Thursday, September 6, 2018

Sermon: "Sunday Saints"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 2, 2018 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
James 1:17-27

“Sunday Saints”

10,000 hours.
Supposedly, that’s how many hours of practice it takes to master any activity or skill.
If you want to be a concert violinist, paint like Picasso, or unleash a 120 mph tennis serve like Serena Williams, 10,000 hours of practice is the minimum commitment needed to rise to the top of the heap.

Author Malcolm Gladwell, popularized the 10,000 hours of practice theory in his 2008 book, Outliers.
Building on studies done by University psychologists in the 1990’s, Gladwell proposed that the Beatles would not have achieved the success they did, had they not spent their formative years playing in German bars and clubs for 5-8 hours a night, seven nights a week.
The Beatles played an astonishing 1200 live shows before they ever set foot on the stage of the Ed Sullivan show - which is more than most professional bands play in a lifetime.

Likewise, Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft, might not have helped launch the age of the personal computer, had he not spent hours and hours in a computer lab, from 8th grade onward, teaching himself to write code.
In addition to class time, Gates spent nearly every night and weekend pouring over printouts and typing strings of numbers into terminals that looked more like oversized typewriters than computers.
By the time, he dropped out of Harvard at the age of 20 to start his own software company, Gates had been programming non-stop for seven consecutive years.

In 2010, a 30-year-old commercial photographer named Dan McLaughlin, was so inspired by Gladwell’s book, and the 10,000 hour mastery theory, he quit his job and set out to become a professional golfer with the goal of making the PGA Tour, having never swung a golf club in his life.

McLaughlin built his game from the ground up.
For months, all he did was practice his putting.
Gradually, he added wedges and irons and worked on his swing on the driving range.
It was 18 months before he played his first full round of golf.
At his peak, he was playing 18 holes a day, with an additional 4 hours a day spent on the putting green and driving range.

After five years, and 5,000 hours of practice, McLaughlin had pared his handicap down to 2.6—a mark achieved by fewer than 6% of golfers.
But when he could no longer afford the membership fees at an elite club, where he played with pros who gave him tips on how to improve his game, McLaughlin switched to a public course and found playing amongst the weekend warriors to be far less motivating.
The quality of his practice time went down, and after 6,000 hours his body fatigued and his back went out.
He couldn’t swing a club for six months, and now, eight years later, with his body no longer able to withstand the rigors of playing golf every day,
he has given up on his quest.

The 10,000-hours of practice theory has since been challenged,
as subsequent studies have shown that it’s the quality of practice hours, not the quantity, that leads to the mastery of a skill.
And even Gladwell has clarified his previous claim with the caveat that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice won’t get you very far if you lack the talent, mental acuity, and physical capability to master a chosen task.  

Gladwell writes, “I could play chess for 100 years and I'll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.”

So what hope do we have as practicing Christians as we attempt to master this thing we call “following in the footsteps of Jesus?”
Knowing that the only way to become proficient at feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and forgiving seventy times seventy is to practice it, over and over again.
There are no shortage of scripture passages, like the one we just heard from the Epistle of James, that lay out a path for the practicing Christian to follow.

The early Christian communities were eager to receive such instructions on how they might differentiate themselves or build upon what they’ve learned from the faith traditions in which they were raised.
Especially those communities that were isolated, like the dispersed Jewish-Christian community that James was writing to.
With their fellow Christians so far away, they turned to the gospels and the letters of the apostles to teach them what it meant to be a follower of Christ.
Some of it was familiar, as the teachings of Jesus came straight out of the Torah, but much of it challenged them in a new way.

Be slow to anger.
Practice kindness.
Refrain from speaking ill of others and holding grudges.
Return no evil for evil.
Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves into thinking they are righteous and religious.

These are not easy tasks to master.
Between the Ten Commandments, and the Greatest Commandment, which directs us to Love God and our NEIGHBOR as we love ourselves,
it’s no wonder that so many of us fail miserably at this thing we call religion.
Even though many of us have been doing it for most of our lives

If we embrace the 10,000-hours of practice theory, and think about how many hours a week we devote to practicing our faith, we can see how we might be coming up short.
At the bare minimum, the hour we spend in worship every Sunday only gives us 52 hours of formal practice a year, if we attend every week.
Even if we were carried into a church at birth and are carried out at the age of 100, this amounts to only 5,200 hours, or less than 1% of our lives, where our focus is fully on practicing our faith and communing with God.

