Monday, September 25, 2017

Sermon: "Offensive Grace"

Intro to Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-16

The lectionary this week pairs together two texts from our Bible that many of us find troublesome and hard to understand.
One is from the Old Testament and the other is from the New Testament.

The first is the story of Jonah.
This is the proverbial “Big Fish Story” in which the prophet Jonah is commanded by God to go and warn the evil people of Nineveh that they are headed for certain destruction unless they repent from their violent ways -  and Jonah, who has a deep hatred for Nineveh and thinks its unfair of God to give them a chance to escape death, disobeys God and runs away and ends up being swallowed by a giant fish.

The second reading, from the Gospel of Matthew, is Jesus’ parable of the disgruntled laborers – who’ve worked a full day in a vineyard and end up receiving the same pay as those who’ve worked only a half a day, and those who’ve worked for only an hour.

Both of these texts challenge our understanding of the way our world works and don’t sit well with us because they violate our sense of fairness.   
Why should those who’ve committed obviously inhumane and evil acts be allowed to escape punishment? And why should those who’ve labored for only an hour be rewarded the same as those who’ve labored all day?

These texts undermine not only our sense of human justice – but also our sense of divine justice – our belief that the evil will be punished, and the good will be rewarded -  on a scale that is proportionate to the level of their deeds – good or bad.

It’s worth noting that once a year, the Book of Jonah is read in Jewish worship services - on Yom Kippur, the day Jews set aside to atone for their sins - which happens to be this Saturday, Sept 29th. 
It isn’t often that Jews and Christians share worship readings and are literally on the same page during the same week, but this year it happened to work out that way.
The Book of Jonah is a reminder that no one is beyond God’s reach – that no matter how far we wander – or try to run – God’s grace enfolds us all equally. 
And Jesus’ parable of the laborers who are all paid the same wage by a generous landowner, reminds us of the same. 

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 24, 2017 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16

“Offensive Grace”

At one of the recent white supremacist rallies that have been held across our country, a man who identified himself as a Christian held up a professionally made sign that said “Attention!! Hell Fire Awaits!!” 
- and listed on the sign were all the groups that he believed should expect to feel the heat of God’s judgment and wrath. 

The list began with the usual roll call of sinners - atheists, adulterers, murderers, idolaters, liars, and thieves.
Also making the list were drunks, pot smokers, party animals, sissies, and rebellious women.
Then there were the heretical believers, like Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And oddly, the list also included “Rock and Roll Freaks, Gangsta Rappers, Sports Nuts, and Country Music Lovers.”
Apparently the maker of this sign is not a fan of the country classic,
“Drop Kick Me Jesus through the Goalposts of Life.”

It's worth noting that this list of those doomed to roast in the fires of Hell also included “racists” and “fake Christians,” which shows that the man holding the sign either appreciates, or lacks, a sense of irony, depending on how you look at it.

We may laugh at the self-appointed prophets who stand on street corners or pound on pulpits calling out by name all those who have made God’s naughty list, but there are likely many of us here who have a naughty list of our own. Myself included.

We may not go as far as to wish hellfire and eternal torture upon those on our list, and some of us may not believe that a literal hell exists, but we still want there to be some divinely ordained system of separating the wheat from the chaff - the people who do good from the people who commit acts of evil–with the latter being those who willingly and intentionally harm others and fail to show any remorse afterward.

Our list may contain sex offenders, child abusers, terrorists, mass murderers, those who commit horrendous acts of genocide, torture, and extreme violence that cause us to shake our heads and wonder how we could be created by the same loving God.

The prophet Jonah likely carried a list like this in his pocket.
He wanted nothing to do with God’s plan to redeem the people of Nineveh.
Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian Empire - the people responsible for the annihilation of Israel’s northern kingdom.
A later prophet, Nahum, called Nineveh the “city of bloodshed, where horsemen charging, flashing swords and glittering spears,” left “piles of dead, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end.” (Nah 3:1-3)
The last thing Jonah wanted was for these butchers of men, women, and children alike to seemingly “repent” for their sins under the threat of punishment and escape the promised destruction by God.

The Ninevites had murdered Jonah’s people, possibly laying swords to the throats of members of his own family.
Yet here was God asking him to play a part in their redemption.

