Monday, March 20, 2017

Sermon: "Live Long and Prosper"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
March 19, 2017 – Faith Promise Sunday
Luke 12:22-34

“Live Long and Prosper”

Live Long and Prosper...
Many of you may recognize this greeting and the accompanying hand gesture as being from the iconic science fiction series, Star Trek.
What you may not know is that this is actually a Jewish blessing.

In the original Star Trek series, this gesture and greeting was associated with the character known as Mr. Spock.
Spock was a Vulcan, an alien race that revered logic and shunned emotional displays.
In an early episode of Star Trek, the writers had Spock visiting his home planet where the audience would see him interacting with other Vulcans for the first time.
The character of Spock was played by actor, Leonard Nimoy, and when Nimoy saw that the script called for his fellow Vulcans to greet him by putting their hands on his shoulders, that didn’t seem quite right to him….Vulcans were not touchy-feely.  
So he suggested they do something different.
He said to the producers, “What if we use a hand gesture – like this….” 

They loved the idea, and it quickly caught on with the fans as well. 
Within days of the episode airing, Nimoy said people were waving to him on the street using the hand gesture and saying, "Live long and prosper!"
And 50 years later, we're still doing it. 

Two years before he died, Nimoy was interviewed for a documentary where he talked about the first time he saw this hand gesture.
As a boy, he attended a synagogue service with his father and his Orthodox Jewish grandfather.
At the end of the service, the rabbi and the other male leaders stood up in front of the congregation and put their prayer shawls over their heads.
Nimoy said his father told him, “Don’t look.” 
Nimoy noticed that everyone present was either putting their hands over their eyes, turning their backs, or putting their prayer shawls on their heads to block their view.

As he held his hands tightly over his eyes, Nimoy said he heard the leaders and everyone in the congregation chanting and shouting.
It was chilling, Nimoy said. He knew something eventful was happening and he didn’t want to miss it.
So he peaked.

And when he did, he saw the leaders up front with their heads covered and with both hands extended out like this….. towards the congregation.

Nimoy said he had no idea what it was,
but the sound of it and the look of it was magical.

This is the shape of the Hebrew letter shin. It’s a 3-pointed letter, and it’s the first letter in several Hebrew words, including:
Shaddai (one of the names for God),
Shalom (the word for hello, goodbye and peace),
and Shekhinah, which Jews define as the feminine aspect of God that was created to live among humans.  (In Christianity, we call it the Holy Spirit)

The Shekhinah is also the name of the ritual that Nimoy witnessed as a boy that inspired the Vulcan salute.
It’s a benediction, or closing prayer, that calls on the feminine aspect of God to enter the sanctuary and bless the congregation.  The congregation is told to not look because the light and power of this presence is said to be too much for our human eyes to handle.

The Shekhinah hand gesture wasn’t the only thing that Nimoy borrowed from his Jewish heritage. 
The phrase “Live Long and Prosper” and the traditional Vulcan response of “Peace and Long Life” was based on the Jewish blessing “Shalom Aleichem” (peace be upon you) and the traditional reply of “Aleichem Shalom” (upon you be peace).

This gesture has now made its way into our popular culture, as a kind of an insider symbol or way of acknowledging, “Hey, I’ve seen Star Trek, I know what that is!”
Leonard Nimoy admitted that this made him laugh and brought him great joy, because as he said,
“People don’t realize they’re blessing each other every time they do this!”

Leonard Nimoy’s faith inspired his creativity.
The experiences he had growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community was something he valued and carried with him, to the point where it inspired his work as an actor – even if the role he was playing was that of a pointy eared space alien living and working on a 22nd century starship.

As part of our Faith Promise service today, we’re asking you to think about what it is you value about your faith and how that faith comes to inspire you and be expressed through you - and within this community.

What is it that brings you here on a Sunday morning when there are so many other things that you could be doing with your time?
What is it that brings you out on a Tuesday night to attend a Committee meeting –
or on a Wednesday morning to engage in an Adult Ed discussion – 
or on a Thursday evening to sing in the choir or to serve at a Community Supper? 