This is of course, ridiculous.
Faith and religious conviction can’t be quantified in this way.
Few of us limit our faith practice time to Sunday mornings, yet conversely, even when we’re here in the presence of God, singing the hymns and saying the prayers, our minds are not always focused on quality over quantity.
Even pastors are guilty of having their minds wander during worship, thinking about what comes next in the service, and how close to 11:00 we can get this all done…especially on Communion Sundays.

What does it even mean to be a practicing Christian?
Do we have to attend worship a certain number of times a month?
Does coming 2 or 3 times a year count?
Do we have to be an official member of a church, with our name appearing on the membership rolls? Or is supporting a church financially and volunteering our time in service enough evidence of our commitment?

Do we have to be baptized to be considered a true follower of Christ?
Or does Jesus welcome us all to his table, regardless of whether we’ve gone through the ritual or spoken the words aloud which invite Christ into our hearts?

Some would say we’ve made it too easy to be a follower of Christ – that it’s too easy to claim the name of Christian, or claim a church as our own – with no baptism, membership, attendance, or financial support needed or required.

How can we say we’re committed to Christ if we won’t commit ourselves to the community formed in his name?

Perhaps because too often the community formed in his name is not very committed to Christ.

When I tell people in passing that I’m a pastor of a church, it is amazing how many of them feel the need to confess that they no longer make time in their lives for organized religion.
Guilt plays a huge part in this.
Whether I’m at the dentist, or sitting on an airplane, or talking to the workers fixing the roof on our house, telling people that I’m a pastor is like holding up a sign that says, “God knows that you haven’t been to church in a while and he wants to know why.”  

And they always tell me why.
Too much hypocrisy, they say.
Too much judgment about rules being broken being dished out by those who break the rules themselves.
Too much fear and rejection, and not enough love and compassion.

Too many people who are Saints on Sundays but conveniently forget how to practice their faith on Mondays.

If this is the perception that people have of the Christian church, then we Christians as a whole must not be very good at putting our faith into practice.
And just as likely, those who have walked away may have unrealistic expectations of what it means to be part of an imperfect community.
They may not know that there are Christian communities that openly admit that we doesn’t always get it right – that none of us is an expert at walking in the Way of Jesus.
But as a community we’re willing to try…and willing to be forgiving when we fail over and over again.
Because that’s how we learn how to be Christians…
by practicing our faith on one another.

Let’s go back to the epistle of James.
Where we find these words:
“In fulfillment of his own purpose, God gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of creation.”

This speaks to the natural ability that God has given each one of us, the natural capacity for love and compassion, that comes to life through us, and serves as evidence that God is moving in our world.
But we often allow this natural ability to be hindered by fear and distrust.
And it takes a lifetime of practice for us to overcome that.

As Malcom Gladwell wrote, our “natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.”

Finally, let’s go back to Dan McLaughlin, who fell short in his quest to become a professional golfer, even though he showed that he likely had the natural ability to back it up.

What success stories like those of Bill Gates and the Beatles tell us is that it takes more than time and talent to master a skill.
It takes passion.
It takes a love and devotion to ones craft that makes the hours spent performing on stage or buried in code at a computer terminal seemingly fly by.
It takes a willingness to push oneself beyond discomfort and failures because both make the journey more meaningful and the results so much more rewarding.
Dan McLaughlin admitted that he grew to love golf, but passion was never the animating principle that motivated him to play.
He said, “At the end of the day, I could walk away and say, “What’s next?”

So beyond the hours we spend in church, and beyond the quality time we devote to practicing our faith in the world in service to others,
if we’re not doing it because we’re passionate about manifesting this presence of God in the world – about living into our God-given ability to become the first fruits of creation –
If we’re not passionate about that –
Then we should seek to understand what our passion is.

What motivates us to want to be part of a practicing Christian community?
What is pushing or pulling us to want to be here on a Sunday morning?

And once we can name what that passion is,
all it takes is practice, practice, practice,
and the willingness to be transformed by the gospel of Christ –
as we to become a master of our journey.