The Bible gives us this fantastical story of Jonah, who runs from God, sails off to sea, only to be tossed overboard in a storm by sailors who’ve figured out that he is the cause of their calamity. He’s then swallowed whole by a big fish – that we interpret to be a whale, and spends three days in its stomach contemplating his disobedience.

Once Jonah is heaved out of the belly of the whale and is deposited safely on shore, he does what God told him to do. He goes to the city of Nineveh – and he warns them of their impending destruction.

But then, what Jonah feared all along would happen does happen.
Nineveh repents, God spares the city, and Jonah sits under a tree and pouts.

God asks Jonah, “Why are you so angry?”
And Jonah shouts at God, “Because you did exactly what I thought you would do. Because you are a merciful and loving God –
And you offered grace where I wanted you to offer justice.”

Grace is one of those religious words that we struggle to grasp the true meaning of.
We sing about Amazing Grace and are forever grateful that God offers it to us – even if we count ourselves among the wretches who have made mistakes in life and feel we are unworthy of receiving it.

But when it comes to imagining our enemies or those who’ve hurt us,
as ALSO being worthy recipients of God’s grace, we shut our hymnals –
and struggle to embrace this idea of a God who loves and forgives Jonah and the Ninevites, equally.
A God who loves and forgives US - and the terrorists who lay swords to people’s throats in our time, equally.

New Testament professor, Matthew Skinner, calls this kind of grace,
“offensive grace” because it offends our idea of justice and fairness.
It calls us to embrace a theology that is so wide open that we may wonder why we bother putting so much effort into being kind, compassionate, and forgiving people - when someone can spend their life committing acts of evil only to repent on their deathbed and become an equal recipient of God’s grace.

We’re so driven by this idea that we will reap what we sow and we will get what we deserve when we stand before God that the idea that God’s grace will somehow balance the scales in the end seems inherently unfair.

It’s this struggle to understand God’s grace that colors our interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the hired laborers who receive equal pay for less than equal work.
I think if we took a poll, this may be one of the least favorite and most difficult to understand of Jesus’ parables.
(How many of you would say this is true for you?)

On the surface, this story that Jesus tells his disciples seems exceedingly unfair.
Why should those who do only an hour’s worth of work be paid the same amount as those who have done a full day’s worth of work?

It’s likely many of us can recall someone we’ve encountered in our working lives who made a career out of doing as little as possible to get by.
I worked retail for many years before I went to seminary, and I once had a manager who always managed to disappear whenever we needed him to solve a problem or speak to an unhappy customer. 
He walked around all day with a coffee cup and a clipboard and if we did manage to find him – usually hiding in a backroom somewhere – he’d look at the clipboard and mutter something about being too busy to deal with the situation - then he’d tell us to solve the problem or handle the customer ourselves.

It’s that internal ‘fairness meter’ within us that causes us to cringe whenever someone who does less work than we do receives equal or greater compensation than we do.

Which is why this parable of the hired laborers bugs us so much.

There are ways of seeing this as a parable about justice in a world where worth is based on economic status – where those who don’t have the opportunity to work a full day for a full day’s pay – due to high levels of unemployment, discrimination, or downsizing  - or are unable to work because of disability, illness, or age - should still be valued as equal members of our society and not seen as less than deserving because they haven’t worked or don’t have the opportunity to work as hard as others have.

But when we overlay our real world expectations of fairness and economic justice on this parable it can trip us up – we get lost in how the parable might translate to our human systems of work and reward, and we miss the very first thing that Jesus says when he tells his disciples this parable.
He begins by saying, “The Kingdom of God is like…”

Meaning the world that God created - and is creating around us – looks very different from the world we live in now.
In the Kingdom of God we all have equal value and are equally deserving of the true rewards of life - God’s love and grace.
It doesn’t matter how much work we do – or how long we labor in the field – we all receive an equal amount of love and grace from the owner of the field.
Not because we’ve earned it, but because the owner is extravagantly generous.

This is what makes God’s grace so amazing.
Not that it’s offered to people like us who screw up on occasion – or who screw up on many occasions - but still try our best to orient ourselves towards love and light.

What makes God’s grace so amazing is that it’s offered equally to those who spend their lives in a very dark place, living and acting out of pain and fear, and hurting so many in the process – often in horrific ways.

