Monday, August 14, 2017

Sermon: "Still, Small Voice"


Scripture Intro - 1 Kings 19:9-18 (RSV)

The first and second book of Kings chronicle the exploits of the kings of Israel who ruled after King David and after the once mighty kingdom had split into two.
The two books are essentially a tell-all tale of corrupt and wicked leaders and the people they led astray.
The hero of the story is the prophet Elijah, who pulls out all the stops to get the people of Israel to amend their wicked ways and find their way back to God.

The passage we’re about to read tells us of a very personal encounter that Elijah has with God.
When we enter the story, Elijah has just killed 450 priests of the pagan god, Baal, on the summit of Mt. Carmel.  Elijah had challenged Baal and his prophets, to a head to head duel with his God, Yahweh.  And Baal lost, badly.
Elijah celebrated the victory by having all of Baal’s prophets killed.
The problem was, Israel’s current King, Ahab, and his very influential wife, Jezebel, were followers of Baal, not Yahweh, and when Jezebel heard what Elijah had done to her priests, she became enraged and declared a vendetta on Elijah’s head.  In fear for his life, Elijah fled…and it is while he was fleeing that he ran headlong into the presence of God.

Now, before we go any further, we should note that this is one of those Old Testament texts that has parts to it that we may find distasteful or not in line with how we see God acting in the world or in our lives.
The passage contains divinely sanctioned violence and vengeance, and has God getting mixed up in local politics and naming who should rule next and whom they should kill in God’s name.

For some of us, this is a big enough obstacle to impede our understanding of this text so we’ll come back to this later.
But lets set it aside for now and put our focus on the part of Elijah’s encounter with God that rises up through all those difficult layers and speaks to us as people of God today.

As we enter today’s reading, God finds Elijah hiding in a cave and demands to know what he is doing.
“Why are you here?” God asks Elijah - not once, but twice.
And both times Elijah says he fears for his life because of his loyalty to God.

Let’s listen for God’s response to Elijah in this reading from 1 Kings, and listen for the word of God.

1 Kings 19:9-18 (RSV)

Elijah Meets God at Horeb

And there he came to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”
And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.”
And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”
And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria; and Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.
And him who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay; and him who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 13, 2017 – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19:9-18

“Still, Small Voice”

My wife Stephanie and I adopted two kittens a few weeks ago.
They’re two and three months old and they’re adorable.
They do all the wonderful kitten things that kittens do.
They chase their tails. They ping straight up in the air and dance sideways across the room while they’re playing.
They nuzzle their soft little bodies up against your neck while emitting a small rumbling purr and ask for attention with the tiniest and squeakiest meow.
They bring us hope and joy in the midst of what is a very challenging world.

They’re also a lot of work.
The litter box needs to be cleaned, constantly.
They get underfoot while we’re trying to cook dinner or carry a laundry basket down the stairs.
They climb up the window screens and scratch up the furniture.
They jump on our heads in the middle of the night wanting to play.
They have us leaping up out of our chairs to see what the loud crash was in the other room,  or what small object they’ve managed to find and are trying to swallow before we can pry it out of their little mouths.

Yes, it’s like having a toddler in the house.
And like a toddler, when you buy them a new toy, they’d much rather play with the box it came in…
because in their curious kitten minds every thing in the world is a toy.
Your computer keyboard, the window blinds, a thread on the carpet.

The other day one of them came trotting through the living room carrying the wet sponge from the kitchen sink in her mouth. 
I think it weighed more than she did.

Anyone who has ever owned a pet knows that it’s not all sweetness and unconditional love.
There are challenges, difficulties, and heartbreaks.
And given how many pets are returned to shelters not too long after being adopted, or are abandoned once they grow out of their cute phase,
it’s sadly apparent that some people are not willing to live with the challenges that being a pet owner brings – Things get hard, and they give up.

Perhaps pets should come with a warning label.
Perhaps the Bible should as well.

The Bible is also full of challenges, difficulties, and heartbreaks.
Not just in the stories themselves, but in the relationship we have with this odd and wondrous book as a whole.

It too is not all about sweetness and unconditional love.
While we often see the Bible reduced to inspirational sayings that are sewn on to throw pillows, stuck on car bumpers, and shared on Facebook,
the discerning mind and spirit knows that this book is about so much more than positive platitudes.
There’s a lot of hard stuff in here.
Some of it that you definitely wouldn’t want sewn on a throw pillow.

We may know that the Bible is not one book but many books.
That it’s a collection of history, and poetry, and prophecy, and song.
But it’s also a collection of myth, satire, political commentary, and humor.
It’s written by many authors over thousands of years each writing from their own perspective, with their own agenda, to a particular audience,
and too often the subtlety of the language and nuances of the context are lost to our modern ears.