Thanks be to God, and Amen. 

Friday, August 31, 2018

Sermon: "Armor of God - Gospel of Peace"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 26, 2018 – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20

“Armor of God – Gospel of Peace”

When I was nine-years-old, I wanted to be Johnny Bench.
For those who don’t know who Johnny Bench is, he played for the Cincinnati Reds baseball team back in the 1970’s.
He was the catcher and he was behind the plate when the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Boston Red Sox in 7 games to win the 1975 World Series.
I realize that many of you may have blocked that out. 

In the early 70’s, Bench led the league in RBI’s and runs scored and was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player multiple times.
But as a nine-year-old watching my first World Series on television I wasn’t really aware of any of that.
I loved baseball, and I knew Johnny Bench was a great player,
but I what I really admired about him was the equipment that he got to wear.

The catcher’s mask, the chest protector, the shin guards, and the round glove with extra thick padding.

I would often play the position of catcher during our neighborhood sandlot games, and I can’t tell you how many times I got whacked in the shins, beaned in the chest, or smacked in the face, by an errant ball or bat...and my thin, Jr. fielder’s glove would leave my palms stinging with every catch.

So on summer nights, I would pull out the Sears Catalog and pour over the sporting goods section. Looking at the pictures of catcher’s equipment,
and pining over the plastic leg-guards, caged masks, and padded gloves.
And I’d imagine myself donning all that fancy protective gear and crouching behind the plate, just like Johnny Bench.

I never did get that catcher’s equipment.
There was no way my parents could afford it with ten kids to feed and clothe.
And since girls couldn’t play Little League baseball, I could never justify needing such fancy equipment for our neighborhood sandlot games. 

But it would be many years later that I realized that my obsession with getting that protective gear had less to do with my desire to avoid injury,
or my desire to look cool behind the plate, and more to do with the vulnerability I was beginning to feel as I approached my pre-teen years.
I was starting to notice that I was different.

Earlier that year I had asked my mom if she would order me a pair of pajamas from that same Sears catalog.
They were football pajamas, emblazoned with the logo of the NY Jets,
and with white knit bottoms that looked like real football pants.
I thought they were so cool.

I remember my mother calling the Sears catalog order desk, as I stood excitedly by her side, and at one point she covered the receiver of the phone as she frantically whispered to me,
"The lady at Sears says these are BOYS pajamas."
I sheepishly replied, "I know they are, but I really like them."
Kudos to my mom. She ordered them anyway. 
And then she sewed up the fly on the pants before she let me wear them.

At the age of 9, I was beginning to recognize that there weren’t many little girls who wanted football pajamas or who wanted to be Johnny Bench.
So the idea of having a catcher’s mask and chest protector to hide behind was very appealing – to both disguise my gender, and offer protection from the slings and arrows of judgment that I was already beginning to feel.

For many, putting on the armor of God serves the same purpose.
As we long to have protective armor to wear to act as a shield against the many things that can hurt us in life.

This passage from the letter to the Ephesians is memorable because it gives us this vivid imagery of God standing as a physical barrier between us and harm, while at the same time equipping us with the tools we need to go on the offensive and stand firm when we encounter what we would call evil.

But as comforting as this imagery can be, it is not without its problems.
For some, this passage has a militaristic overtone to it that is either strongly appealing - or unappealing -  
as we imagine donning the breastplate of righteousness,
picking up the shield of faith, and brandishing the sword of the Spirit –
as we head out to battle the forces of darkness
or fight our human enemies with God on our side.

Depicting God as a shield or a weapon who protects some and harms others can put us on shaky theological ground,
especially if we believe in a God who loves us all unconditionally and equally, and who calls for us to love one another as we too are loved by God.

Unfortunately, the imagery of battle gear is so strong in this passage that we may miss the context in which it was expressed.

The author of Ephesians writes: 
“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the evil one.  For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

This is powerful language.
What the text does not say is that this armor of God is meant to be donned in our fight against human foes here on earth, as we brandish our faith as a weapon.
Rather it’s the spiritual forces of darkness that we need protection against.
The forces inside of us and outside of us that pull us towards the things that separate us from God and one another –
Fear, selfishness, ignorance.
The desire for power over others.
The impulse to lash out at those who have harmed us.
The distrust of those who have a different experience – a different story to tell – than our own.
Whenever we encounter intentional injury, inhospitality, or injustice, we are dealing with the spiritual forces of darkness.