This grace may seem offensive to us, because we question why it does not have to be earned by these people in particular, even when we understand that God’s grace can never be earned because is always given freely. 

Let’s be clear here, we’re not talking about “cheap grace" - a theological designation that some of you may be familiar with.
German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined cheap grace as grace that is expected to be given freely without the need for remorse or repentance.
Cheap Grace is the kind of grace we seek when we ask for forgiveness not because our heart has changed, but because we’re trying to manipulate others into thinking we’ve changed so we can avoid consequences in this world and keep on living as we always have.

But God, of course, knows what is in our hearts.
And given the smallest spark of a desire to change – the tiniest awareness that we’ve caused pain to others and we need to seek healing – that’s the moment that the light seeps in through the cracks and we become aware that God’s grace is all around us, and always has been.

It’s important to note that the act of showing remorse or changing our ways does not EARN us God’s grace. It’s not a work for payment transaction.
Grace is always there for the taking, flowing around us and through us like water flowing around the fish in the ocean – like the air moving in and out of our lungs.
That’s why we say God’s grace is given freely to all.
We’re all swimming in it.
Regardless of how long it takes us to realize it.  

But it takes a spark of love – a lessening of the fear that grips our hearts – to open our eyes to the grace that flows all around us…and through us.

We mustn’t neglect the role we play in offering this grace to each other.

As Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, writes:

It is next to impossible in isolation to manufacture the beautiful, radical grace that flows from the heart of  God to God’s broken and blessed humanity.
As human beings, there are many things we can create for ourselves: entertainment, stories, pain, toothpaste, maybe even positive self-talk. But it is difficult to create this thing that frees us from the bondage of self. We cannot create for ourselves God’s word of grace.
We must tell it to each other.    (Accidental Saints. The Crown Publishing Group.)

We must tell it to each other - because we need each other.
We need each other to offer grace when it takes little effort to do so.
When it means not jumping to a conclusion about someone’s intention,
or assuming a slight or disrespect has taken place when it has not,
or reading our own fears into someone else’s words or actions.

We need to offer each other grace even when it takes great effort to do so.
When we feel as if we’ve been wronged.
When we feel offended or hurt.
When we feel as if the other has done little to deserve it.

God’s grace is truly amazing.
Because even when we try and fail to offer grace to each other.
God’s grace still finds its way to us. 
Even when we haven’t earned it.

Thanks be to God, and Amen. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Sermon: "Picking Cherries"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 3, 2017 – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 12:9-21

“Picking Cherries”

Something happened to me the other day that has likely happened to you as well if you rely on computers and online resources to stay connected to the world.   
I got angry at someone on the internet. 

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed looking at pictures from my friends’ vacation trips, reading the latest news about the devastating destruction of Hurricane Harvey,
and watching cat videos to take my mind off all the political finger pointing and pontificating that dominates much of our media these days,
when I came across a comment someone had made on a friend’s facebook post that try as I may I could not ignore.

You may have heard it said if you’re looking to ruin your day and lose all faith in the inherent goodness of humanity, just read the comments that people make on the internet.

Politics, religion, and sports seem to generate the most contentious and convicted discussions,  but regardless of the subject,
inevitably some cantankerous soul will manage to slip in an ill-informed or inflammatory comment that ignites an argument amongst strangers and sucks the joy right out of your day.

The kind of comment that gets under your skin and has you immediately composing a lengthy rebuttal in your head –
because when someone is WRONG on the internet, God knows it’s our job to set them straight.

The reality is, when someone says something online or on TV that we disagree with, turning off the computer or the television and walking away is usually the most effective response –
because doing so keeps us from jumping into a fray that only serves to waste time and energy and rarely ends well for anyone. 

Cognitive studies show that very few people change their minds when presented with an argument that contradicts their worldview, no matter how well-crafted, well-intentioned, or well-supported the rebuttal may be.

Which is why, after spending way too much time composing the perfect response to a stranger’s obviously ill-informed online comment, I hit the DELETE button, instead of hitting SEND.  

And after I read the scripture text for today I was glad that I did.

Paul’s letter to the Romans lays out what we call the Marks of Christianity -
A description of what it looks like to live as Jesus did in the world –
to really live it, from the center of our being.

