Monday, November 7, 2016

Sermon: "It Gets Better"

Intro to Luke 6:20-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It Gets Better”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Sermon: "Be the Change You Want to See"

Scripture Intro - Luke 18:1-8

Here Jesus tells his disciples a parable about a persistent widow and an unjust judge.

There’s a reason why Jesus, and Jeremiah, and Isaiah before him, had so much to say about widows. In the socioeconomic structure of the ancient world, widows were located very close to the bottom.

A woman who had no husband typically had no money, no property, and no power. 

And if she had no father or brother or other male relative to take her in, she likely lived on the street surviving on whatever scraps she could find there.

The word for 'widow' in Hebrew means 'silent one' or 'one unable to speak.'

But the widow in Jesus’ parable doesn’t accept her lot in life. She refuses to remain silent. She persists in seeking justice and in the end she receives it, even from an unjust judge.

With this parable, Jesus poses a question to his disciples: 

Would our loving and compassionate God be any less responsive to our persistent cries for help?  

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
October 16, 2016 – Family Worship – Mission Sunday
Luke 18:1-8

“Be the Change You Want to See”

One of the wonderful things I get to do as part of my ministry here in Amherst is go on our Senior High Youth Group mission trips.

If you’ve ever been a chaperone on a mission trip (or gone on any trip where it was your job to keep a large group of youth moving safely through an unpredictable environment) then you know that the greatest challenge on these trips is this:

To make sure you come home with the same number of kids you left with.

When navigating down busy city streets, the adult chaperones typically deploy themselves in and around the group.
One or two stay at the front to lead the way.
A few hover in the middle to make sure no one steps in front of a cab or gets caught crossing a street when a light is about to change.
And a few stay at the back acting as sweepers  – making sure no gets distracted by a store window, stops at a street vendor, or otherwise gets left behind.

The hardest part of urban navigation is getting that long train of teenagers to go in the direction you want them to go. 
Many times I’ve been at the back of the pack yelling, “Turn left!” as the entire group inevitably turns right. 
For weeks after we get home, every night I have ‘mission trip dreams’ where I lose the whole group in some unfamiliar city and we spend the entire trip trying to find each other.
I hate those dreams.

In 2013, we took our Senior High Youth down to New York City for a week to help serve individuals and families in need in soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and food pantries.

After our first long day at our worksites, we managed to get our group of 27 teens and 4 adults into the 42nd Street subway station.

Getting a group this size on and off a subway train is whole other challenge.

You have to teach the teens to wait for the people to get off the train first, and then have them move as fast as they can to get on the train before you hear the dreaded voice from above say,  “Stand clear of the closing doors."

On more than one occasion I found myself ushering the last teen onto the train while the doors began to close in front of me.
One time I had to pry the doors open with my bare hands.
When they say adrenaline can give you super human strength, they’re not kidding.

But on this particular day in NYC, the trains were running late.
As our group filled the subway platform we encountered a homeless man collecting spare change in a paper cup and quietly singing the classic soul song from the 70’s, Lean on Me.  

We watched as seasoned New Yorkers pushed past him and ignored him as you’re apt to do when you have someplace to get to and you’ve learned to tune out the multitude of people with cardboard signs begging for money wherever you turn.
You almost have to, or you’d never get where you were going.

The man singing in the subway that day had a wonderful voice, and as soon as our teens heard him singing several of them began to sing along with him.
Before we knew it we were all singing – all 31 of us - belting out the chorus of Lean on Me - as the New Yorkers and tourists alike did double takes and tried to figure out what was going on.

Then something amazing happened.
Other people standing on the platform began to sing with us - even the jaded New Yorkers. People began to record us with their cell phones.
Soon we were surrounded by a ring of strangers all singing,
“Lean on me,
when you’re not strong,
and I’ll be your friend,
 I’ll help you carry on.”

And the man’s empty paper cup began to fill and then overflow with change and folded bills.