The Bible is full of inspiration, and mystery, and joy, and hope.
And it’s also full of violence, prejudice, immorality, and people and divine beings behaving very badly.

Over its lifetime the Bible has been used to justify wars, colonialism, slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, the mistreatment of those with mental illness, addiction, disease, and disabilities, and the misguided belief that we’re either blessed or damned based on our income, our social standing, or our ability to follow a set of arbitrary rules to perfection.

So where is God in all of this?
How do we pick out God’s still, small voice with such a loud chorus of human voices overlaying it and masking it from our ears?

There are likely very few of us here who believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God, in fact we may struggle to understand how anyone can see the Bible in this way given what we know about the contradictions it contains, the difficulties of transcription and translation, and the glaringly human fingerprints we see all over its pages – in its biases, inaccuracies, and limitations of context.

But even if we believe as many of us do, that the Bible is the sacred and inspired word of God, which has obviously been sifted through a myriad of human filters - how do even begin to remove those filters to get to the kernel of divine truth that lies beneath?

The passage we heard this morning about Elijah’s encounter with God is one of those Bible stories that is covered in human fingerprints.

Let's first consider the passage in its most basic form as a story.

Elijah is hiding in a cave when God seeks him out and asks him to name why he is not with God’s people as a prophet should be.
Elijah’s response is that he’s afraid of the people.
Too many of God’s prophet’s had been killed as it is, and now that he had killed 450 of the King’s priests there was a bounty out on his head as well.

Violence begets violence, as we may say today.
But for Elijah there was no such connection.

God then instructs Elijah to come out of the cave and go up on the mountain.
The implication here is that God wanted to be present to Elijah just as God was present to Moses on the same mountain, 500 years before.
But Elijah doesn’t budge. 

Then the world erupted around him - as he stood in the cave and looked for God –in a mighty wind that tore apart mountains and broke rocks into pieces,
in an earthquake that shook the ground beneath his feet,
in a roaring fire that threatened to singe his skin –
But, we’re told, God was not in any of it.

Then the world went quiet, and Elijah heard a still, small voice –
The Jewish Study Bible translation calls it “a soft, murmuring sound.”

It was only when Elijah heard this soft, murmuring sound that he came out of the cave and was fully present before God.
Here God asks Elijah again, “Why are you here?”
And Elijah gave the same response he did earlier.
He feared the people of Israel were out to kill him.

This is where God does something that may seem un-God like to our modern day religious sensibilities.
God instructs Elijah to appoint two new kings and a new prophet to take Elijah’s place.
And as for the people Elijah feared, they would all be killed for their unfaithfulness, if not at the hands of the new kings, than at the hands of the new prophet, Elisha.

So we ask again, where is God in this story - and where are our human fingerprints obscuring God’s presence?

We see our human fingerprints when we consider that the entire history of the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel contained in 1 and 2 Kings was written down hundreds of years after the northern kingdom had fallen and the inhabitants of the southern kingdom had been taken into captivity.
It was written by a demoralized people who were searching their past for an answer to a nagging question in their present. 

They asked, “Why has God forsaken us? Where did we go wrong?”

And their response is in this story they wrote about the unfaithfulness of their ancestors, led astray by corrupt and wicked kings, and a prophet cut from the same cloth as Moses who took on the mighty Baal and his priests and won.

We see our human fingerprints when we consider that the people who wrote these stories about this new God, Yahweh, were living in a polytheistic culture where gods controlled everything – the sun, the rain, the good and bad fortune one had in life – and while these gods could be appeased and cajoled with blood sacrifices and gifts, they could also destroy and kill if they were displeased or disrespected.

And while the people of Israel were just beginning to understand how this one God called Yahweh was a very different kind of God – one who was not in the destruction of the earthquake or the fire or the wind  – they still envisioned a God who could and would punish them or reward them at will.

They envisioned a God who expressed all of the emotions that human beings were capable of expressing.
And they told stories of a God who reflected all the best, and the worst parts of our humanity -
Our love, compassion, and mercy, but also our anger, our jealousy, our spitefulness, our vindictiveness, our impulsive urge to hurt and destroy that which has hurt us.

Because our ancestors couldn’t imagine any other way to BE in the world.
they struggled to imagine God any other way.

As Biblical Studies Professor, Peter Enns, explains in his book, The Bible Tells Me So, the people who wrote these stories had no other language or cultural reference to do otherwise.
If they stepped outside of their culture and wrote about a God who never took sides in a war, never struck anyone dead for disobedience, and didn’t meddle in local politics, the story wouldn’t have made sense to them or anyone else.
“So God let his children tell the story,” Enns says.

