Thursday, November 8, 2018

Sermon: "Take Heart"


The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
October 28, 2018 – Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 31:7-9; Mark 10:46-52

“Take Heart”

Last year, during my sabbatical, I had the opportunity to fly to Spain on a pilgrimage/study tour. 
I took an overnight 7-hour flight, direct from Boston to Madrid.
I booked a window seat so I could read or sleep in peace without having to get up, and even splurged for one of the airline’s “extra” legroom seats -  
so I could stretch out a bit…and so when the person in front of me reclined, their seat back came to about here (4" away from my nose)….rather than here (2" away).
After I boarded the plane, I was surprised to find a pile of complimentary items on my seat all wrapped in individual plastic bags.
A thick blanket, a large pillow, a pair of headphones, and a travel case with an eyemask, earplugs, and personal care items.
I noticed that every seat had the same.
Having flown mostly domestic flights in my lifetime, I was unaccustomed to such luxuries.
Of course, once I sat down I had no idea where to put all this stuff.  
So I shoved it under the seat in front me.
And there went my extra legroom.

As soon as I got myself situated, a middle-aged woman carrying multiple carry-on bags squeezed her way into the middle seat next to me.
To help her out I reached into her seat and picked up her pillow, blanket, headphones, and complimentary personal care items, and held them in my lap while she got herself settled.
For the next 15 minutes, she fiddled with her carry-ons, fumbled with her seatbelt, and called the stewardess over several times to complain about being assigned a middle seat.
When I finally handed her the items I was holding for her and said, “Here these are for you,” she looked at me as if I was asking her to carry illegal contraband.
After I explained that these were items the airlines provided to each passenger she begrudgingly took them and piled them on her lap.
Then she reached into her carry-on and pulled out a pair of long compression socks and proceeded to put them on….in the middle seat, with her bags, pillow, blanket, headphones, and personal care items piled all around her.
Let’s just say, her feet, knees, and elbows were way outside the authorized zone of middle seat space.
She said she had read somewhere that it was important to wear compression socks on airplanes so you wouldn’t die.
Then she said this was her first time flying.

My heart went out to her.
She was obviously not familiar with the routine or etiquette of airline travel, and she was carrying a good deal of anxiety about flying.

But I found my sympathy waning as she spent the next hour flipping through the movies and news programs on the seatback TV while providing a running commentary on all that was wrong with the entertainment industry, our nation, the world, and anyone who didn’t look or think like her.
I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to get much reading or sleeping done on the flight.  

It was then that I remembered that I had the ability to put a stop to this flood of anxiety and negativity.
I’d been equipped to handle situations like this and I had the necessary tools to defuse this increasingly uncomfortable situation.
So I reached under my seat, pulled out the complimentary travel items, and did this….. 


For the remainder of the flight, I was in heaven.

Tuning out the world is one way to cut down on the negativity in our lives and lower our stress levels.
If you can’t see or hear what’s going on than there’s nothing to react to.
It is tempting to do this.
Especially in our 24-hour news cycle world.
We’re built to handle only so much stress, so much personal trauma, so much bad news about other people’s trauma, before it begins to weigh us down,
and crush our spirits, and split us at the seams.
Compassion fatigue is a real thing.
We only have so much bandwidth for feeling and responding to the pain of others before we feel overwhelmed or become indifferent to that pain.

But this was true even before there were 24-hour news channels.
Before we invited the horrors of the world and the darkness of the human heart into our living rooms on a daily basis.

In Jesus’ time, unless you happened to be royalty and were sequestered away in a secure and sanitized palace, there was no escaping the pain of others.

The blind man begging outside the gates of Jericho was likely one of hundreds who were there that day.
Camped out on his mat, sitting in his own filth, reaching out and calling out to anyone who might hear.
Our gospels are full of them.
The lame, the leprous, the lost.
We hear about withered limbs, and hemorrhaging bodies, and diseased minds that cause the afflicted to push through crowds and call out in desperation and orchestrate outbursts and social faux pas that even the disciples feel compelled to dampen. 
“Stay back.” “Be quiet.” “Leave us be.” They say.

But time after time Jesus says the opposite.
“Let her through.” “Call him here.” “Let them come.”