Afterward the man thanked the teens profusely - saying over and over again, “God bless you all.”

One of our sophomores, who was all of 15 at the time, reflected on this experience afterward and said,
“We’re from Amherst, NH we didn’t know how to be New Yorkers.
We didn’t know we were NOT supposed to sing with a homeless guy in the subway or even acknowledge his presence as we walked by. 
We didn’t know we were supposed to ignore him.”

The widow in our Gospel reading this morning was used to being ignored.

As a woman who had no man attached to her she was used to being overlooked, dismissed, and treated as if she didn’t have a voice, as if she - and her pain - didn’t matter.
But she didn’t let the dismissive behavior of others deter her.
She never stopped acting as if she did matter.
She continued to put herself in front of that judge day after day,
until he finally relented and gave her what she was seeking – Justice.

Luke shared this parable from Jesus with his readers because they were beginning to think that they didn’t matter.

When Luke wrote his gospel, Jesus had been gone for almost 50 years.
Where was the triumphant return of Christ they had been told to expect at any time?
Where was the coming Kingdom of God they had been promised?

Instead of celebrating their liberation and victory over oppression, suffering, and death, they were still being pressed down under the weight of it –
all of it.
At the time, the followers of Jesus were still a tiny minority.
Many of their strong and vocal leaders had already been stoned to death, crucified or beheaded.
James, Steven, Paul.

Like the widow in Jesus’ parable, those who were left to carry on Christ’s message continued to pray to God to end their misery and grant them justice.
They prayed that God would turn the world upside so the last would be first and the first would be last, and poverty and hunger and oppression would be no more - just as Jesus had promised.

How long, O God?
How long must we wait?
How long must we endure?
This was their prayer.
This was their song.

Of course, as we know, God does things in God’s own time.
And while the early Christians kept looking over their shoulder and sleeping with one eye open, waiting for Jesus to return, eventually they came to understand that an immediate rescue wasn’t in the cards.
If they wanted to experience any lasting change in their world they’d have to go about building the Kingdom of God to the best of THEIR OWN abilities, bolstered by the belief that God was leading them, every step of the way.

There’s a quote that’s often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that says,
“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

It’s a wonderful quote, but Gandhi didn’t actually say that.
What Gandhi actually said is printed on the cover of today’s bulletin:

We but mirror the world.
All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.

Let’s all read it again, together:

We but mirror the world.
All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.

In other words:
Change yourself and change the world.

Today is Mission Sunday.
And all the different ways we have to serve our community and serve each other that we’re going to hear about during and after today’s service would never happen if everyday ordinary people didn’t seek to change.
To change their behavior, change their priorities, change their hearts. 

Instead of going out on Saturday night a single woman chooses to spend the evening serving meals and folding sheets at Anne Marie House.

Instead of coming home after a long hard day and collapsing in front of the TV or shuttling the kids to 3 different practices, a family chooses to head over to End 68 hours of Hunger and pack bags of food for children.  
And instead of spending the day puttering around his garden or workshop, a retiree chooses to deliver Meals on Wheels, or volunteer at a community supper, even when the “tired” part of retirement becomes a daily struggle.

Our teens go on mission trips and choose to spend a full week serving others because they want to change the world for the better, but the biggest change happens within them when they sit down with the people they’re serving and listen to their stories.

They learn that people become homeless or go to food pantries or seek assistance for a myriad of reasons.

In Tennessee, we met a man who was suffering from chronic depression who masked his pain with alcohol and was unable to hold down a job.

In New York City, we met a woman who had two masters degrees and spoke 3 languages, but she and her children had to flee her abusive husband with just the clothes on their backs, and now she was working 3 jobs just to feed them.

In Washington DC, we met a man who lost everything when his wife died of cancer – his job, his home, his kids - when hundreds of thousand of dollars in medical bills mired him in debt and tore his family apart.

What surprises our teens and our adults the most when we listen to these stories – is that most of the people seeking help have jobs, or receive food stamps or some other form of assistance.
But it’s still not enough.