What is it that motivates you to participate in this community of faith?

Is it an underlying sense of obligation?
A belief that you SHOULD go to church because it’s good for you?
Because it’s good for your children?
Is it because on some level you believe God is watching and keeping track of your church attendance and all of your good deeds like some divine Santa Claus – rewarding and punishing as needed?

Do you come here because you love the message, or the music, or the mission, or the people – or all of the above - because each in its own way inspires you and lifts you up, and holds you up, as needed?

Or do you come because you recognize that having your own needs met is only part of the equation – because our greatest reward is found in our ability to be there for others.

As Jesus told his disciples, if we stop preoccupying ourselves with what it is we’re getting and instead concentrate on what it is we’re giving, we’ll find that all of our needs will be met, and then some.

How often have we heard people say this in our church, especially during the Stewardship Moments we’ve heard shared during worship?
We’ve heard it from Sunday school teachers who claim they learn as much from the kids as the kids have learned from them.
We’ve heard it from mission trip participants and Community Supper volunteers who express gratitude for the trust and hospitality they’ve received from the people they were sent to serve.
We’ve heard it from Congregational Care members who talk about what an honor it is to be present for those who are sick or grieving or dying – because of the deep connections we share with one another in the most vulnerable times of our life.

We often hear those who give of themselves say that they receive so much more in return, because something inside of us craves that very human connection –
that sense that we have something of value to offer others - and we do so out of gratitude because we value what it is that others have to offer to us. 

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.”
As Jesus told his disciples, what we value naturally becomes the recipient of our love and our devotion.
Conversely, if we look at the things we devote much of our time, energy, and money to, we should have a pretty good picture of what it is we value, what it is we love.

Our work, our family, our home, our recreational activities, our ability to travel and explore the world around us.
Even the taxes we often reluctantly pay provide us with services and protections that we value and benefit from individually and communally.

It some ways it’s easy for us to put a value on the things that are important to us because often there’s a dollar amount that comes along with it.
The cost of our Hampshire Hills membership or Netflix subscription.
The cost of our children’s education – from kindergarten through college.
The cost of medical care - when we need a new knee to walk pain free, when our mother or father moves into an assisted living facility, when we’re told enduring radiation and chemotherapy will possibly give us a few more years with the ones we love.

But it’s much harder for us to put a price tag on our faith.
Our faith communities are an oddity in that they offer things that are difficult to assign a monetary value to. 

Things like:
Worship that inspires us, comforts us, challenges us, and offers us a framework to better understand our world.
Spiritual enrichment and formation – for ourselves and our children.
A sense of belonging and community that we may struggle to find elsewhere.
Pastoral and communal support during the most difficult and joyous times of our lives.
The opportunity to grow in our relationship with God, by being with others who seek to do the same.

How do even begin to place a value on all of this?

Perhaps the greatest lesson that Jesus tried in vain to teach his disciples was that love is not a commodity that can be bought and sold.
It’s not a resource that can spoil or rust or run out because it has limited availability.
It’s not something that we can stash in a bank or store in a barn and save for a rainy day.

The love that God has for us, and the divine love that is expressed through us in acts of compassion, and justice, and service – is so expansive and all encompassing that all of our human understandings of scarcity and ownership and transactional value do not apply.
Yes, it costs money to run this church,
and fund our ministry programs,
and keep the lights and heat (and sprinkler system) on in this 243 year-old building.

But when you consider how much you can contribute to make all of this happen,
and how much of your time, talent, and treasure – how much of your heart –
you have to give to this faith community –
please do so knowing that regardless of what you give or how much you give, God’s love for you, our love for you,
will not change.

As Jesus said, do not preoccupy yourselves with what you receive because giving in itself is it’s own reward.

“Shalom Aleichem” - Peace be upon you.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Sermon: "Longing for Lent"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregationsl Church Of Amherst, UCC
March 5, 2017 – First Sunday in Lent
Matthew 4:1-11

“Longing for Lent”

The 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness wrestling with the temptations that the devil set before him has become a model for the Christian life.
The idea that we are to be Christ-like at all times and resist our innate tendency to give in to temptation and sin has been a goal and a stumbling block for Christians across the ages.