It had to be overwhelming at times for the disciples.
All those people pushing at them, trying to get to Jesus through them,
always wanting something he had – a healing, a word of hope,
to get close to the one who promised them so much when they had so little.

And still Jesus pushed his followers to keep opening their arms,
to keep opening their hearts, to keep letting people in,
when their instinct was to hold them back,
to keep them at bay, to tune them out when they got to be too loud,
or too demanding, or just too much.
Sometimes we NEED to tune it all out because it hits too close home.
When someone else’s pain reminds us too much of our own.
And it wounds us all over again.

But sometimes having the ability to turn our back - or turn off the TV
and tune out the trauma - is a privilege in itself…
When we’re not the one living it.
But for children living in war zones, and families living in refugee camps, and for anyone living in nations, neighborhoods, or households besieged by violence, drugs, poverty or oppression there is no switching off the TV, there is no tuning out the terror. 

If we’re going to own the promise of our Christian baptism and do our best to minister to this hurting world, and do what we can to seek healing, for ourselves and others, then we can’t tune it out either.
As much as we may want to.

“Take heart,” Jesus says.
This is something he says over and over again in the gospels.

“Take heart, do not be afraid.”  (Mark 6:50)
“Take heart, you have been forgiven.” (Matt. 9:2)
“Take heart, your faith has made you well.” (Matt 9:22)
“Take heart, I will overcome the troubles of the world.” (John 16:33)

“Take heart” is another way of saying “have courage” – “have hope” –   in the midst of pain allow it to seep into the core of your being and sustain you, until restoration comes.

Eleven people died yesterday while worshiping God.
In yet another mass shooting. This time at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

And as we weep over their senseless loss we find ourselves on the merry-go-round of outrage and blame all over again.
It’s the easy availability of weapons.
It’s the failings of our mental health care systems.
It’s the media’s obsession with violence, sensationalism, and fame.
It’s the breakdown of the family and the marginalization of God and religion.
It’s the ingrained and systemic evil of anti-Semitism, racism, nationalism, homophobia, xenophobia, and toxic-masculinity, which equates violence with dominance and power.
It’s the current cultural and political climate that cultivates and encourages all of the above – feeding terrorists, and hate groups, and lone wolfs who are destined to die for a cause, and take as many people with them as they can. 

But pointing fingers and arguing over who or what is to blame doesn’t seem to be helping, does it?
It just seems to divide us and hurt us even more.

If anyone had reason to point fingers it was Jesus.
He was familiar with all the ways that we human beings manage to build and sustain systems and states of mind that reward the few and fail the many, over and over again.
In the Beatitudes, and in his teachings and parables he named those systems and attitudes and talked about God’s plan to turn the world on its head, causing the last to be first, and the first to be last.

Yet each time Jesus was approached by someone who was seeking healing, in that moment he didn’t seem interested in blaming or naming the particular person or entity or system that that put them there.
He didn’t blame the limited availability of adequate health care.
He didn’t blame parental upbringing or lack of exposure to religion.
He didn’t blame the corruption and greed which kept so many under the thumb of poverty and oppression.
He didn’t blame the person in need of healing for not overcoming their affliction, or for making bad decisions and allowing their life to spiral out of control.

Not because some or all of these things weren’t to blame for the person’s predicament, but because in the moment placing blame was not helpful.
It did nothing to facilitate healing for the one who was seeking it.

We have to ask ourselves, in the wake of mass shootings, and gang violence, and tribal wars, and sanctioned genocide, how do we begin to seek healing?

How do we resist the urge to rush in and try to fix a horrific situation by naming the cause and shouting at those who disagree with our diagnosis?
How do we “Take Heart”, and have hope that in the midst of unspeakable violence and pain God is pulling us towards restoration?

It begins with recognizing the person in pain.
Acknowledging them, hearing them, calling them to us instead of pushing them back, turning them away, or tuning them out.

Whether it’s a beggar calling to us from the side of the road,
a woman revealing her anxieties as she sits next to us on a plane,
or a man who feels so powerless and is so full of fear that he lashes out, sending his pain out in waves so that others may feel it as well.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak out against injustice and violence when we see it, and offer solutions to address the root causes when we can name them.
But restoration doesn’t begin with our need to fix.
It beings with our need to heal.

