but every lap, as he came around and passed me again and again, he yelled out,
“Hang in there! Keep going! It gets easier the longer you keep at it!”
As the miles ticked by, I don’t remember the rising ache in my legs or my lungs.
I don’t even remember how long it took me to finish the ride.
What I do remember is telling myself on every single lap not to quit.
Because every time the “real” cyclist rode past me and shouted, “Hang in there! Keep going! It gets easier the longer you keep at it,” I knew I had to be there the next time he came around,  just so I could hear him say it again. 

In September 2010, author and journalist Dan Savage organized an online campaign called, “It Gets Better.”
The campaign was directed at teenagers – specifically teenagers who were being bullied by their peers and rejected by their families for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
These were teens who were choosing suicide at alarmingly high rates,
rather than endure a pain that they felt they could not escape.

Savage started the campaign after a 15-year-old Indiana boy named Billy Lucas, hung himself in his family’s barn, after being relentlessly bullied at school.    Savage said,
"I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it does get better.”

The It Gets Better campaign started with a few heartfelt videos uploaded to You Tube, recorded by celebrities and ordinary people, who shared their own stories of the pain they endured as teens and young adults,
with the hopeful encouragement that finding love, acceptance, and even happiness in life is not as elusive as it appears.
With the support of family, friends, mentors, and counselors who reached out to them in their despair, these formally suicidal teens found comfort, peace, and healing as adults.
They came to love themselves, just as they are.

Today the It Gets Better project website contains over 50,000 testimonial videos that collectively have over 50 million views.
It’s primary purpose is help at risk teens realize that they’re not alone.
GLBTQ teens are 3 times more likely to commit suicide,
and nearly 40% of gay youth attempt suicide near the age of 15.

On this Youth Sunday, it’s important to note that all teens are at risk.
Suicide rates among youths aged 15-24 have tripled in the last half century,
even as rates for adults and the elderly have declined.

Anybody who has contact with teens on a regular basis, or who is a teen, can testify to the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and stress that our youth are experiencing today.

We might blame it on the increasing pressures that teens feel to fill their schedules with academic and extracurricular activities to ensure they get into the college of their choice while earning enough money to pay for it.

We might blame it on the increasing use of technology, and the prevalence of social media that puts teens lives in particular under a microscope and allows bullying to reach outside the classroom and the schoolyard and into the home.

We might even be tempted to blame it on a lack of resiliency –
the perception that today’s youth are somehow sheltered by parents who come to their rescue too often and never give them the space to learn how to pick themselves up when they fall or to take responsibility when they fail.

But as much as we’d like to blame Helicopter Parents for the rising rates of seemingly vulnerable teens, those of us who have teens, work with teens – and who are teens – know that even the most resilient of our youth are feeling stressed out and overwhelmed by the growing complexities of their lives and the world around them.

We may envy Jesus’ followers, living in first century Palestine, who came of age in a much simpler time with simpler expectations.
But when we factor in things like poverty, disease, tyranny, and oppression, we realize that every age has its challenges to endure.

The reality is, Jesus’ message of hope contained in the Beatitudes is one that applies and appeals to human beings of all ages in all times.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
“Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and revile you, for you have a place in the Kingdom of God.”

The Beatitudes are Jesus’ way of saying,
“Things may seem bad now, but just wait….it will get better.”

In many ways this is the human condition -
these ups and downs that we experience in life.

The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor likens it to riding a Ferris wheel.
At times we’re arching over the top marveling at the view with our hands in the air, and other times we’re swooping back towards the ground,
and end up with our feet dragging through the dirt.

Like any good preacher, Jesus made sure his Sermon on the Plain included a much needed dose of hope while also acknowledging the painful realities of his listeners lives.

Too much hope and they may have tuned him out for being out of touch with reality.
Too much reality and they may have walked away in despair, and never opened their hearts to the healing that God longed for them to have.
The Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel, with its blessings balanced by woes, are in many ways an ode to human resiliency.

Resiliency.
We struggle with that at any age, don’t we?

Resiliency is even harder to master as a teen.
When we’re young, we don’t yet have the life experience to understand that situations which seem completely hopeless or permanent are actually not.

When I was 15, I was one of those statistics that I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon.  
I was wrestling with social anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
(I’ve shared this some of the teens and parents in our youth group who are dealing with similar challenges.)

Several of the girls at my high school took note of my vulnerability and fear - and took to taunting me about my overall oddness.
My unstylish clothes, my mass of frizzy hair, my social ineptness….all the things that make a teenager feel unworthy of inclusion, and compassion.

The taunting I experienced was not new.
I was born with a cleft palate that had me navigating the world with a speech impediment from the time I learned how to talk until the age of 16 when it was finally repaired.
Sadly, kids can be relentless when they encounter a difference that makes another child stand out in such a way.
But that level of scrutiny, which sends you home in tears at age 7,
can become unbearable when you’re 15.

Like many teens who experience depression, anxiety, and fear, at one point I refused to return to school.

My parents brought me to a counselor, who prescribed medication to help with my anxiety.
Which I secretly stowed away in my dresser drawer,
keeping them for the day when I would take all the pills at once and finally end the pain I was in.

But thankfully, I never did.
I’m standing here today because someone once took the time to tell me repeatedly to hang in there, to keep going, that it gets easier the longer you keep at it.

It wasn’t just the guy who rode circles around me in the park one day while he shouted encouragement.

It was the friends I made who saw that I had value and worth years before I recognized it myself.

It was the boss who gave me my first job out of high school – a job at a bike shop that gave me so much joy that I ended up working there for 16 years.

It was my mother who took notice of the one thing that seemed to draw me out of the darkness that had descended upon me. She bought me my first real racing bike for my 16th birthday.

And it was our loving and awesome God, who works through each one of us so that we might serve as messengers and harbingers of love and compassion for those who desperately need to hear that are worthy of this wonderful gift of life.

If you are a young person – or a not-so-young person - who is struggling right now - with depression, with feelings of low self worth, with an addiction, with the breakup of a relationship, with the loss of your job, your independence, your identity –
If you’re struggling with anything that is causing you to feel like the walls are closing in around you.
Please believe me when I tell you, “It gets better.”
However isolated and alone you feel right now, it will get better.

Because one day you will realize that this great Communion of Saints -
all of us who make up this crazy broken and beloved thing we call the church, has been with you all along.
In Senior High Youth Group, in Woman’s Association gatherings, in small group meetings, in Sunday Morning worship, in the million different ways that we reach out to one another, listen to one another, and care for one another.

You are not alone.
You are never alone.
You may not see it now.
But someday you will.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are all of us who are poor – in spirit or otherwise –
for the Kingdom of God is ours.

Amen.