The 4th century Bishop, Augustine of Hippo, is often called the Father of Western Christianity.
But before Augustine became St. Augustine, and before he entered the monastic order, he was known for his excessive dalliances with wine and women.
As a young man he ran with the wrong crowd, boasted of his sexual exploits, and fathered a child out of wedlock. 
Years later, in his seminal book titled, Confessions, Augustine admitted that as he contemplated entering the priesthood his most often said prayer was, “Lord, grant me chastity…but not yet.”

Then we have Martin Luther, the German monk who kick-started the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago when he nailed his 95 complaints against the Catholic Church on the doors of the cathedral in Wittenburg.
Luther was so obsessed with his own struggle to resist temptation he would often kneel for 6 hours or more confessing every sinful thought that ever popped into his head to his fellow priests, much to their annoyance.

On one occasion, Martin had just completed a marathon round of confessing when he came running back in because he had forgotten to mention some insignificant foible. To which the tired and exasperated priest famously replied, “Look here brother Martin, if you're going to confess so much, why don't you do something worth confessing? Kill someone! Commit adultery! Quit coming here with such flummery and fake sins.”

And then there’s Sophia.
Sophia is a 3 year-old girl from Cleveland, Ohio, who became an internet sensation last year when her father posted a video of her adamantly denying that she was responsible for the bright blue nail polish that had come to be smeared all over her fingers, all over her bedroom carpet, and all over her Barbie doll.

Through tear filled eyes Sophia insisted that she was not to blame,
because Barbie told her to do it.
In the video you can hear her father calmly saying to her, “Okay Sophia, you’re telling me that you were playing with Barbie and then out of the blue she said, “I want you to paint me with nail polish.”

To which Sophia tearfully responded, “Uh huh, and she said it a hundred times – a hundred times! - and I kept saying, “Nooooo!”

Then her father said, “Okay Sophia, but does Barbie know that you’re not supposed to use your nail polish inside the house and that she could have ruined your carpet and your bed and all of your blankets?”

And little Sophia, with tears still streaming down her face, responded,
“I know! I told her it was a horrible idea but she wouldn’t listen to me!”

No matter how old we are, or how pious we are, we all seem to do this dance.
This dance between wanting to give in to our inner wants and desires, and our need to check ourselves and keep ourselves from doing something that causes more trouble and pain than any desire is worth.

What makes this dance so hard is that our desires are by design always weaving in and out of and conflicting with the desires of others - and the desires of God.

We desire love, acceptance, security, safety, connection, control –
but often in our quest to hold on to and satisfy those desires we end up hurting or taking from others.     And when we do that we cause injury to the relationships we have with others.

Not always intentionally.
But because we know God desires for us to live in right relationship with one another we’re called to take stock of the things we do that cause harm – both to others and ourselves - and do what we can to bring healing.

As Christians we’re called to do this at all times, but because we naturally struggle with this, the Christian calendar gives us a period of 40 days to devote our attention to this quest for healing.

Admittedly, the season of Lent is the one season on the Christian calendar that few people look forward to.
If we compiled a Christian Calendar Top Ten list and ranked the seasons by popularity, Christmas and Easter would be up there at the top,
with Advent and Epiphany coming in a close second, because most people think they’re just an extension of Christmas any way,
and somewhere in the middle would be the long season of Pentecost that stretches between Easter and Advent - the one we call “Ordinary Time” –
the season few people get excited about because, well, it’s just ordinary.

But way down at the bottom of the list we have Lent.
A period of 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday
that is traditionally marked by prayer, fasting, and penitence for sins.
Who doesn’t look forward to that?!

I had a clergy colleague of mine confess to me recently,
“You know, I really dislike the season of Lent….It’s just such a downer.”