It’s worth noting that in this healing story from the gospel of Mark
that comes near the end of Jesus’ ministry,
the disciples have learned to mirror their teacher.
When the crowd tries to silence Bartimaeus, the disciples say to him,
“Take heart! Get up, he has called you.”

“Take heart” is the beginning of restoration and reformation.

It opens our heart just a crack, 
and allows the healing light to flow in.
It acknowledges that God is at work here, 
in ways that we cannot see.

This is the Good News that Jesus asks us to bring to the world.
May we take heart, 
and get up, 
for he is calling us to heal.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Sermon: "Threading the Needle"


Scripture Intro - Mark 10:17-31

17This is the passage where the rich man runs up to Jesus and says, “Teacher, what must I do to experience eternal life?” and Jesus responds by saying, “Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor…for it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
This passage has successfully caused Christians to squirm in their pews for over 2,000 years, so if you’re feeling a little uncomfortable right now you’re in good company. 

First of all, this is a passage about money, which for some automatically puts it in the category of “things we shouldn’t talk about in church” – it’s right up there with politics and the discussion over whether we need to order new hymnals. 

Second, the passage sets up the impractical and nearly impossible requirement that to be considered a “good Christian” we must empty our bank accounts and sell all that we have in support of the poor – keeping nothing to support ourselves or our families, and essentially becoming poor ourselves in the process.

And third, was Jesus really serious about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy person to enter into the Kingdom of God? What defines wealth? How much is too much? And why would a God who offers us such a wide and unconditional gift of love and grace, then offer us such a narrow entrance into the Kingdom in which we all long to be?

For 2,000 years, people and preachers in particular, have been deftly dancing around this text in an effort to explain what it says, and what it doesn’t say – trying to push that camel through the needle to make it work in our favor. 

But just as with threading a needle, it takes more than keen eye and a steady hand to make it work, we also must rely on our depth perception – our ability to gauge the distance between where we are, and where we’re intending to go, and then consider what it will take to get there. 

 
The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
October 14, 2018 – Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 10:17-31

“Threading the Needle”

Sometime in the late 12th century, an Italian merchant named Pietro di Bernardone returned home to his family after a successful business trip to neighboring France.
Pietro was a dealer in expensive fabrics and fine cloths - which made him a wealthy man, but took him away from his home quite often.
While he was away, his wife Pica had given birth, to a son she named Giovanni.
Giovanni lived the life of a rich man’s son. Never wanting for anything.

As a young man, he was worldly, handsome and witty,
and he had an insatiable taste for expensive clothing, good food, fine wines, and popular music.
He and his wealthy friends took to following the local Troubadours around the country, spending their money lavishly, and enjoying all the pleasures of life along the way.

One day while he was selling his father’s silk and velvet in the local marketplace, Giovanni was approached by a beggar –
a man dressed in rags, and covered in dirt from head to toe.
Naturally, the young merchant shoed the beggar away, out of fear that he might scare off some the more well-to-do customers.

But after he did so, something stirred in Giovanni’s heart.
Something that made him leave his father’s shop, and chase after the beggar, and when he found him, Giovanni emptied his pockets, giving the man all the money that he carried with him.

This impulsive act of kindness made Giovanni’s father furious.
Not only had his son left the expensive wares unattended, but he had given away the day’s profits to a stranger on the street, a man who was likely an undeserving con-artist preying on the weak will of fools. 

We can’t know for sure what lit a fire in Giovanni’s heart that day.
It may have been the look in the man’s eyes as he was chased away,
or the subsequent look he gave Giovanni as he took hold of the man’s dirty hand and filled it with coins.

There may also have been a touch of a rebellious streak that was stoked in this young rich man that day,
as he discovered something that made him different from his father, something that made him different from most of similar wealth and status.

Giovanni continued to be drawn to spontaneous acts of generosity,
using the family money to help restore a church and feed the poor,
and in doing so he continued to anger his father.
Eventually, Pietro dragged his son into court, to force him to either repay his debt or renounce his inheritance,
but Giovanni stunned everyone present by removing all of his clothing – the fine silks his father had given him as an incentive the night before – and then  dramatically handing the pile of clothing to his father, while vowing to live the rest of his life in poverty and in aid of the poor.