Love one another.
Hold onto what is good.
Return no evil for evil.
Pray for those who persecute you.
Support the weak.
Strengthen the fainthearted. 
Help the suffering.
Extend hospitality to strangers.
Rejoice in hope.
Live peaceably with all.

Now, it needs to be said that Paul is setting the bar REALLY high here.
There are times when even the most devout and strong spirited among us struggle to live up to this grand and lofty list of ideals.

We know from her private letters that even Mother Teresa had dark periods where she found it difficult to hold on to what is good and rejoice in hope.

I would argue that we ALL get tripped up by the very first item on Paul’s list.  
Love one another.

Paul is of course quoting Jesus here and we know he was not talking about loving just our neighbor.
Or loving just the people we agree with. Or just the people who love us back.
But rather we are also to LOVE our enemies.
LOVE the people who hate us, the people who wish to cause us harm.
The people who stand for everything that we’re against and who wish to tear down everything that we stand for.

This kind of all encompassing love seems to perpetually hover just beyond our grasp.  But we’re called to reach for it all the same.

The rest of Paul’s list is equally daunting.
Return no evil for evil.

If we truly lived this out we would have a world where there is no war,  
no capitol punishment, no retaliatory violence of any kind.
Our very human understanding of justice would be turned upside down.

Support the weak.
Help the suffering.
Extend hospitality to strangers.

We may willingly throw all our good-hearted energy into supporting the weak and helping the suffering, but extending hospitality to strangers –
we often allow ourselves some wiggle room on that one –
it depends on where the stranger is from - and how they got here –
and the potential threat they may pose to those we love.

Pray for those who persecute you.

I admit that this is one that I struggle with.

I wonder if it applies to women who are in abusive relationships,
or people oppressed by a tyrannical dictator, 
or anyone who is powerless and exploited by the powerful.

And while Paul was referring to outside persecution experienced by those early followers of Jesus, I wonder if it applies when our fellow Christians are the ones doing the persecuting. 

You may have seen the statement that was released this week that was signed by over 150 conservative Christian pastors, theologians, and organizational leaders.

It’s called the “Nashville Statement” as most of the signers are members of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has its headquarters in Nashville, TN.
The 14-point doctrinal manifesto focuses on human sexuality and God’s will for creation, and states unequivocally that God created only two genders, male and female, which are fully realized at birth and have different roles in the human family, that sexual expression is limited to marriage which is to be between one man and one woman, and anyone who lives outside these constructs or supports those who live outside these constructs is at odds with God’s will and the Christian faith, and is unsanctioned by the Grace of Christ.

Imagine being a gay or transgendered teen and hearing this preached from the pulpit on Sunday morning.
Pray for those who persecute you, indeed.

After reading the Nashville Statement my first thought about the people who signed it was admittedly not very prayerful.
Rather I had the same feeling of righteous anger and sadness that I felt when I read the comment that I mentioned earlier, on my friend’s facebook page.

It was made by a woman who questioned the faith of Christians like me - and most of you - who supposedly defy God’s will by supporting gay marriage, transgender rights, divorce, and the ordination of women.

She accused us - her fellow Christians - of cherry picking scripture and the teachings of the Church, leaving behind what we don’t agree with or what doesn’t fit in with current cultural trends.

What provoked me to want to respond to this stranger’s comment is her conviction that one side in particular is guilty of cherry picking religious teachings, tradition, or scripture.
When the reality is, we ALL do it.   
Because it’s impossible not to.

Very few Christians, or Jews for that matter, adhere to every law and restriction found in Leviticus, Deuteronomy,  and other parts of the Hebrew scriptures, in particular the restrictions about not wearing clothing made of mixed fibers, not eating shellfish, and not touching the skin of a dead pig.
If we did, people who wear yoga pants, or enjoy a good Maine lobster, or play football for the New England Patriots would all be guilty of heresy.

And very few of us adhere to every teaching of the New Testament as well – where the followers of Jesus are told to sell all their possessions and keep a communal bank that all can draw from,
where owning human slaves is still acceptable as long as they’re treated well,
and where Paul instructs the faithful to refrain from marrying if possible, because marriage only serves as a distraction from the preparation for the return of Christ and the building of the Kingdom of God.