And in many ways, she’s right.
Lent calls us to think about things that we’d rather not think about.
Our mortality - the fact that we are made from dust and to dust we shall return.
And our sin.
We may call it our brokenness, our shortcomings, our transgressions, but whatever name we have for it, it involves admitting that we’ve been less than our best selves.
And that’s not something many of us want to do for one day let alone forty.

Especially for those of us who already lie awake at night thinking about all the ways we’ve come up short – as we review the mistakes we’ve made over and over again in an endless loop in our head.

Lent has also traditionally been seen as a long arduous trudge through 40 days of denying ourselves something that gives us pleasure, like meat or sweets – or taking on something that we hope will make us a better person – like a new exercise routine, or reading the bible more, or a pledge to purge our lives of unnecessary clutter.

Either way it’s work.
Which is why people say they’re taking on a "Lenten Practice" or "Lenten Discipline.Nobody ever takes on a "Christmas Discipline," which is probably why it ranks so high on the Seasonal Top Ten List.

The idea that Lent should be a time of healing and a time of letting go
is really just a microcosm of what it means to be Christian.

To be Christian is to admit that God is calling us to a life of constant renewal. We are to continuously recreate ourselves anew by letting go of fear, and misperceptions, and the things that we hold onto because we think we need them - because they help us feel safe and secure – when what they really do is keep us from building relationships with others, and with God.

I get why some of us are not feeling in the mood for Lent this year.
With all the emotions and feelings of division that we’ve had swirling around us in recent months.
I know many of us are tired of feeling sad, and angry, and scared and bewildered.
And it would be nice to just let all of that go.

Lent is about letting go.

Lent is not about getting LOST in the wilderness,
it’s about finding our way OUT of the wilderness.
And to find your way out of the wilderness you have to first admit that you’re IN the wilderness.

You have to recognize that you’re stuck – that you’re spinning your wheels – that you’re lost in the thicket of despair or anger or just plain busyness.

To find healing – you first have to admit to yourself that you’re wounded.
To find wholeness – you first have to admit to yourself that you’re broken.

So even if on the outside we’re saying, “Oh I don’t do Lent, it’s such a downer and I don’t want to go there” – on the inside we’re longing for Lent.
We’re longing for healing – and wholeness – and relief.

When Jesus was in the wilderness, the devil tried to cajole him into giving in to his hunger, dared him to toss himself off a building as a test of faith, and offered him the chance to rule over all the kingdoms of the world.
Jesus was able to resist this temptation to give in to his human side and his desire for security, for power, for protection from harm.

But we are not Jesus.
We are going to give in to our desires.
And when we do, we will sometimes hurt ourselves and each other.
But God does not fault us for that.
God does not judge us or reject us or stop loving us because we’re human.
What God desires for us is healing.

So I would encourage us all to make it our Lenten practice to seek healing.
To spend some time taking stock of our own pain, and the pain we may have caused others, even if it was unintentional - and do what we can to make amends.

I would also encourage us all to spend these 40 days letting go of some of the things we carry that cause pain and hinder healing.
Our anger, our fear, our bitterness, our guilt, our desire for control, our reluctance to admit that we’ve fallen short, because we’re human.

When you think about it, 40 days is not a lot of time to spend on making ourselves whole again.

Blessings to you all on your Lenten journeys.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sermon: "Rich Corinthian Leather"

Scripture Intro - 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

When Paul was establishing the first Christian churches in 50AD, Corinth was the largest and most influential city in southern Greece. 
Its key geographical position on the sea route between Italy and Asia Minor made it not just a thriving commercial center but also a perfect location as a center of missionary activity.
In a city of many different cultures, beliefs and social norms, maintaining and growing a Christian presence was challenging. The early church struggled to contend with the influences of a secular society, but it also had to contend with competing factions of Christians, each of which had aligned itself under a different teacher. 

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul tackled this problem of divisiveness.
Some in the church lifted up Paul as the true teacher and the one to follow. Others had chosen to follow another Christian teacher and church planter, named Apollos.
Paul makes it clear from the outset that the church in Corinth was allowing itself to be guided not by the word of God but by secular norms and thinking. By giving in to quarreling and jealousy the people have shown they are not ‘ready’ to be the church.  They are still clinging to worldly and not godly standards. Paul assigns the title ‘servant’ to both himself and Apollos, and reminds the people of Corinth that none of us can claim personal credit for our God-given work.