We have need for Anne Marie House, and End 68 Hours of Hunger, and Meals on Wheels - and all the other organizations that serve as partners in mission in our community and in our world - because of complex issues and deeply entrenched systems that we’re unlikely to dismantle or fix anytime soon.

Still, we come before God and cry out,
“How long must we wait, O Lord” 
knowing that God leans towards justice
and trusting that God is re-creating our world in God’s own time.

In the meantime, our teacher, Jesus, calls us to continue to be the change we want to see in the world.
To continue to make room in our lives and in our hearts for those who have no voice and no power.

To not mirror the actions of the unjust judge and turn a deaf ear to those in need.

On this mission Sunday, I leave you with this:

     Who is the better mirror of Christ?

Is it the cynical city dweller who walks past the homeless man and prides himself for not being taken in by a con artist or a sob story?

Or is the naïve 15-year-old who sees a man in need singing in the subway and stops to sing along with him,
and inspires others to do the same.

“We but mirror the world.
If would could change ourselves,
the tendencies in the world
would also change.”

Thanks be to God

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Sermon: "Unbound"

Intro to Paul’s letter to Philemon

I invite you to pick up one of the pew Bibles and try to find the letter to Philemon.
Even if you know to find it in the New Testament, after the Gospels, if you flip the pages too fast you might miss it – because it’s only a half a page long.
If you cheated and looked in the bulletin, then you know it’s on page 1043.

Unlike Paul’s other letters, this is the only letter addressed to an individual rather than a church.
Philemon was a wealthy man and a high-ranking leader in one of the house churches that Paul had likely founded. 
But the subject of the letter is a man named Onesimus. 

Onesimus was a slave who belonged to Philemon, and who had found his way to Paul while Paul was imprisoned in a distant city.
Scholars disagree over whether Onesimus had run away from his master, or whether he had been sent by Philemon to assist Paul.
Because the letter is so short and Paul makes no attempt to explain to Philemon how he came find Onesimus, many modern scholars suspect that Philemon had indeed sent Onesimus to Paul, perhaps because as the letter suggests, Onesimus had committed some transgression and Philemon wanted the trouble-making slave out of his hair.

However Onesimus came to be with Paul, the gist of Paul’s letter is this:
Paul wants Onesimus to be free – if not legally, than at least spiritually.
For in Christ there is no slave and no master.
All are brothers and sisters before God.
To accomplish his goal Paul uses all of his pastoral and diplomatic skills to appeal to Philemon on Onesimus’ behalf.
Essentially saying, “I, Paul, am but a lowly servant of Christ and you, Philemon, are an exalted leader, and I can’t command you to do the right thing –
but I remind you of all that I have done for YOU,
and that we are partners in Christ,
therefore I know that you will do what is right for Onesimus, out of love.”

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 4, 2016 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Philemon 1-21


An unnamed woman sits at a metal cafeteria table at the Federal Correctional Complex in Hazelton, West Virginia.
The bench she’s sitting on is bolted to the ground - as is most of the furniture in correctional facilities, to prevent the heavy metal objects from being thrown or used as weapons when an inmate explodes in anger or has a melt down when the walls seem to be closing in on them.
The woman appears to be in her early forties and she wears the khaki brown scrubs of a long-term inmate.  Her eyes are circled in heavy black eyeliner, perhaps to distract others from noticing the exhaustion underneath,
or because she knew she was being interviewed that day by a photojournalist doing a human-interest story on the life of prison inmates.