With the hope that we will continue to tell it and refine it re-imagine it as we go along. 

Even with all its messy human fingerprints, we should resist the urge to discount these ancient Biblical stories because they no longer make sense to us or fit in with our image of a loving, compassionate, and merciful God.
Because we’d be overlooking the fact that these stories are still very much about us.

We need only look at today’s news to find stories of modern day people who mirror these ancient world views.
People who believe our God created one race to be superior to others.
People who believe our God blesses and backs one nation over all others, especially in times of war.
People who believe our God endorses or chooses the people who lead us and thus we should never question or disagree with those leader’s divinely sanctioned words and decisions.

We may be 3,000 years removed from the world described in our Old Testament but in many ways we’re still standing in that cave with Elijah, straining to hear God in the wind, and the earthquake, and the fire.

Catholic theologian and Franciscan Friar, Richard Rohr reminds us that
all of us are capable of hearing the voice of God from our “very first inhalation and exhalation, which is the very sound of the sacred.
It is the literally unspeakable Jewish name for God, YHWH (The name that) cannot be spoken aloud but only breathed: inhaling and exhaling through parted lips. It is the first and last “word” we will ever utter—most likely without knowing it.”

Perhaps this is the still, small voice, the soft murmuring that Elijah heard in that cave. The sound of his own rapid breath rising in the silence as he cowered in his fear.
Perhaps it was the sound of God moving through his lungs as he let go of that fear and embraced hope in a better tomorrow.
The kernel of divine truth that we find in this text that points us to a God who is found not in destruction but in the very breath that gives us life.

We may sometimes strain to hear the voice of God speaking to us through the pages of this wonderful yet difficult book.

But we should remember, the Bible is not an answer book, an owner’s manual, or a “How To” guide that tells us how to get God to love us so we can collect our rewards in heaven. 

It’s a story.

It’s a story told over thousands of years by a people who little by little are getting to know and understand their Creator, while struggling to comprehend the role they play – we play - in re-creating this world anew.

And like any story involving human beings, it can get messy, and complicated, and have us shaking our heads in disbelief at times.

The Bible can still be that purring kitten that we pick up and nuzzle when we need a shot of hope and joy in the midst of suffering and sadness.

But when it challenges us – when it gets hard,
I urge you to stick with it.
I promise you, that still, small voice will rise up and be heard.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Sermon: "Wrestling with God"

Scripture Intro - Genesis 32:22-31

Our reading this morning is one tiny yet powerful snippet of the story of Jacob.
If you’re familiar with his story, you know Jacob was not a model biblical figure.
He cheated his brother out of his inheritance, colluded with his mother to deceive his father, and stole a blessing not meant for him.  
Jacob and Esau were twins, but Esau was born first, and Jacob came out of his mother’s womb holding onto to his brother’s heal as if he were attempting to keep him from slipping out ahead of him.
Right from the beginning Jacob was chagrined that HE was not the first to see the light of this world, and therefore his brother, Esau, by luck of timing and position, was to be the rightful heir to the family inheritance and the paternal blessing that could only pass to one son, not both. 

Esau grew to be a big bear of a man who loved to hunt and tend the livestock, while Jacob preferred quieter pursuits that required more brains than brawn.
When their father, Isaac, was on his deathbed and blinded by age, Jacob pretended to be his brother Esau, and asked his father to bestow the blessing that would transfer all of his earthly goods and power to his first born son.
Jacob even went as far as to put on Esau’s clothing so he’d smell like his brother, and just to be sure he threw on a few goat skins so when his father reached out to touch him, he’d feel the rough and hairy arm of Esau, rather than the smooth arm of Jacob.
When Esau discovered his brother’s deception he vowed to kill him.
But Jacob fled with the inheritance and the blessing.

Our scripture reading this morning picks up the story years later, when Jacob is experiencing remorse for what he has done
Jacob is on his way to make amends with his brother, to ask for Esau’s forgiveness for taking what did not belong to him.
He’s wracked with guilt and he’s terrified.
He’s convinced that his brother is going to send out an army of men ahead of him and rain down justice upon Jacob’s head, by taking all that he has and leaving him for dead.
That night, Jacob prayed to God for protection, and even sent a messenger ahead with gifts of livestock and servants to soften Esau’s heart.

Listen now to the story as it continues in the book of Genesis, and listen for the word of God.

Genesis 32:22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maidservents, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, along with all his possessions.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.
Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
So the man said to him, “What is your name?”
And he said, “Jacob.”
Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”
But the man said, “Why is it that you ask my name?”
And there he blessed him.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 6, 2017 – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 32:22-31

“Wrestling with God”

3:00 a.m.
That’s the time of night that my consciousness seems to think is appropriate to initiate a wrestling match with whatever is occupying my mind.