When it comes to living our lives according to biblical standards we’re all cherry pickers.    
Paul’s list of the "Marks of Christianity" is proof of that.

Every single one of us manages to miss the mark on multiple items on the list, repeatedly, and perpetually.
And I believe the God who created us and knows our limitations intimately would be cruel to expect us do otherwise.

It’s hard to fathom that a God who created a universe as big and as beautiful and as diverse as ours would place such binary restrictions on our ability to express who we are and who we love, and use those restrictions to place those who don’t fit into one box or the other outside the embrace of God’s Grace.

I may be picking cherries, but I choose to believe in the God of the Beatitudes who blessed the poor and the meek, the God of Jesus’ parables who spoke through a Good Samaritan and many, many persistent women,
the God that Paul describes in his letter to the Romans.

This God who when expressed through Jesus taught us to love our enemies, welcome the stranger, and pray for those who persecute us, who is forever challenging us to grow into a kinder, more loving, and more merciful versions of ourselves.  

This God who knows that our hearts and minds contain a complex and interwoven bundle of our genetic programming, our lived experiences, our prejudices and fears, and the learned belief that we are somehow not worthy of the love and that God offers us unconditionally.

I try to remember this when I encounter someone who has difficulty opening their imagination to a God who created the diversity we see in our world and loves each of us just as we are –
and therefore they cling to rules and manifestos and build boxes that we’re all supposed to fit into –
and they gather up the cherries that they’ve so carefully picked that give them a taste of this God who brings them comfort through structure and security - this God of judgment and wrath,
while swatting at the hands of those who prefer the fruit that has the sweet taste of a God of unconditional love and grace.

As a Christian, I love even those who accuse me of dishonoring the will of God.
I love them because at some time in their life they must have felt unloved.
I hold onto what is good in them, because we all have good within us.
I return no evil for evil.
I pray for them even though they persecute me and those I love.
I offer them support, strength, and help, because like all human beings they’ve lived through times of weakness, faintheartedness, and suffering.
I extend hospitality to them even though we are strangers and have yet to hear each other’s story.
I rejoice in hope that they might one day see and celebrate all the diverse colors of God’s rainbow.
And I will live peaceably with them even if they struggle to live peaceably with me.  

In The Message, Eugene Peterson's contemporary translation of the Bible, Paul lays it out like this:
"Love from the center of who you are…discover beauty in everyone."

Those two lines are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian,
because loving from the center of who we are
and finding beauty in every single one of God's children,
leads us to be generous and hospitable,
forgiving and peaceful,
humble and kind,
and full of grace.


Monday, August 21, 2017

Sermon: "Good News For All"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 20, 2017 – Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 15:10-28

“Good News For All”

I don’t know about you, but I’m in need of some Good News today.
Not some Good News that helps us to forget everything that’s going on in the world.
But rather some Good News that helps us make sense of it.
And helps us to heal from it
And gives us hope that the “bad news” does not define us,
or stand as an example of the irredeemable brokenness of our human nature.

I’m in need of some Good News that shows us that perhaps the “bad news” we encounter is better labeled as “disturbing news” or “challenging news” because our response to the news should point us in the direction where God intends for us to go, and give us a sense of who God created us to be.
And because we’re human, neither is easy for us to face or accomplish.

Let’s begin our quest for Good News with a story.

In December 1938, a 29-year-old London stockbroker named Nicholas Winton picked up a newspaper and read about rising anti-Semitism in Europe.
Jewish businesses were being vandalized and forced to shut down, synagogues were burned, and thousands of Jewish immigrants had been rounded up and deported.  150,000 refugees were forced to seek shelter in makeshift camps and were facing a harsh winter with no help in sight.

As Hitler’s Nazi party began to take hold in Europe, their goal was to make life so unpleasant for Jews that they would choose to emigrate.
But few countries were willing to accept an influx of Jewish refugees.
Many countries, including the United States, tightened their immigration policies. In the summer of 1938, 32 countries met in France to address the growing refugee crisis. But virtually all refused to take in more Jews.

When the violence against Jews escalated in late 1938, Britain relented and opened its borders to the most vulnerable refugees - the children.

That winter, Nicholas Winton had planned on taking a two-week skiing vacation in Czechoslovakia, but just before he left, he received a letter from a friend who was working for the British government in Prague.
It contained an invitation:         
“I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help.