This is the force that rises up or takes root in our own hearts and causes us to do harm to one another – as individuals, and in our systems and laws institutions – as we deny the divinely orchestrated connection between each and every one of us.

But we have to ask ourselves why we feel pulled along by forces that separate us, when God created us to be connected to another?
And why is this imagery of donning the protective armor of God so compelling to us?

Perhaps because we all feel vulnerable.
Every single one of us.

Regardless of age, gender, race, or income.
Regardless of our education level or status.
Regardless of how strong we feel inside or how much weight we can carry outside.

We were all children once.
We all know what it’s like to feel powerless and fearful.
And so much of what we experience as adults taps into that fear,
or adds to it, as we encounter challenges or people, that make us feel as if we’re vulnerable children all over again.

Whether we’re faced with the alluring pull of the forces of the outside world that feed our desire for power, control, security, and superiority,
or the forces that pull at us from the inside, that tell us we are weak, or worthless, or a waste of God’s time.
it’s the gospel of Christ that acts as a counter-force.
The good news of Christ is our shield and our breastplate and our sword.

The good news is that God is doing something NEW in our world.
Calling us to be counter-cultural as we resist the pull to give in to our fears, and instead LOVE our neighbor, and WELCOME the stranger, and LIBERATE those who are held captive by the many isms of this world – racism, classism, sexism, ableism, ageism - and egoism – for those who lack humility are also held captive by the fear of appearing vulnerable and weak.

We may say it’s all well and good for some ancient followers of Jesus to embrace a good news gospel and use it as a metaphorical shield and sword against evil, instead of the real thing.
They didn’t live in the world that we live in today.
Where we have nuclear weapons, and terrorism, and cyber attacks, and biological warfare,
all of which cause us to feel vulnerable in ways our ancestors could never have imagined.

But the Pauline community that gave us the letter to the Ephesians wasn’t some idealistic Kumbaya community of uneducated peasants who were in denial about the challenges of the real world.

They lived under the Pax Romana – the Imperial Peace of Rome – an artificial peace that was enforced by oppression and the weight of the Roman Empire’s foot standing on the neck of the people.
You can’t raise a rebellion, when you can’t even stand up.

Paul, and those who followed in his footsteps, threatened that forced peace, because they preached a gospel of TRUE peace – one that would be brought on by loving enemies, welcoming strangers, and liberating those held captive.

The followers of Jesus’ WAY were thrown in prison for preaching this gospel so many times that they likely never bothered to make hotel reservations on their travels. Why book a room in the town you’re preaching in when you know you’re going to end up sitting on a dirt floor surrounded by iron bars by the days end.

If anyone had a right to hate and despise his enemies, and secretly wish he could take them all out with one swipe of God’s Sword of righteousness, it was Paul.
Yet he harbored no malice or thoughts of revenge against his captors – or the imperial state of Rome, which they served.

Instead Paul taught his community to fight against the “spiritual forces of evil – the cosmic powers of the present darkness” that rose up in their own hearts.

Now, all this talk of evil forces may have some of us squirming in our seats, but if we deny that we’re all capable of nurturing these forces within our own hearts, then we may also miss the invitation we’re given here to put on shoes that will make us ready “to proclaim the Gospel of Peace” -

Loving enemies, welcoming strangers, setting captives free.

Let’s go back to where I said we’re on shaky theological ground when we talk about God being a shield that protects some and not others.
This in no way negates the very real comfort that many derive from this image of God as protector.

No amount of biblical exegesis or theological nuancing can rob this text of the power it has to lift up and shore up those who are facing some very real evils in this life –
Women in abusive relationships,
Refugees living in containment camps,
People imprisoned by addictions,
People of color who are beaten down by the everyday occurrences of racism.

As a child, I longed for such protective gear as I anticipated the difficult years that lay ahead.
I believe I made it through those years because I was leaning into the arms of God – and into the arms of those who embodied God’s presence on earth.