It’s in those wee small hours of the morning, that my brain decides to hit the replay button on the events of the day – the conversations I’ve had, the things I accomplished, the things I have still yet to do.
Inevitably this ever-rewinding tape gets stuck on the things I think I should have said or done, or could have said or done differently, or shouldn’t have said or done at all.
Not to mention the wide assortment of things I’m thinking about doing – or am anxious about doing in the future… whether it’s the next day, or next month, or next year.

Oh, how our brains love to wrestle with these things in the dark of night.
Once we’ve settled down - and let our guard down - and quieted down to the point where the only voice we’re hearing is the one inside our own head.

Of course we have other body parts that conspire to keep us awake at night as well.
An aching hip, a restless leg, a twinging neck.
But our brain has a way of throwing itself into the ring and getting in on the action…as we lie there thinking:

“This knee is killing me – I should really have it replaced – but I can’t afford the time or the expense.”

“Is this discomfort in my chest just indigestion or a sign of something more serious?”
“I’m so tired of this chronic back pain…what did I do to deserve this, God…seriously?”
Somehow the stakes of the wrestling match get even higher once we bring God into it.
As Jacob discovered as he laid his head down alone along the riverbank –
the things we’ve done, or feel we should have done, have a way of catching up with us.
Often manifesting in the form of a wrestling partner who wakes us up in the middle of the night and challenges us to break free of its unrelenting grasp.

I had one of those 3:00 a.m. wrestling matches not too long ago.
In mid-May – right at the beginning of my sabbatical.
I was up in Sullivan, Maine – near Bar Harbor - on a 10-day solo retreat.
I had rented a house that sat right on Long Cove, surrounded by 15 acres of trees and water and wildlife.

I brought up a stack of books and my journal and planned on using a good chunk of the 10 days to read, and write, and pray. To spend time communing with God, alone – which believe it or not is something full-time pastors often struggle to find space to do.

I also brought my bicycle and my walking shoes – and maps of the carriage roads in Acadia National Park - with plans to ride and hike and explore – to move outside of the house on the cove and give myself a break from all the reading, and journaling, and praying.

But something happened on my first morning there that changed those plans.

I laid out my books and my journal and reveled in the quiet expanse of time that stretched out before me – and I patted myself on the back for intentionally structuring my sabbatical so I'd have this uninterrupted space to talk to God and to listen deeply for God’s response.

But then I got distracted - by the beauty of the cove and the outgoing tide, and decided to take a walk down the embankment to explore the mudflats. 
Having that serious and focused conversation with God would have to wait until later.

It was there, at the bottom of the embankment, that I took two steps out onto the exposed wet grass, lost my footing, and went down hard…landing flat on my back in 3 inches of standing water….with my arm instinctively flying out to break my fall.

As I sat up, soaking wet and clutching my elbow in pain, my first thought was “God, I hope I haven’t broken my arm.”
And as I gingerly climbed back up the embankment, my second thought was, I kid you not, “Well, at least this will make a good sermon illustration someday.”

Once I got back up into the house, I did what any reasonable person would have done after taking a serious fall and feeling excruciating pain…

I went online and googled “injured elbow” to determine how bad it was.
Because I wanted to convince myself that it was just a sprain and there was no need to disrupt my sabbatical plans even further by seeking medical attention. Telling myself I couldn’t afford the time or the expense.

But as the pain increased, I updated my google searches. I typed in “hyper extended elbow”  - “dislocated elbow” “fractured elbow” – and “broken elbow.”  I was covering all bases here.

Now, there is a danger in using the internet as a medical diagnostic tool.
It’s easy to fall down the WebMD rabbit hole, where you start out wondering if a minor pain or rash is worth having checked out, and you walk away convinced you have a rare disease and you’ll be dead by the end of the week.

I did just the opposite.
I had an elbow the size of grapefruit and my forearm was sticking out at an odd angle and I walked away from my internet search thinking – ah, it’s probably just a bruise. Nothing two Advil and an ice pack can’t fix.

The next thing I did was search through the rental house to see what I could find to fix it myself.
When it comes to avoiding a trip to the emergency room by coming up with your own first aid solutions, I’m like MacGuyver. 
Within 20 minutes I had swallowed two Tylenol I found in the medicine cabinet that had expired in 2009, I’d rigged up an arm sling using a spare bicycle tube, and I had a bag of frozen vegetables velcroed around my elbow.
It was a mixed bag of carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower, in case you were wondering.