Historically, we’ve come to know Giovanni by his other name, the one given to him by his father during the first year of his life  - Francesco or Frances,
which in Italian means “Frenchman” – and likely reflected his father’s love of the country and the people who made him a rich man.

Today, we know him as St. Francis of Assisi.

Arguably the most well known example of someone who has lived out Jesus’ response to the rich man seeking eternal life –  who was told to
“Sell all that you have, and give the money to the poor.”

St. Francis was not the only one to do this of course.
Throughout the ages there have been a multitude of saints, monks, nuns, and other monastic men and women, of all faiths, who’ve walked away from wealth and comfort to embrace a life of poverty, piety, and service to others.
We admire them for their faith and fortitude.
We lift them up and revere them as examples of true discipleship.
We may even silently envy them, or dismiss them, or judge them,
as eccentric outliers, who may have a touch of an obsessive personality –
to go to such an extreme to observe a religious conviction.

We may also imagine, given what Jesus says in Mark’s gospel,
that St. Francis, and those like him, have surely gained entrance into the Kingdom of God.
By letting go of all they have, they’ve managed to squeeze through the Eye of the Needle.     Earning the prize that many have longed for.

But where does that leave the rest of us?
Those of us who live good Christian lives without going to such extremes?
Those of us who give to the poor out of our abundance but still hold onto our homes, and cars, and 401Ks,
not to mention our flat screen TV’s, our wireless and cell phone plans,
and our vacation excursions,
that we sometimes have to stretch to afford, yet are reluctant to forgo.

How do we dance around these words of Jesus to make them not applicable to us, regardless of how much – or how little we have - in comparison to others?

But what if I told you this text is not just about money and personal wealth?
That it’s about so much more than that?

Wealth is not held in a vacuum.
It brings with it status, power, and privilege.
In Jesus’ time, and in our time, those who have money are revered, respected, and are given freedom of choice, movement, and expression
in a way that those who lack wealth are rarely given.

Wealth provides access to health care, education, and representation in the political process, and the justice system, at a level that those without wealth rarely experience.

Money can’t buy happiness.
But it provides a plethora of privileges and perks that many of us are unwilling to give up once we have them.

So, when Jesus says to the rich man,
“Sell all that you have and give all that you have to the poor” 
he was not only asking him to give up his money and his possessions,
but also his privilege, his power, his position in life.

To reduce himself to the level of those who held no power, who had no privilege, who occupied the lowest positions on the status scale.

Note that the Gospel writer tells us that when the man heard this,
“He was shocked and he went away grieving.”

This is a normal human reaction.
We often think about grieving in terms of losing a loved one.
But grieving is something we do whenever we lose something that we value,  something that gives our life purpose or meaning.
A job – a relationship – a dream of a better future –
or a longing for the way things used to be.
We also grieve when we feel like were losing our sense of control,
our sense of security, our sense of certainty, or our sense of self.

When the rich man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life – to enter into the Kingdom of God?”

Jesus says, “You have to give it all away. All of it.”

All that anchors us in this world, the world we know,
but keeps us from living into God’s world –the world we struggle to imagine.

The systems of power and privilege and position that we participate in within this world do not exist in God’s world.
So to experience God’s world, we have to give it all away.
Let it all go.
But we resist doing so, especially if we’re one who benefits from systems of power and privilege and position,
because we don’t realize that what God promises to give us all in return is so much more valuable.

This is the promise that Jesus offers his disciples over and over again.
He says, I’m asking you to walk away from your livelihoods, your families and your communities –
the bloodlines and nationalities and identities that define you –
but in return you’ll be given a new identity, a new family, a new community.
A community of Christ – A Kingdom of God - that includes all.

In walking the way of Christ we’re repeatedly called to step away from our old life and are invited to embrace a new life.
But in that stepping away, there is loss, and there is grief.

And in that loss we may experience some or all of the identified stages of grieving – denial, anger, bargaining, depression - and ultimately, acceptance.

We see this playing out in our world wherever power and privilege is challenged – where those who have it and those who want it push and pull against one another and lash out in anger,
denying the pain and struggle of the other,
bargaining for position by giving up and digging in,
sinking into depression when it feels like everything is changing and nothing is changing, depending on our perspective,
and regardless of where we fall, we feel all of it is out of our control.