Don't bother bringing your skis.”

Winton joined his friend and used those two weeks of his vacation to set up a makeshift immigration center in his hotel room in Prague.
There he met with Jewish families who were desperate to get their children out of harms way.
Winton worked with Britain’s strict immigration requirement that every refugee child have a foster family to take them in on the other end.
He placed ads in newspapers asking for volunteers, and in some cases cajoled complete strangers into taking a child into their home.
Since the British government had already begun to evacuate British children from inner cities in the event of war, the British public was fortuitously familiar with the idea of opening their homes to those in need.

Nicholas Winton and his small staff of volunteers worked together to save 669 children.
Often going against their own moral code and breaking the law, to forge documents and bribe government officials.
Navigating a mountain of paperwork, and working as fast as they could, Winton and his colleagues loaded the children onto seven passenger trains and sent along escorts to make sure they made it safely through Germany and out of Nazi territory.

Winton’s greatest regret – On September 1st 1939, an eighth train containing 250 more children was loaded and waiting to depart occupied territory when Hitler invaded Poland and war in Europe was declared.  
The train never left the station.

For over 50 years, Winton rarely spoke about what he had done for those 669 children.
He thought it was simply part of his calling as a human being to step in where help was needed.
Then in 1988, Winton’s wife found a scrapbook in their attic that contained the names of every child her husband helped, along with their parent’s names and the names and addresses of the families who took them in.
With the help of a friend, she was able locate 80 of those now adult children and asked them if they’d like to meet the man responsible for their escape.

Some of you may have seen the touching BBC video, where unbeknownst to Winton, he was seated in an auditorium surrounded by the children he had saved from almost certain death.
When they stood up and identified themselves, Winston broke into tears, as if he finally recognized the impact of what he had done. 

Nicholas Winton passed away in 2015, at the age of 106.
In an interview done just before he died, he said he lived by this motto:
“If something is not impossible, there must be some way of doing it.”

I like to think that that the Canaanite woman had the same motto in mind when she approached Jesus on that long ago day in the city of Sidon.
Jesus and his disciples were about 100 miles north of their usual stomping ground in Galilee. They were in pagan territory, and they likely sensed that they were the minority in this neck of the woods.

Then this strange woman approached and began shouting at them.
Seemingly not caring that her gender, her social standing, and her religious affiliation should have held her back and kept her from speaking to these foreign, Jewish men.
But her child was ill. And she was desperate for help.

First, the disciples ignored her, and seemed uncomfortable with her outburst.
Her cry for help fell on deaf ears, as they urged Jesus to send her away.
Even Jesus himself seemed indifferent to her pleas.
Then she fell on her knees and again pleaded for help.

And surprisingly, Jesus rebuked her.
He told her he had come to save the children of Israel and it was not fair to take their food and throw it to the dogs.

Let’s pause right there and note that calling a woman a dog in first century Palestine meant pretty much the same thing as it does today.
It was not meant to be a compliment.

Jesus was likely comparing her to the wild dogs that roamed the foreign and “God-less” lands of the region of Tyre and Sidon.
These dogs were believed to be wicked and dangerous, much like the people who resided there.
In effect, when Jesus called the Canaanite woman a “dog” he was using an ethnic slur.  A slur that was commonly used on the Galilee side to refer to people north of the border.

But why would Jesus do this?
Why would this man of God, who preached compassion and grace, and who had just told the Pharisees that what comes out of our mouths should reflect what is in our hearts – Why would he say such a hurtful thing to someone who was clearly already in distress?

Perhaps because he had heard it said before, by people with deep-seated fears and by people of faith who really should have known better.
And he knew his disciples were thinking it, even if they weren’t saying it out loud.

As we know, Jesus was a cunning teacher, who knew how to take a figure of speech, a social expectation, or a racial slur, and turn it on its head -
by using it to get people’s attention and then shocking them further by offering a NEW way to interpret old, ingrained ideas and beliefs.

It’s tempting to say that Jesus’ initial dismissive reaction to the woman’s request came from the part of him that was fully-human.
But how likely is it that this astute teacher truly believed that this pagan woman was not as worthy of his time as the people of his own nation? 