Who doesn’t long for a belt of truth, a shield of faith, and shoes of peace?

Embrace your vulnerability – 
and trust that the GOOD NEWS will set you free.

Thanks be God, and Amen.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Sermon: "Wisdom of the Ages"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 19, 2018 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 9:1-6; 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

“Wisdom of the Ages”

If you could travel back in time and meet your younger self – at any age - what words of wisdom would you have to offer?

A few years ago, the producers of a Canadian radio show called WireTap, assembled a group of strangers of all ages and asked them a similar question.
They were asked, “What word of advice might you have for someone just a few years younger than you are?”
This is how they responded:

“Dear 6-year-old, training wheels are for babies, just let go already” – signed a 7-year-old.

“Dear 8-year-old, find out your babysitter’s weakness, than use it against them.” – signed a 9-year-old.

“Dear 12-year-old, ask her to dance, just trust me on this one.” – signed a 16-year-old.

“Dear 16-year-old, don’t let your mom throw away your Legos.” – signed an 18-year-old.

“Dear 18-year old, go easy on the makeup, you’re not as ugly as you think you are.” - signed a 19-year-old.

“Dear 19-year-old, just because it’s an all you can eat buffet, doesn’t mean you have to eat all you can.” – signed a 20-year-old.

From this point on the advice gets a bit wiser:

Dear 20-year-old, your parents have better interest rates than your credit card.

Dear 21-year-old, if he says he has a weekend home in the suburbs… he’s married.

Dear 24-year-old, that rust protection undercoating is actually a great deal.

Dear 29-year-old, getting laid off can be a blessing in disguise.

Dear 30-year-old, being a starving artist only works if you actually make art.

Dear 32-year-old, always be kind to your family, you’ll need each other when things get tough.

We soon realize that these bits of wisdom have less to do with giving a stranger a bit of advice, and more to do with a longing to go back in time and give ourselves the benefit of what we’ve learned with age and experience.
Whether we’re looking back many years or just one year.

“Dear 36-year-old, stop caring so much about what other people think, they’re not thinking about you at all.” – signed a 47-year-old.

“Dear 47-year-old, a midlife crisis does not look good on you.” – signed a 48-year-old.

Of course, the older we get the more pragmatic we often become.

“Dear 48-year old, always tell the truth, except when it comes to your online dating profile.” - signed a 51-year-old.

“Dear 51-year old, one cat is enough cats.” – signed a 53-year-old.
(I disagree with that one)

As expected, once we pass a certain age, and we begin to recognize that there’s more sand in the bottom of the hourglass than there is left to fall,
our advice to those younger than us takes on a greater sense of urgency.

“Dear 65-year-old, spend all your money now, otherwise your kids are going to do it for you.” – sincerely a 72-year-old.

“Dear 72-year-old, indulge your sweet tooth, you’ll need dentures soon anyway.” – signed an 85-year-old.

“Dear 85-year-old, cultivate younger friends, otherwise yours will all die off.” – signed a 91-year-old.

And finally:
“Dear 91-year-old, don’t listen to other people’s advice, nobody knows what the hell they’re doing.” – signed a 93-year-old.

So, if you could travel back in time and meet your younger self – at any age - what words of wisdom would you have to offer?

We often think of wisdom as being something that takes a lifetime to acquire.
Born out of years of experience, trials and errors, and legitimate bouts of pain and suffering thrown in for good measure.
Because – we assume – one doesn’t become wise without first knowing what it is to be ignorant, and what it feels like to fail.

Wisdom comes from looking back and saying, “If I could do it all over again, I’d do it differently.”
But as this exercise involving strangers offering their younger counterparts advice shows us, we can gain wisdom at any age, and with any experience.
It’s what we do with it that makes us wise.

The Great King, Solomon, did not assume that he was wise before he came to be known as the “Great King Solomon” – he was just 15-years-old when he inherited the throne, and only 20 when he encountered God in the high place at Gibeon.

Yet even at age 20 he had the wisdom to know that great things did not come with power and wealth and longevity, alone.
I would imagine that even at 20, Solomon had been alive long enough to see that ignorance lived in great houses and gilded halls, and in grey and aging eyes that had seen enough of life to know better.