Getting to the stage of acceptance is to glimpse the Kingdom of God.
Where we finally see that there is no us and them,
That letting go is about reaching out and lifting up.
That giving away what we have, is about gaining so much more.

The Kingdom of God is a wide and expansive place.
Much bigger and broader than our narrow perceptions allow us to see.

But we can’t see it and we can’t get there as long as we’re carrying all the stuff of this world – not just our wealth, or our status, privilege and power –  but also our fear, our certainty, our resistance to feeling the pain of another - everything that keeps us separated and elevated and out of alignment with the way of Christ.

Trying to envision the Kingdom of God while we’re carrying all this stuff that we think inflates our worth, our value - in this world and in God’s world,
is like trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle.

The good news is that as we begin to let go –
and work our way through the anger and denial and resistance of grief,
we start to notice that we value has changed.

We come to value mercy, love, compassion, and grace.
And when we encounter someone pushing against systems of power, privilege, and position, instead of resisting, we push with them.

So that we might all experience the Kingdom of God, together.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.









Thursday, October 11, 2018

Sermon: "Skin for Skin"




Scripture Intro - Job 1:1; 2:1-10

The Book of Job is one of the rare biblical writings that is not set in a particular time or place in history.
The author is unknown and the exact age is unknown.
It is one of those iconic and timeless stories that people have turned to throughout the ages, because it speaks to a common longing and wondering that we all share:
Why is there suffering in our world and what role does God play in our suffering?

The ancient author of Job imagines a conversation taking place between God and Satan that results in the "testing" of one of God's loyalist followers - Job. 
This is the story of a man who has it all – good health, wealth, and a loving family.
Then little by little he loses it all – his crops fail, his home is destroyed, his skin erupts in festering boils, and every person he has ever loved either dies or leaves him.
In the end the only thing Job has left is his faith – but even then he questions why God has allowed him to fall so far.

The book of Job also contains the earliest biblical appearance of Satan.
Here Satan is not the fallen angel who presides over evildoers in Hell while sporting red horns and a pitchfork – that image would develop much, much later, instead he is an angelic member of God's royal court, or heavenly council of advisors. 
We get the name "Satan" from the Hebrew phrase used here in the book of Job - "Ha-Satan", which literally means, "The Accuser" or "The Adversary."
It was ha-satan who advised God by playing the role of devil's advocate  – no pun intended.
When God said, “Have you considered this…”
Ha-satan would say, “Ah, but have you also considered this…”
So, when God said, “Look at my servant Job – He is so loyal there is nothing that can cause him to turn on me,”
Ha-satan replied, ”Challenge accepted.”


The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational church of Amherst, UCC
October 7, 2018 – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Job 1:1; 2:1-10

“Skin for Skin”

On October 9th of last year, a mother in Ottawa, Canada posted a picture on Facebook of her son.
The picture showed 17-year-old Jonathan Pitre, seated in a motorized wheelchair as he exited through a pair of hospital doors. 
All we can see in the photo is the back of Jonathan’s chair, the open doors, and the illuminated Exit sign above.
Underneath the photo was the following quote:
“Today I close the door to the past, open the door to the future, take a deep breath, step on through and start a new chapter of my life.”
Jonathan’s mother, Tina, added these words:
“Today I am thankful that you never give up...
You are the epitome of strength, determination and courage.”

Jonathan Pitre was born with a rare genetic skin disorder known as EB –
Epidermolysis Bullosa.
With this condition, the collagen, or glue that holds the layers of skin together is missing.
The skin can tear or blister at the slightest touch.
Something as simple as putting on a shoe or a t-shirt can cause chronic wounds.
Eating and swallowing food can cause sores in the mouth and scarring of the esophagus.
The disease also causes chronic anemia, malnutrition, and inhibits growth, because most of the nutrients the body absorbs are used in the 24/7 task of repairing damage to the skin.
Children born with this condition are known as Butterfly Children, because their skin is as fragile as a butterfly’s wing.