The woman looks at the camera and says:

“This is my fifth time in prison.
Every crime I’ve committed has come from my addiction.
Best case scenario is I get out of here, rebuild my life, and join the one percent of people who have beaten a meth addiction.
Worst case scenario is I become no more than what I am today.
And honestly, if I mess up again, I hope it kills me.
Because I don’t want to keep hurting people.
I’ve cheated my kids out of normal lives.
My seventeen-year-old daughter is in a home for teen moms.
My twenty-one-year-old son is in jail.
My eighteen-year-old daughter is doing OK. She’s got a job at FedEx and goes to college. She hates drugs and thinks the world is a good place and that nobody is out to hurt her. She wants to help me.
She wants me to come live with her when I get out.
I don’t think that’s a good idea.” 1

This woman’s story is just one among thousands – among millions.
Her story is one that resonates with anyone who has ever felt imprisoned –
or bound -  by the bars and cinder block walls of a correctional facility,
by the ever tightening grip of an addiction,
by the consequences of bad choices and past mistakes,
by the mounting bills and hunger pangs of poverty,
by anything that slams the door on freedom and entangles one in a restrictive web that is nearly impossible to break free of.

It’s important for us to hear this woman’s story because her story helps those who feel bound to know that they are not alone in the world.
Her story is relatable – because she describes a worst-case scenario of addiction where many have been before.
And her story offers hope – because she also describes a best-case scenario - where all is not lost, and the liberation that so many long for is realized in the end.

If we’re wondering how Paul’s personal letter to Philemon ended up being preserved for all time as sacred scripture we need only look at the story of liberation contained within.

The story of Onesimus is the story of a man who is bound –
by slavery, by a debt he could not repay, by past transgressions, and a current transgression against his master that landed him in the care of Paul.
The same Paul who famously wrote in his letter to the Galatians that in Christ there is no male nor female, no Greek nor Jew, no slave nor master.

Paul’s encounter with Onesimus is a story of liberation.
It’s the story of a man who is stuck – bound within the confines of the Greco-Roman socio-economic system where those who could not pay their debts became slaves to those whom they owed money to.

This system, where the haves benefited from the misery of the have nots,
is one that Jesus adamantly opposed and longed to over turn –
with all his talk of the last being first, the least inheriting the most,
and the coming Kingdom, where the world would be turned upside down, and all would eat as equals at God’s table.
Of course turning the world upside in this manner will not only liberate those on the bottom – it’s meant to liberate those on the top as well.

Philemon – despite the advantages he enjoyed because of his money and power – was also bound by the same system that bound Onesimus.
If he freed every slave he had, or suddenly began treating them as equals,
he would likely lose face and status in the eyes of his peers.
There would be little incentive for his clients to repay their debts and
he would lose his source of cheap labor, causing him to suffer financially.
And how long would he be seen as a leader in the local community,
if he elevated his obscure Christian values above his allegiance to the more socially acceptable Roman cultural values?

Paul’s personal letter to Philemon – which he very shrewdly also addressed to the church that gathered in Philemon’s home – was intended to unbind Philemon as much as it unbound Onesimus.

The letter would be read in the gathered assembly – and all eyes would be upon Philemon to see if he would honor Paul’s request and “do what is right” - by looking upon Onesimus as if he were looking at Paul himself.
Here Paul was essentially giving Philemon an opening to do something radical and just – and not have it questioned by the gathered congregation.
Because to do otherwise would be to publically defy Paul – the man who exemplified the teachings of Christ to many.

This is the magic that is contained within this short letter from Paul.
At the very least it reveals the tension that occurs when we shine the light of the gospel on our culture and expose the injustices within.2

This internal and external tension arises when we look at the letter to Philemon and use it to justify slavery or any other human system of imbalance that we’ve grown too comfortable with to discard.
Historically, some have read this letter and claimed that Paul is not freeing Onesimus, but rather returning him to Philemon as a slave – with the request that Onesimus be treated fairly with love, or returned to Paul’s service, still as a slave
The moral gleaned here is that Paul has his eye on the bigger picture, and is not interested in messing with the status quo or involving himself in dismantling human cultural systems that work for many....and we as Christians shouldn’t waste our time doing so either.

If that argument doesn’t sit well with you then you’re feeling that tension that the gospel creates within us.