I was determined to not let this little mishap interfere with my retreat plans.
And I was certain that I could remedy the situation all on my own. 
I am my mother’s daughter.
My mother avoided going to the doctor or seeking medical care at all costs.
At the age of 88, when we finally convinced her to let us take her to the emergency room to have her shortness of breath checked out, she insisted on wearing a large pair of sunglasses as she sat in the waiting area.
When asked why she was wearing sunglasses indoors, she said with exasperation, “I don’t want anyone to see me here.”
As if admitting you needed medical care was an indication of some kind of moral failing.

So that night up in Maine, with my elbow stiffening and swelling – I was engaged in a 3:00 a.m. wrestling match with myself. Alternating between downplaying my injury as nothing to worry about and lambasting myself for not seeking medical care immediately as I should have.

I was also wrestling with God.
Even if my arm injury was just a sprain, the internet experts told me it would take months to heal and there went my plans to spend a good portion of the summer on my bicycle as I longed to do.
And if it was broken, my entire sabbatical travel itinerary was up in the air.

God may have had other plans for me on my sabbatical, but I was not buying into it, not yet.

When Jacob was lying awake in the middle of the night on the side of the river, wrestling with his fear and his guilt, he didn’t expect to end up in an actual wrestling match with God. 
And while the text tells us that it was a man who wrestled with Jacob, and others have wondered if it was an angel sent by God, we’re given a clue about Jacob's opponent’s identity in the naming that happens at the match’s conclusion.
The mystery opponent changed Jacob’s name to Israel – meaning "one who has wrestled with God and prevailed."
And Jacob called the city where it took place Peniel, saying,
“For I have seen God face to face and I have lived.”

This ancient Hebrew story can be seen as allegorical, with Jacob representing the people of Israel who longed to receive God’s blessing - to live in relationship with God - yet they kept falling into the trap of thinking they didn’t really have to commit to that relationship to experience it.  
Continually, they acted as if they could just step into this relationship at will, without much effort on their part, or rightful claim to it.

As modern people of God - this applies to us as well. 

It is TRUE that we don’t have to earn God’s love, and we don’t have to earn God’s grace. Both are given freely and unconditionally.
But if we long to have a relationship with God we have to put some effort into it.
We can’t expect to know God or hear God if we never talk to God or quiet the busyness around us enough to listen.
We can’t expect to recognize God’s presence in our life if we’re not looking for it or don’t know where to look for it in the first place.

Now, it's important to note this distinction. 
I’m not saying we have to earn a relationship with God by dutifully putting in prayer time, by doing good works, by adhering to biblical law, or by confessing belief in a theological creed.
This is not about making a deal or striking a bargain with God to get God to acknowledge us or bestow favors upon us. 
Jacob’s story tells us that.

Before Jacob used deception to gain his father’s blessing, he made a prior deal with Esau to gain his inheritance.
When Esau came in one day after laboring in the field he found his brother Jacob making a stew. Esau said, “Give me some of that stew. I’m starving.” 
And Jacob being the ever-conniving sibling said, “I’ll give you some stew if you give me your birthright.”
Sounds like a fair trade, right?
I once got my younger brother Larry to give me half of his baseball card collection in exchange for a plastic dinosaur I got out of a cereal box.

Deception is fair play when you’re trying to add another notch to the sibling scorecard.  Of course Esau wasn’t known for his smarts and he was hungry, so he actually agreed to this highly uneven exchange.

But as Jacob discovered when he wrestled with God, striking deals to gain God’s blessing is not what God intends for us to do. 
It’s not about promising to scratch God’s back if God scratches ours.
We can live in relationship with God even if we fall short of God’s expectations and mess up, a lot.
Even if we get angry at God and question God’s ways, even if we struggle to find the words to pray, even if we don’t believe a word of the creeds.
Because living in relationship is not about being perfect – it’s about being personal. 
It’s about being our true authentic selves, warts and all.
It’s about clasping hands with God and working up a sweat and giving ourselves over in the struggle to understand, to listen, and to grow. 

My elbow injury ended up being not a break but a serious sprain.
And I spent those 10 days on the cove in Maine not on my bike or out exploring Acadia as I intended, but instead completely immersed in reading, writing, praying, and communing with God. 
The only people I saw for the entire 10-days were the wonderful people in the the Ellsworth Hospital emergency room.  
It was not the retreat I had planned, but it was the retreat I needed.
It was glorious, and it set the tone for my entire sabbatical.

There is so much that we can’t know about God given our human limitations.
There is so much about God that will always remain a mystery. 
But God longs to live in relationship with us just as we long to live in relationship with God. 
Sometimes it takes a 3:00 a.m. wrestling match to make it happen.  