This man who spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well – a woman who had been married five times - and quenched her thirst with living water.
This man who healed the hemorrhaging woman who pushed through the crowd in her unclean state just to touch his cloak, and with one glance he said her faith had made her well.
This man who saved the woman accused of adultery who was about to have rocks heaved at her head…by telling her accusers,
“You who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

Is it more likely that Jesus recognized the resourcefulness and faith of this Canaanite woman and saw her intrusion as yet another opportunity to turn people’s expectations and prejudices on their heads?

I imagine a wry smile appearing on Jesus’ face, as he used a phrase this pagan woman had likely heard in public squares, in whispered comments, and out of the mouths of the religious and the righteous over and over again...
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

And perhaps recognizing the teasing sarcasm in Jesus’ voice, the woman replied with a pointed retort of her own.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

In other words, even those born outside the lineage of Abraham value and cherish what has been offered to the children of God...even when it has been tossed aside, because it was thought to be insignificant or worth-less.

Jesus response to this woman’s bold assertion that she too was worthy of the love of God, likely reflected what was in his heart all along:  He told her,
“Woman, your faith is great! Your daughter is healed as you wish.”

The Good News of this story is that the unconditional love and grace of God is meant not just for some people, but for all people – all who were willing to receive it.

And the Good News for us today is that we are capable of rising above our prejudices and our fears, and opening our hearts to those who are different from us - those who have a different story to tell than we do.

Each of us carries the same dis-order in our hearts that caused the disciples to disregard this woman who was clearly in need of help and clearly in pain.
She shouted at them and they ignored her.
She fell on her knees before them and they looked away.

Her story was not their story and because they had not experienced her life or her pain, they dismissed it. It didn’t matter what story she had to tell.
They dismissed her shouts and her cries telling themselves she was probably overreacting, or looking for attention, or likely brought her pain on herself because of something she did, or said.

How often have we said these same things ourselves when we encounter someone who has a different experience and different story to tell than we do?
How often do we ignorantly or arrogantly claim that the story another is telling is not true, because it is not true for us?

If we’re not black, or Muslim, or transgender, or female, or Jewish, or disabled, or living with a mental illness – we have no idea what it’s like to move in the world as a person who is.

We have no idea what it’s like to be followed in a store or pulled over by the police 36 times in one year because of the color of our skin.
And that's not an exaggeration.

We have no idea what it’s like to have slurs and threats hurled at us on the street because we look Middle Eastern, or wear a headscarf, or use the name “Allah” when we pray to God.

We have no idea what it’s like to be thrown out of a public bathroom because we don’t fit gender norms or thrown out of our home or our church because it’s believed we’ve shamed our families and violated God’s law. 

If we’re seeking to escape the “bad news” of white supremacy demonstrations, or vandalized synagogues, or yet another terrorist attack, then the Gospel is not the place to look. 

But if we’re looking for healing and hope, and if we’re looking to truly challenge and change our hearts – the Gospel – the Good News is exactly where we’ll find what we need.

We may look into the angry and hate-filled eyes of a Nazi sympathizer, or an Islamic terrorist, or an overtly racist politician and say that’s not us.

But like most human beings – including the disciples, the men who followed Jesus in the flesh – we too carry fear and ignorance in our hearts.
And we allow ourselves to become complacent, or to look the other way, or to say "that’s not my problem to worry about" when someone else’s pain is spilled at our feet. 

But the Good News is we’re not stuck there.
Because the Good News is found all around us.

It’s found in Nicholas Winton, who risked it all to save so many, because he believed that if something is not impossible, there must be some way of doing it.

It’s found in the tens of thousands of people who marched in Barcelona, Spain, in the wake of Thursday’s horrific terrorist attack, chanting, “We are not afraid!” and “Our strength is their weakness.”

It’s found in my clergy colleagues across all faith traditions who organized prayer services and showed up in force in Charlottesville last week and in Boston yesterday to call out the evils of racism, and march on the side of love.

The world may appear at times to be drowning under the weight of bad news, but in reality it’s groaning with the growing pains of the Good News. 

This is hard, hard stuff that Jesus is asking us to do.
To love.
To listen.
To learn.
To lean into and become the people God created us to be.   


Thanks be to God and Amen

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.