The same tension that arises when Jesus says, “Sell all that you have and give all that you earn to the poor.”
When he says, “Leave all your possession behind and follow me.”
When he says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Taken literally, these gospel teachings leave us with a daily difficult struggle.
As we try to navigate a world where money is a necessity,
where our enemies threaten our sense of security,
where the haves will always have more power and prestige than the have nots.

But what the gospel does is shine a light on the world as it could be.
And it shines a light on us – showing us that we do have the capacity and the ability to do better – to nudge the world away from fear, injustice, and systems that create imbalances, and push ourselves and our world further along towards love, compassion, and grace.

Which is why Paul’s letter to Philemon – a letter that fills barely a half a page – made it into our Christian Bible and continues to resonate with us – and challenge us - 2,000 years on.
Because it ratchets up the tension that pushes and pulls us between who we are, and who we were created to be.

And what about the woman sitting in prison in West Virginia?
The one hoping that she can turn her life around and no longer cause her family pain
- hoping that she might be released from the chains that bind her and be among the 1% of meth addicts who survive their addiction?
When the woman’s story was posted online by the photojournalist who interviewed her, her hope was rewarded by the thousands of comments and letters of support written by former convicts and former addicts.3

One woman wrote:
“I'm the one percent! I've been clean from meth for a year and ten months! One day at a time. We do recover!”

Another wrote:
“I'm the 1% too!! One year 8 months... wouldn't it be great if everyone who is in the '1%' came out and proved to this woman that the recovery percentage is actually higher than she thinks??”

And another wrote:
“I myself am a 2x convicted felon and ex meth addict. I decided the day I went away that I would never not be in control of my life once I went home. Things are not always easy but… this year I will be 9 years clean. It can be done!!!!”

And finally, one man wrote:
“One percent still means someone did it before.”

Someone did it before.
This is why we tell our stories…
and why we still hold dear these stories of our Judeo-Christian tradition.
Because they tell us that we’re not alone in the world.
Because they give us a glimpse of freedom when we feel bound on all sides.
Because they give us hope when we feel hopeless.

And the meth addiction recovery rate?
It’s not 1% as the woman believed. It’s closer to 20-30%.
It’s not an easy road, and the average addict relapses 7-13 times.
But there is hope.
There is always hope.

There is always an opportunity to be set free.
When the light of Christ leads the way. 


1 Humans of New York: Inmate Stories
2 The Rev. Kate Matthews – UCC Sermon Seeds

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sermon: "Fourth Commandment People"

Luke 13:10-17 – Scripture Intro

At first glance, this passage from Luke appears to be a miracle story – because it begins with Jesus healing a woman who has been bent over for 18 years with something akin to osteoporosis.

But as you listen, notice that Luke rushes past this story of a miraculous healing and doesn’t dwell on the details - because the healing is just a set up for what come next.

Jesus heals the woman in a synagogue on the Sabbath – the day of Lord.

And in doing so, he breaks the Fourth Commandment. 

“Thou shalt not do any work on the Sabbath, keep it holy, for it belongs to God.”

The conflict that follows between Jesus and the leaders of the synagogue is one that we see played out time and time again in the Gospel of Luke.

These are the keepers of the faith, and they are rightly concerned about religious practices, and rituals, and making sure the faithful adhere to God’s law.

But for Jesus, the care of human beings is itself a religious virtue and practice.

For Jesus, the one commandment that anchors and lays the foundation for all of the others, is that we are to love God, and love our neighbor, as we love ourselves. 

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 21, 2016 – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 58:9b-14; Luke 13:10-17

“Fourth Commandment People”

Most of us have a passing familiarity with the Ten Commandments,
even if we can’t list them in order, or name all the commandments that have to do with coveting, or were not aware that some versions say “Thou shalt not kill” while others say “Thou shalt not murder” – and that there is a big difference between the two.

While these commandments, which were given to Moses some 3600 years ago, still shape and inform the ethics and morals of our world today, there is one commandment that I can almost guarantee every single one of us here in this sanctuary breaks on a regular basis, including myself.