Monday, April 10, 2017


Sabbath. Shabbat. Sabbatical.
All three words share a common root, which literally means “ceasing.” 
We recognize Sabbath as the time we set aside for rest, replenishment, and renewal. Ideally, keeping Sabbath means we step away from our work and the multitude of things that fill our schedules and occupy our time, energy, and devotion, and instead direct that time, energy, and devotion towards God. 

         A sabbatical is an extended time of Sabbath. For pastors, it’s a time devoted to prayer, study, and discernment, but it also involves an intentional stepping away from all the demands of pastoring a congregation. This stepping away, or disengagement, creates space not just for needed rest and renewal, but also cultivates the soil for new things to grow – new ideas for programs and ministries for the congregation, new ways to serve others in the community, and new understandings of how to be ‘church’ in our changing world. 

        I have had the honor and pleasure to serve this wonderful congregation for five years as your Associate Pastor. As part of my Call Agreement - or “covenant” - that I have with the congregation, after five years I am permitted and encouraged to take a 3-month sabbatical.  This sabbatical will begin the day after Easter, on April 17th, and run until the end of July.  I’ve filled that time with a mix of study tours, retreats, workshops, and travel with my wife, Stephanie, but I’m also allowing for a balance of unstructured time, that I plan to spend doing the things that I find best renew my spirit – reading, writing, biking, and hiking. 

         The day after Easter, I fly off to Spain to embark on a 10-day study tour that engages the life and work of Christian mystic, St. Teresa of Avilla. The tour is led by the Rev. Dr. Mary Luti, whom many of you met when she preached at my Installation Service in 2012.  Ten other clergy and lay women are joining us on the tour, including the Rev. Vicki Kemper, who along with Mary Luti is one of the writers of the UCC Daily Devotions that many of us receive in our email inboxes everyday. At the end of May, I’m headed up to Sullivan, Maine for a 10-day solo retreat at a vacation home on Long Cove. The secluded location of the home and the beauty of the Cove will hopefully inspire many hours of prayerful discernment, reading, and writing (all things my inner-introvert loves and craves!), while near-by Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park will allow me to stretch my legs with its breathtaking hiking and biking trails. 

        In June, I’ll spend three days up at Horton Center, run by our NH Conference Outdoor Ministries program, attending their “Clergy Sabbath Days.”  I’m looking forward to connecting with clergy colleagues for a time of shared worship, meals, workshops, hikes, and sitting out on the porch watching the sunset over Pine Mountain.  In late June and early July, my wife Stephanie and I will take a trip that we’ve been saving for and longing to take for the 17 years that we’ve been together – a two week journey to Scotland. Our plan is to rent a car and circumnavigate the country, staying in B&B’s and exploring the castles, lochs, and shear beauty of the Scottish highlands, islands, and countryside. Visiting the historic Abbey at Iona will be a highlight of the trip, and we'll end our journey with a two-day stay in Iceland. Finally, at the end of July, Stephanie and I will spend a week up at the Long Cove home in Sullivan, Maine, ending my sabbatical with a week of sightseeing, visiting lighthouses, and stopping for lobster rolls along the way.

       In between these excursions, I will be home enjoying some unstructured time at the parsonage. Herein lies the challenge of going on sabbatical when you live next door to the church you serve. It can be difficult to disengage when you’re close enough to see the comings and goings of parishioners, church events, and activities. Though it doesn’t happen often, I ask that parishioners not stop by the parsonage during this intentional time away. You may see me out and about in town at Moulton’s, at Shaw’s, or riding my bike, and it’s fine to say hello and ask how my sabbatical is going. What I do ask is that we resist the urge to ‘catch up’ on what’s going on at church, talk about pastoral concerns, or anything else that might bring my heart and mind out of my sabbatical and back into my work as your pastor. 

      Pastor Dick will be covering all the pastoral needs in my absence. I won’t be checking my church email during this time, and I will be limiting my Facebook activity as well. This is not to say that you all won’t be on my heart and mind, because you will. I love serving this church and I love all of you. Which is why this stepping away is necessary, as it is for every pastor. I carry so much of you all with me as we walk this path of ministry together, that at times it is necessary to set it all down and allow myself space to rest, replenish, and renew. And when I return, on August 1st, I will be refreshed and ready to walk with you once again and continue this wonderful mission and journey we’re on to serve God and others, together.

Peace and blessings,

Pastor Maureen

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sermon: "Jesus Wept"

Intro to John 11:1-44

Our gospel reading this morning gives us a foreshadowing of Easter Sunday.
Easter is the day we celebrate the event that many Christians and non-Christians alike struggle to understand – the resurrection of Jesus.
Easter is when we’re asked to take a leap of faith and believe that a man who had been dead and buried for 3 days, suddenly sat upright in his tomb and walked out amongst the living.