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
February 12, 2017 – Sixth Sunday of Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

“Rich Corinthian Leather”

We are a tribal people.
From the time humans first gathered in family groups and clans, we looked at each other and said, ‘These are our people’ - these are our stories, these are our rituals and customs and beliefs, this is who we are in the world.

And then we looked across at the people standing on the other side of the river, or the field, or the canyon, and said ‘they are NOT us.’
And we planted flags, and put war paint on our faces, and circled the wagons to keep our clan separate and safe and solitary.

Even as we pushed beyond our primitive instincts and learned to live together in communities, and cities, and cooperative endeavors where we all contribute to the greater good regardless of our differences,
we still have within us the need to identify with a particular tribe.

Most of our modern tribal affinities are directed towards our sports teams.
And most of it is in good fun, as we wear our team colors, celebrate the victories and commiserate over the defeats as if we were on the team ourselves, and hold a general feeling of disdain for certain fans of certain rival teams (*cough* Yankees).

And while we may hold no ill will towards the people of Atlanta, or Seattle, or Pittsburgh, you can bet there were a whole bunch of people in those cities who were praying those of us in New England would wake up unhappy this past Monday morning after watching our Patriots lose in the Superbowl.
Thankfully, that did not happen.

Beyond our sports affiliations there are a multitude of ways in which our tribal instinct rises to the surface. 
Ethnic and national pride is the obvious example, as is feeling an allegiance to the region of the country where we were born, the city and state we call home, the school we attended, even which side of town we live on.

Nowadays the tribal distinctions go as far to include our consumer preferences – we divide ourselves into groups and express a sense of superiority or contempt based on whether we prefer Mac or PC, Starbucks or Dunks, Ford or Chevy.

I think most of you are old enough to remember the 1970’s marketing campaign done by Chrysler Automobiles, where actor Ricardo Montalban told us that people who drove Chrysler luxury cars were much more savvy and sophisticated than people who drove other luxury cars, because the seats in Chrysler’s cars where upholstered with rich, Corinthian leather.

In an interview many years later, Montalban admitted that there was no such thing as Corinthian leather. The marketing people at Chrysler made up the name because they wanted something that sounded exotic and would roll off the tongue when Ricardo said it.   (Corrrrinthian!)

Corinthian leather was actually a mix of ordinary leather and vinyl.
And it came from a supplier located in Newark, NJ.

It’s hard to say how many people came to insist that they were superior to others because they owned a car that had Corinthian leather,
but you know there had to be some.

The Apostle Paul was running into this same tribal instinct in the church he established in Corinth.
The people had divided into factions – FOUR factions to be precise –
based on which teacher they revered as the one true leader of the church.

Some had lined up behind Paul – As the founder of the church in Corinth he naturally carried a lot of weight with those who were there from the beginning.  He had earned their allegiance.

But others were followers of Apollos – a teacher in the same vein as Paul who came later to water the seed that Paul had planted. 
He appealed to the newcomers and those who were excited by the work he was doing to grow the church while Paul just sent letters from afar.

Still others reserved their reverence for Peter– the apostle who actually knew Jesus, and of whom Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.”

Finally there was a small faction that looked beyond any of these second-hand disciples and pledged their allegiance to Jesus himself, as he alone was the one true teacher. No one else had any authority over them.

If Paul felt the need to write to the church in Corinth and address these growing divides then the situation had likely gotten pretty bad.
Perhaps to the point where people were hesitant to sit next to one another at worship and work together as a church.
Perhaps they had begun to distrust one another and actually fear one another.
Not just because they disagreed on who was their rightful leader.
But because they were so focused on the differences between them, they lost sight of the commonalities.

They looked out across the divide and said, “They are not us.”
Because they felt like their pain wasn’t being acknowledged by the other,
their fears were being dismissed or not heard,
their voice was being silenced.