So when God asked him what gift he would like to receive, Solomon chose wisdom.
Some would say it takes a wise man to make such a request in the first place.

Solomon is considered to be a great king.
He built the great Temple in Jerusalem, rebuilt great cites, and presided over great decisions for the good of his people.
 You may know the story of the two mothers who were fighting over an infant, both claiming it as her own. It was Solomon who suggested they cut the baby down the middle and each take a half, knowing that the true mother would be the one who would let go of her claim out of compassion, and allow the child to live.

Solomon was a wise king but he was by no means a perfect king.
When we put him under the microscope of time as we do with many of the “great” people who came before us, we begin to see his flaws, his brokenness, his humanness, the places where he failed to live up to the title of “Great” in some crucial way.  

The Bible famously describes Solomon as having 700 wives and 300 concubines.
That’s a lot of anniversaries and birthdays to remember.
In biblical times, having that many wives and mistresses wasn’t the issue.
The issue was that most of Solomon’s wives were born in other lands and he permitted them to continue to worship their own native gods.
He even built temples honoring those gods for his wives to worship in.
As they say…happy wife, happy life.

But Solomon, as we’re told in 1 Kings, was more than a bit ambivalent about which god he himself worshiped on any given day.
It is Solomon’s idolatry and lack of loyalty to the one True God that is ultimately blamed for the split between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel, in which the 12 tribes went there separate ways, never to be united again.

It’s important to note that the 1st and 2nd books of Kings that we have in our Bible were both written when the Israelites were being held in captivity in Babylon, some 500 years after Solomon lived and died.
These stories are the result of a people enduring a great suffering and looking back in time in search of a reason or cause for that great suffering.
The stories contained in the 1st and 2nd books of Kings are for the most part one successive tale after another of human kings doing very human things – idolatry, adultery, thievery – the subtitle could be “Men Behaving Badly” – with the ultimate result being the entire Kingdom of Israel paying the price for relying on the wisdom and guidance of human rulers rather than the one divine ruler.

In the cause and effect world in which our ancestors lived it was natural for them to assume that their current predicament as prisoners of war was caused by their people’s unwillingness to follow God’s will.
In many ways they were right.
But it wasn’t God’s wrath that set them on the path of destruction, it was the turmoil of the time, and the inability of each successive generation to learn from the mistakes of the previous one.
Each new King was just as flawed as the previous King, and most chose to rule not relying on wisdom and a desire to do what is right and just, but instead relied on their own desire for power and wealth.

When we hear these ancient stories we may wonder how they might be of use to us today.
How is this story revealing a truth about the world we live in?
And how is it making a promise to us – about the future that is yet to come?

The truth about our world that we find in 1 Kings is that flawed and self-focused leaders are not a product of our modern times.
As long as we’ve been putting humans on pedestals and at podiums and in pulpits, there have been those who relish the power it gives them and who are guided not by wisdom and the desire to speak truthfully and act justly, but rather by the desire to retain their power at all costs.

The truth we find here is that we human beings continue to make the same mistakes.
The promise we find here is that we can break that cycle by emulating the young Solomon - and seeking wisdom over all else.

The knowledge of right and wrong is something that we learn at an early age, but it can take us so much longer to understand that choosing what is right, and just, is what is best for all of us in the long run.
It’s our shortsightedness and our self-centeredness that causes us to choose otherwise.

Solomon may have stumbled in his later years, in a big way,
Rather than growing wiser, he grew more cynical and more hard-hearted,
but he is still a worthy example of the way God can come into our life at any age to nurture the wisdom we have been given and encourage us to use it to grow in our capacity to live in relationship with each other and with God.

We can become wise – at age 20, at age 40, at age 60, at age 80 –and still have whole lot of unwise moments in between.
The point is that we keep seeking wisdom.
That we keep seeking God in every encounter, and in every choice that needs to be made, and asking ourselves what is right – what is just – what is good?
Not just for ourselves, but for all.

If 60-year-old Solomon could go back in time and speak with 20-year-old Solomon, I wonder what he would say.
I wonder who would have words of advice for whom?
What words of advice would our younger self have for us?
What wisdom have we left behind?