The author of John’s gospel likely had an inkling that his readers, both current and future, might struggle with this event, so he included a story that introduces us to the idea that being raised from the dead is not only possible, but we don’t have to be divine like Jesus to experience it.

This is the story of Lazarus.  The brother of Mary and Martha, and a good friend of Jesus, who fell ill and died – and then was brought back to life for all to see.

This story is loaded with theological under and overtones.
The foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
The belief that Jesus intentionally waited for his friend to die before visiting him, just so he could miraculously raise him from the dead and glorify God in the process.

The belief that it is this miracle that serves as a capstone to all the other miracles that Jesus performed in John’s gospel – turning water into wine, casting out demons, giving sight to the blind – because it is meant to prove once and for all that Jesus and God are one and the same, because only God has the power to give and restore life.

But lets set theology – and Jesus’ divinity - aside for a moment and listen to this story of Lazarus with an ear tuned to the way our humanity – and Jesus’ humanity – seeps out from between the lines.
The emotions in this story are palpable and run the gamut from anger to fear to grief to joy.     It is these emotions that both bind us and set us free, as we contemplate the many ways that we might experience a resurrection in our own life. 

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
April 2, 2017 – Fifth Sunday in Lent
John 11:1-44

“Jesus Wept”

When I was growing up in Long Island, NY, the first sign of spring typically came in early March, when the forsythia bushes would bloom.
In a matter of hours on the first warm spring day, the browns and grays that had dominated the winter landscape would suddenly be joined by bursts of yellow and green.
The tiny forsythia blossoms are shaped like upside down bells, and my siblings and I used to pull a few off the bushes and twirl them up in the air like helicopters, seeing who could make theirs stay airborne the longest.

When I moved 90 miles north to Western CT, I noted the first signs of spring came later on in March, when the marshlands next to our house would come alive with the sound of the spring peepers.
Peepers are tiny frogs that burrow their way under the marshy ground when fall turns into winter, and as the temperatures drop their bodies literally freeze to the point where their life signs barely register.
In the spring, as the ground and air begin to warm around them, the tiny frogs thaw out and experience a resurrection of their own as they emerge and begin singing their familiar mating call.

Five years ago, when we moved farther north to NH, I noticed that the forsythia and the peepers - these first signs of spring – typically don’t appear until mid or even late April.  
Which is why I’m still adjusting to looking out the window on April 2nd and seeing a foot of snow on the ground. 
Of course in NH, the first sign of spring could be the jogger I saw running down Boston Post Road the other day. She was wearing a wool hat, ski gloves and a tank top and shorts.  The ultimate NH spring ensemble.
A friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook yesterday that was captioned NH spring footwear – it was a picture of a pair of flip-flops with ice skate blades on the bottom.

Given the typically late arrival of spring here in New England, it’s right about now that many of us are longing for a resurrection.
We’re longing for the return of vibrant colors and signs of new life in our otherwise dreary world.

Because we’re in tune to the changes of the seasons, we understand the imagery that ties the Easter story of resurrection to the emergence of new life that we see during spring. 
We get that things die and come back to life in a new way all the time in the natural world we see around us. It’s called the cycle of life.
Where living things wither and die and return to the ground, to fertilize the soil so new life can grow.

But when we read stories like the raising of Lazarus, we often get caught up in the literal interpretation of the story – Lazarus’ literal emergence from the tomb and return from the dead – only to dismiss it as just another mythical miracle story told by an ancient people who didn’t understand that this is not the way the world works.

People don’t return from the dead.  Everyone knows that.

As much as we believe in a God who has the power to raise a mortal being up out of the grave, it’s more likely that this story was meant to be metaphorical – to demonstrate how new life could be found in the ways of Christ, and that each of us is called to leave our old ways – our old lives - behind, and experience a resurrection in spirit – where we begin to see the world with new eyes and live in the world in a new way.

But the problems is, when we reduce this story of the raising of Lazarus to its metaphorical meaning, it somehow loses its power.
We get lost in the vague and abstract thicket of what it actually means to have a resurrection experience and live our lives in a new way in Christ.  

Does it mean selling everything we own, leaving our home and family behind, and giving our lives completely over in service to God?

Does it mean just doing our best to be a kind and compassionate person,
but otherwise not concerning ourselves too much with the suffering of our neighbor or how we might be implicitly participating in systems that perpetuate injustice, poverty, and oppression?

Does it mean seeking a third way that falls somewhere in between these two extremes – whatever that may be?

It’s hard for us to understand how we might go about having a resurrection experience when we struggle with the specifics of what it means to be resurrected.

Perhaps this is because this resurrection experience doesn’t involve a checklist of spiritual practices and good deeds we need to do to achieve it.
And it doesn’t involve a systematic theology that we need to ascribe to or recite in a creed that affirms our belief in “Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, who was crucified, died, and was buried, and on the third day he rose again.”