And that is the fourth commandment:

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On that day you shall do no work. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

How many of us can say that we spend Sunday – the Lord’s Day – doing no work whatsoever – professional, personal, or otherwise?

If you were born into an Orthodox Jewish household, observing the Sabbath – or Shabbot as they call it – would hold a primary place in your life.
For Orthodox Jews, the Fourth Commandment is not just a suggestion –
it’s a way of life, often consuming much more than the 24 hours contained within it.

On the Jewish Shabbot - from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday - work of any kind is prohibited.
And “work” includes much more than the job we do to earn a living.

The list of prohibited Sabbath activities includes:
Business transactions, shopping, using the telephone, driving or riding in cars or other vehicles; turning on or off anything which uses electricity, including lights, radios, computers, air-conditioners, and alarm clocks.
Also forbidden are cooking, cleaning, gardening, washing dishes, mowing the lawn, and doing laundry (some of us would have no objection to taking a day off from these chores).
Even writing, erasing, or tearing of paper is prohibited.

Now those of us who are not Orthodox Jews may think that this sounds like a pretty dreary way to spend a day – requiring the faithful to eat cold meals, sit in the dark, and risk heatstroke on a hot day in August.
But an observant Jew would tell us that this is not the case at all. 
One needs only to prepare ahead of time for the Sabbath,
“to celebrate in luxury without doing any of the actual work.”1

Lights, stovetops, and air conditioners may be used as long as they’re turned on before sundown on Friday. Automatic timers may be set as well.
Cooking and baking for Sabbath meals is done on Friday during the day and can be kept warm on a stovetop, as long as the controls are covered and not touched. 
And you can open the refrigerator, as long as the little light bulb that turns on when you open the door has been removed the day before.

Some of the ways that observant Jews have devised to “function within” the rules of Sabbath may seem almost comical to those of us on the outside.

For example - certain objects cannot be moved on the Sabbath because doing so may fall under the category of work – tools, stones, plants, a pen or important papers – but while moving them directly with your hands is forbidden – they may be moved with other parts of the body –  with one's teeth or elbow, or by blowing on it.    As awkward as that may sound.

There is also a prohibition against carrying anything from a private space, like one’s home, into a public space, like the street.
This includes carrying something in your pocket; pushing a baby carriage or shopping cart, or going outside with gum or food in your mouth.
To get around this, some Jewish neighborhoods have erected fencing or simple posts that run from house to house with string connecting them, enclosing the public area into one big private – communal – domain.

And while Jews who are not Orthodox are no longer required to observe the law prohibiting driving to synagogue on the Sabbath, there are still many who will drive to a location about a mile away from the synagogue, park their car there, and walk the rest of the way, to not create the appearance that they are breaking the rules of the Sabbath.

Now if you think Christians are somehow more “evolved” because they no longer adhere to these ancient laws – you should know that many Christians around the world do observe the Sabbath in this way – albeit on Sunday, rather than Saturday.
Many of the blue laws that are still on the books in some states and cities require businesses to be closed on Sunday or dictate what they can sell.

And it wasn’t too long ago that all Christians – even hard-working Christians on the American frontier – set Sunday aside as a day to attend church, visit with family, and read scripture by candlelight.

Sunday services back then often lasted 3-4 hours – and that was just the morning service – worshipers were expected come back in the afternoon for another 3-4 hours of Bible study and Sunday School.

So you’re all getting off easy.

The concept of “Sabbath” is not completely lost on us in the modern world.
Even the most busy among us try to grab a few hours here and there or set aside a day every now and then to do as little as possible –
to go for a walk, read, meditate or pray, or just sit in a quiet space with the TV off and the phone on silent.
Taking time to go shopping or to binge watch Netflix doesn’t count.

Because Sabbath – as a way to honor and move closer to God – should be spent with as few outside distractions as possible to be effective.
Which is the whole point of the ancient practices that Orthodox Jews observe to honor the Sabbath.
Because every time they resist the urge to turn on a light switch or pick up a hammer, they’re reminded that God is the focus of Shabbot – the day of rest.