Thanks be to God, and Amen.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Sermon: "Be Kind: Rewind"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 12, 2018 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Ephesians 4:25-5:2

“Be Kind: Rewind”

In 2011, a grassroots organization called Kids for Peace, partnered with three elementary schools in California to launch The Great Kindness Challenge - a week long event designed to create a more positive and respectful school environment by encouraging kids to participate in simple acts of kindness.

Kids were given a pre-printed checklist containing 50 suggested acts of kindness that they might initiate during the school week - such as:

·      Help a younger student with their homework.
·      Sit with someone new at lunch.
·      Listen to your teacher when she’s talking – the first time.

Friendly competition was encouraged as students attempted to do as many acts of kindness on the list as they could during the week.
Kids also took home a “Family Edition” of the list, which included acts of kindness they could participate in with their parents and siblings, such as:

·      Pick up and recycle trash in your neighborhood.
·      Take a board game to play at a local senior center.
·      Make a thank you card for the local librarians, fire dept, or crossing guards.

While this was a challenge directed at school children, there were acts of kindness on both lists that anyone could do at any age, such as:

·      Go a whole day without complaining.
·      Smile at someone who looks like they’re having a bad day.
·      Let someone go ahead of you in line.  

What started as a grassroots project in three California schools has since grown into an international event.
Scheduled for the last week of January every year, The Great Kindness Challenge now has participants in 103 countries,
involving nearly 20,000 schools, and over 10 million students…
resulting in over 527,000,000 recorded acts of kindness during just one week each year.

If practicing kindness for one week out of the year isn’t enough of a commitment for you, and you’re ready to take on a more adult-sized challenge,  you might tackle the 30-Day Kindness Challenge
promoted by self-help author and relationship guru, Shaunti Feldhan.

Ms. Feldhan proposes that most of the difficulties we encounter in our personal relationships – with family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers –
extend from our struggle to be kind to one another.
She suggests that any relationship, no matter how difficult, can be improved by practicing three specific acts of kindness for 30 days:

1.   Say nothing negative about the person you’re having a difficult relationship with, either to them or about them to someone else.
2.   Find one positive thing you can praise or affirm about that person every day, and tell them, and tell someone else as well.
3.   Do one small act of kindness for this person every day, either directly or anonymously.

Ms. Feldhan claims that of those who’ve tried the 30-day Kindness Challenge, 89% have seen an improvement in their target relationship,
even if the daily kindness they practiced was completely one-sided.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but if we treat someone with kindness and respect, regardless of how they treat us in return,
our interactions with them will naturally become less challenging and less strained, and we will come to see them in a more positive light.
And, the hope is, over time they will come to see us in a more positive light as well and begin to treat us with kindness in return. 

The overarching goal of both the week-long Kindness Challenge and the thirty-day challenge is to instill within us new habits and new ways of relating to others,
in the hope that we’ll continue to practice such kindness without the need for a check list or a challenge to prompt us.

As we see from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, our struggle to simply be kind to one another is not new.
Some 2000 years ago, Paul embarked upon this great experiment –
he and his cohorts were attempting to build something unique –
a new Christian community made up of both Gentiles and Jews.

In order to promote unity, Paul urged them to “Put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and slander… and be kind to one another,
be tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

If Paul had lived in our time he might have called this, “The Great Jesus Challenge"...
but in Paul’s time, these new Christians had the advantage of living within one generation of the greatest personification of kindness there has ever been - Jesus himself -
Emmanuel – God with us – God stepping into our space and our time to show us what real love looks like, what true kindness has to offer.
And still these first generation Christians struggled to live up to, and into this ideal.

It’s interesting to note that the Greek word Paul uses for kindness is chrestos.
Which is similar to the Greek word for Messiah - christos.
The word kindness is reminiscent of Christ himself.

 “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,”
is straight out of the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus –
We call it the Golden Rule.
And as we learned earlier, this rule predates Christianity, and finds its roots in Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, ancient Egypt, Persia, and Africa, and nearly every culture and religious tradition we know.

In ancient cultures:
Egypt:  "That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another."
Greece: “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing."
Rome: "Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you."
Persia:  "Do not do to others that which angers you when they do it to you"

And in diverse religious traditions:
Buddhism: "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful."
Confucianism: "What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others."
Hinduism: "If the entire Dharma can be said in a few words, it is this—that which is unfavorable to us, do not do that to others."