Because a resurrection experience is just that – it’s an experience.
And when you have it, you’ll know it.
Because when you experience resurrection, you FEEL resurrected.
You feel changed and rejuvenated to the point where the world looks very different then it did before.

Because resurrection is a feeling - and not a belief – it involves those very human emotions that we see all throughout John’s story of the raising of Lazarus.

It’s rooted in the sadness that Mary and Martha felt when Lazarus fell ill.
In the fear the disciples felt when they realized they would need to risk their own lives and their master’s life to tend to their sick friend.
We see it emerging in the deep anger Jesus felt when he saw Mary and Martha sobbing over Lazarus’ death - 
not because he was angry at them for their lack of faith, but because he was angry at death itself and the pain it inflicts.
It grows within the heartbreaking grief that they all felt as they stood outside Lazarus’ tomb, where Jesus wept over the loss of his friend.
And we see it in the unbridled joy that likely came upon them when Lazarus walked out of the tomb, and Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go” – because death no longer held him in its embrace.

It’s this unbinding – this release from whatever it is that holds us in place and keeps us from emerging from the tomb that we find ourselves in –
this is what leads to the resurrection experience.

Just talk to anyone who has overcome an addiction.
Or left an abusive relationship.
Or emerged from a deep depression.
Or felt joy again after a long period of grief.

It can feel like walking out of a dark and oppressive tomb that seemingly could not be escaped - and feeling the warmth of the sun on your face once again.

Even if we’ve never had to overcome an addiction or depression or debilitating grief, and even if we currently live a relatively content life –
God is still calling us towards a resurrection experience.
Because we are human.
And there are many ways that we can be bound by our humanity.

Our emotions can hold us in place – our anger, our fear, our pain– and keep us from responding to the needs of others with compassion, mercy, and love.

But our emotions can also release us – and unbind us – when we allow them to flow out of us constructively and we learn to work our way through them – rather than repress them or ignore them.

So how might our resurrection experience – or our desire to have a resurrection experience - change our life and the way we live in the world?

We can find an answer to this question back in our story of Lazarus being raised from the dead.

We find it in Lazarus’ sister, Martha, who told Jesus that she believed him when he said he was the source of resurrection and new life, but then went on to question him when he said, “Take the stone away from the tomb.”
She was worried about the stench.
Because she didn’t fully trust that Jesus could take something that was dead and decaying and make it come to life again.

How often do we profess a belief in the gospel – a trust in the good news that God loves each and everyone of us regardless of who we are or what we’ve done -  and then we go out into the world and act as if this weren’t true?

How often do we revere Jesus as a wise teacher and great prophet and then turn around and dismiss him as someone who lived in another time and in another place, and who preached a gospel that clearly was meant to be practiced by monks who lived in monasteries, and not by real people living in the real world?

Because in this REAL world where REAL people blow up buildings and spray bullets into crowds and commit acts of genocide driven by their hate – how is it even possible to turn the other cheek or pray for those who persecute us or love our enemies?

In this REAL world where REAL people are living on the street, and teetering on the brink of starvation, and dying of curable diseases because they can’t afford medical care – how is it even possible for us to feed, and heal, and house all those who hungry, or sick, or homeless?

And in this REAL world where REAL people like us are flawed and broken and fail to live up to God’s standard over and over again, how could God possibly love us – and how can we possibly love ourselves – just as we are?

But God made this REAL world, and God made us….just as we are.

So what would happen if we began to trust that Jesus actually knew what he was talking about when he said that through him – through following his teachings and his example – we would find resurrection and life - and change the world?

That we too could walk out of the tomb that this REAL world has us bound up in – and open our eyes and see the world as God intended it to be?

That regardless of how long we’ve all been in this tomb – and how great the stench is – God has the power to peel away the burial cloth and make us new again.

We are an Easter people.
Culled down to three simple words it means this: We have hope. 
We believe in resurrection.
We believe that suffering and death do not have the last word.
No matter how bleak or barren a situation appears, life has a habit of rising from the ashes and beginning anew.

We wouldn’t live in New England if we didn’t believe this.
We wouldn’t put up with the long hard winters if we didn’t delight so much in the promise of spring.
The moment the first green shoots push through the thawing ground and we all breathe a collective sigh of relief, and joy.
When every marsh and pond comes alive with the high-pitched chirp of awakening peepers, and the forsythia and cherry blossoms burst forth, bringing color back into our black and white world.

We live believing and knowing that spring will come again.
That new life always follows death.

May we live believing and knowing that God has the power to do the same within our beautiful yet hurting world,
and within us.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.