Admittedly, many of us are not in the habit of making space for rest.
For even just a few hours, let alone an entire day.
And if we have a demanding job, or young children, or we’re the caregiver for a spouse or a parent who needs near constant care – the concept of Sabbath is a luxury that we can’t even fathom having time for – as much as we may need it.

So how do we rectify this?
How do we make space for the Sabbath in our lives?
How do we become Fourth Commandment people?

Because it is a commandment.
One that is pretty high up in importance –
It comes right after “Thou shalt not have any other God’s before me and thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain.”
Even things like stealing and murder don’t rank as high on the list.
Which may lead us to believe that God wanted us to comprehend just how significant the observation of Sabbath is –
Not for God’s sake, but for our sake.

Perhaps we need to shift our understanding of the purpose of Sabbath.
Because when we see it as a day of rest – a day to do no work – something inside of us resists. 
Do no work? When there is so much that needs to be done?
Even if we’re not working at our “job” there is always some work that awaits our attention – mowing the lawn, going to the grocery store, volunteering in the community, helping those in need.

Call it the Protestant work ethic, Catholic guilt, or good old fashioned Yankee steadfastness  - many of us have it bred into us that to be idle when there is work to be done is not a good thing.
So there is no wonder that the concept of taking a Sabbath –
a full day off from doing any kind of work – is so foreign to us.

But if we look again at the text from Luke, we’ll see that Jesus didn’t encounter the old woman in the synagogue and declare that she needed a day of rest.
What he did was remove her burden.
He took her spirit that had been twisted and weakened and had left her bent over for 18 years, and he healed her.
He removed whatever it was that was weighing her down, and allowed her to stand up straight, and see the world in front of her, rather than just the ground beneath her feet.

How might our perception of the fourth commandment change if we saw the Sabbath not as a day of personal rest,  but rather as a day to release our burdens to God?

I believe more of us are looking for relief – then are looking for rest.

What brought you here this morning?

What brought you here – when you could have gone straight to the lake, or the beach, or the mountains?
What brought you here – when you could be lounging in bed – on the one day you get to wake up without an alarm, take your time eating breakfast, and read the Sunday paper out on the patio.
What brought you here -  when you could be wandering the aisles at Home Depot picking up supplies for the weekend project you’ve been meaning to get to all summer.
What brought you here when you could have been doing X number of things, rather than getting up early, putting on presentable clothes, and sitting on a hard pew in a stuffy sanctuary for an hour?

Maybe you came because you haven’t been to church all summer and you thought it was time to check back in – to catch up with people you know,
to find out what goings on you’ve missed, to get yourself back in the habit with September fast approaching.

Maybe you came because you’re new – to this town, to this church – and you were curious to see if this one would be the right fit for you –
If you’d feel welcomed, inspired, spiritually fed, and if maybe, just maybe you could see yourself coming back for a second, or third time.

Maybe you came because this is where you always come on Sunday morning. To connect with God and others, to say a prayer, to hear music or scripture or a word that moves something inside of you, to be inspired to go out and serve in the name of love, compassion, and grace as our God calls us to do.

Or maybe you came because there’s something happening in your life right now that is just too much for you to carry on your own.
And you came here seeking guidance – comfort – peace –
something or someone to lean on,
to give you the strength to move forward or to let go, as needed.

We come here for all sorts of reasons.

But few of us get up out of bed and come sit in a church sanctuary because we’re looking for rest.

We come because we’re looking for God.
The One who has the strength and the power to redeem us and heal us from whatever is weighing us done.
The One who touches our lives by working in and through the people sitting here in the pews next to us.
The One who sent us Jesus to show us how to walk upright and how to help others to do the same.

This is Sunday.
This is Sabbath.

This the day the Lord has made.
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.


1 – The Shabbat Laws”