Paul’s response to the church in Corinth may be surprising to some.
Especially to those of us who think Paul had much too high of an opinion of himself at times.
Paul doesn’t say to these warring factions, “You must reject the teachings of Apollos and adhere to only what I have taught you.”
He didn’t say, “It’s fine to revere Jesus, and Peter, as the rock upon which we build Christ’s church, but God has chosen me, Paul, to do the building, and therefore you must do as I say.” 

No. Paul didn’t use this as an opportunity to lift himself up.
Instead, he deflected the attention back towards God.
“God is the one we all serve,” Paul said to the people of Corinth.
“Apollos and I are just planters and waterers.
Think about how you can best serve God,
Not how you might serve the one who is merely pointing you towards God.”

Put the focus back on God.

That’s good advice for divided factions in our time as well.
We know all too well how divided we’ve become as a people in the wake of the the last Presidential election.
In our country, in our families, in our churches.
Some of us may be tired of hearing about it and wish it would just blow over and go away.
We can’t get away from it out there, and we may question why we keep hearing about in here as well.
Shouldn’t we check our political opinions at the door and get on with the business of serving God, just as Paul said?

But denying that there is division – denying that there is pain –
on both sides - is to deny that we are human.

We are people of the flesh.
We can’t get away from that, as much as Paul pokes and prods the brand new Christians around him to focus more on the longings of the spirit rather than the longings of the flesh.
As much as we look heavenward and immerse ourselves in all things spiritual – all things of God – we can’t escape our humanity –
our biological and emotional fleshiness.
We get hungry.
And cold.
And tired.
We get angry, and frustrated, and impatient.
We can be judgmental, spiteful, and just plain mean at times.

And sometimes we feel so much pain – so much sorrow and grief –
we feel like we’re going to crack open from the strain of enduring it.
We are flesh.
There’s no escaping that.

But when we come together as a community, God calls us to resist feeding energy to the aspects of our humanity that tear us down and drive us apart,
and to instead celebrate and cultivate the aspects of our humanity that bring us together and build us up.
Our love.
Our compassion.
Our empathy.
Our ability to offer mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
Even to those who cause us pain.
Our ability to laugh at ourselves and the absurdities of life.
And our ability to cry with and for one another,
And push ourselves beyond even our own capabilities, comfort zones, and resources,
to ensure that no one among us is left alone or left behind.

A week and a half ago, I was down in our church kitchen with a group from our congregation making meatballs for our monthly Community Supper.
As we did our best to roll the meatballs so they were all roughly the same size, and made sure they were all lined up in uniform rows on the giant baking sheets, I remember looking around the group and pondering how what we were doing would seem impossible to some.

Out of the 10 or 11 of us who were there, I can say with some certainty that we didn’t all vote the same in the last election.
We each would likely cite different issues that were important for us personally, and from our perspective, important for the future of our country.

We each were driven by different concerns – different passions – different fears, both prior to and since the election.
Yet there we were, rolling meatballs together on a Thursday afternoon,
with one common vision in mind – to be a source of hospitality and light for members of our community in need.  
Whether that need was for a free meal, friendly conversation, or a chance to connect with others and feel a little less lonely in the world.

In that moment, while rolling meatballs, while being church, together,
we were not Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives,
Trump supporters and Trump opposers.
As individuals we were all these things, and that’s okay, but as a community our common goal was be a welcoming presence to others.

Because we are all made of flesh.
And we all feel pain, we all are driven by our fears,
And we all strain against our urge to point to the people on the other side and say, “They are NOT us.”

Because we know in our core –
in the divine spark within us that originates with God –
that they ARE us.

I invite you to look around the sanctuary this morning.
Really look at the people sitting around you, at the person sitting next to you.

‘These are our people’ - these are our stories, these are our rituals and customs and beliefs, this is who we are in the world.
We are God’s people.
And we are bound together in love.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians so long ago,

"Love is patient; love is kind; 
love is not envious or boastful
or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; 
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, 
but rejoices in the truth.”- (1 Cor 13:4-6)

Thanks be to God. Amen. 

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.