Yoruba  (an African Tribal Religion):
“One who uses a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.”

Judaism: In Leviticus 19 - “Love your neighbor as yourself”
And in the Talmud - "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn."

Note that not one of these versions of the Golden Rule says
“Treat others as others treat you”….Rather, ALL of them say,
“Treat others as you would have others treat you.”

It’s not about being nice to those who are nice, while giving ourselves permission to be nasty to those who are nasty.   
It’s not about returning hurt for hurt, disrespect for disrespect, unkindness for unkindness.
It’s not about retaliation, humiliation, or confrontation.

Instead, it’s about RELATION.
God created us to live as relational beings.
Thus we crave to live in right relationship with one another.
And we thrive when we do.
And we suffer when we do not.

Given our innate relational nature, we have to wonder:
Why is it that we struggle so to be kind to one another?
If it is our deepest desire to have healthy, mutually giving relationships with one another why is it such a universal challenge to ‘do unto others as we would have others do unto us?’

Why do we have such difficulty being kind to those we love?
Why do we struggle to be civil with our neighbors?
Why do we get into arguments on the internet with strangers?

Even if we consider ourselves to be relatively kind in what is seemingly a very unkind world – we may not be as kind as we think we are.

We may hold the door open for strangers and bake cookies for new neighbors and do our best to not speak harshly to others even when they speak harshly to us, but I can guarantee you that we all find it to be a challenge to not speak harshly about others, especially when the person we’re speaking about is not present to hear what we’re saying.

The co-worker who doesn’t do their job very well, and undermines our ability to do ours.
The family member who spends too much, drinks too much, or does too little to help out when needed.
The church member who said something or did something that upset us,
to the point where we just can’t resist telling someone – or several someones - just how upset we are.

We all have the capacity to be unkind at times.
If you doubt this of yourself just get in your car and drive into Boston during rush hour (or drive to Maine or the Cape on any weekend in July or August).
Nothing brings out our capacity for kindness and unkindness like moving, and merging, in heavy traffic.

Our willingness to allow others to push their way in – out of turn and in flagrant violation of communal traffic etiquette, is directly proportional to the outrage we feel when someone refuses to give way and create a space for us when we are the one needing to be let in.  

How we react to rule breakers, space takers, and seemingly inconsiderate way makers says a lot about our capacity for kindness and forgiveness.
This is one of those situations where we might ask ourselves,
“What Would Jesus Do?”
If we could imagine Jesus driving on I95.
I imagine him driving a Prius – with a sticker on the back that says “Honk if you love ME”.

Here’s another bumper sticker you may have seen:
“Be kind – Everyone you meet is fighting a battle that you don’t know about.”

This quote originated with 19th century Scottish author, Ian Maclaren.
Ian Maclaren was the pen name of the Rev. John Watson, a minister in the Free Church of Scotland.
In December 1897, the Rev. Watson was asked by British Weekly magazine to provide a brief Christmas message for their readers. 

Writing as Ian Maclaren, Watson wrote:
     “Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle.”

Pitiful is used here with its older meaning –
to have pity, or empathy, for our fellow travelers in this life,
to show them kindness, especially when they have wronged us in some way – because as human beings we all have struggles we’re enduring that spill over into our every day interactions,
and we inevitably end up being un-kind to one anther,
intentionally or otherwise.

We bump into each other, and cut each other off in traffic, and say and do things in the midst of anger, distraction, worry, and pain that we’re not always aware that we’re doing or saying.

This is why we struggle to be kind to one another despite our innate nature which craves right and renewed relationships.
Because our human nature often overwhelms our God nature.

Perhaps if we made it a habit to be kind to one another,
even when others are not kind to us,
the next time when our burdens have us bumping and banging into others,
and we need to be shown kindness ourselves,
someone may do just that for us.

The students and teachers who started The Great Kindness Challenge have this to say about the purpose of their event:
“At the heart of the challenge is the simple belief that kindness is strength.
We believe that as an action is repeated, a habit is formed.
And as kindness becomes a habit, peace becomes possible.”

May we all be bringers of peace in this world,
By living into our nature as relational beings,
one kind act at a time.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.