Jonathan left the hospital on that early October day having lived his entire life with this condition.
We might imagine what it’s like to be a child, wanting to run and play and explore the world around us, and not being able to,
because the world around us is literally too dangerous for us to be in.

Jonathan endured many years of hospitalizations, operations, and treatments.
But thankfully, his life wasn’t all about pain and suffering.
The community in Ottawa embraced him as their Butterfly Boy, making him a local celebrity.
And the Ottawa Senators pro hockey team even made him an honorary member, holding a press conference last spring where he signed a contract and received a jersey, fulfilling a young boy’s lifelong dream.

On the day his mother posted the photo, Jonathan was leaving the hospital -
a year after receiving a stem cell transplant that in itself was dangerous and painful - but which essentially gave him back the collagen he was missing, and allowed his skin to begin healing on its own.  

After a lifetime of suffering and pain, both Jonathan and his mother could finally look past that hospital door and have hope for a future that up until then, neither had ever imagined could happen.


“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

This question that Job asks his wife is one that many of us have asked in our lifetime.
At the time, Job is sitting on pile of ashes, picking at the boils on his skin, having lost everything he owned and nearly everyone he loved.
Yet he refuses to give up hope in a God of mercy and goodness.
He essentially shrugs his shoulders and says, “You have to take the good with the bad – one can’t be separated from the other.”

The question Job’s wife asks is also one that many of us have asked in our lifetimes.
With our focus on Job, we often forget that she too has lost nearly everything – her home has been destroyed, her animals and crops have been burned, and all of her children are dead.
So she looks at Job, who still clings to a thread of his faith, and she says “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die."

Job's wife was dumbfounded as to how could he still believe in a God of goodness and mercy, when God’s reward for their unfaltering obedience was to inflict untold suffering.

What makes the story of Job so brilliant and relevant, even as the ancient tale that it is, is that it includes such a multi-faceted representation of our very human questions about the existence of suffering in our world.

While Job is initially resistant to follow his wife down the path of blaming God for his fate, his friends eventually get in on the act, and push him over the edge.
They come to supposedly “comfort” him in his fallen state,
and in doing so they lay their own convoluted understanding of suffering upon his already weary shoulders.

One tells him not to give up hope, for surely he is a good man and God never punishes the good.  
All he needs to do is pray, and wait for his good fortune to return.

Still another tells him to accept the blame, for surely he has sinned against God, because God only punishes those who sin. 
All he needs to do is repent, and wait for God to bless him once again.

There’s seems to be a lot of waiting in our suffering.
Waiting for good fortune to return.
Waiting for our pain to subside.
Waiting for some kind of reason or purpose or answer to our question that explains why misfortune or illness or calamity has filled our life,
pushing out the joy and the hope and the light that once illuminated the darkness before us.

As the book of Job so poetically shows us, trying to explain the existence of suffering in our world is always an exercise in futility.
Yet we never cease trying.

Nowhere is our search to find meaning in our suffering more evident than in the wake of a natural disaster.

When an earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, television cameras captured a man tearfully exclaiming, “God is good!! God is good!!” after he learned that his daughter was found alive in the rubble of a Haitian hotel.
But when a few hours later he learned a mistake had been made and his daughter had died, along with 100,000 others who lost their lives in the earthquake - 
I wondered if for him the goodness of God was now in doubt.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, several prominent Christian leaders made the claim that the storm was punishment for the sins of the city.
Yet the French Quarter – a haven for many of the alleged punishable sins - was left largely untouched by the flooding, while the impoverished areas of the city were devastated.
And I wondered, what kind of God punishes people for being poor?

In the aftermath of the last big Tsunami that hit Indonesia, back in 2004, where 200,000 people were lost to the power of the sea,
a group of refugees approached a Jesuit priest in one of the many camps that sprang up after the disaster.
The refugees told the priest that they were interested in converting from Hinduism to Christianity.
“Our God has failed us,” they said. “Maybe yours will do better.”

The thing about Job and his reaction to the many disasters that came into his life in such a short period of time, is that he followed a very similar pattern of denying, blaming, and rejecting.

When his home, his servants, his livestock, and even his children were taken from him he tore his clothes and collapsed face down in the dust, but still he said, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, but God is still good all the time.”

But as Ha-satan, the accuser, said to God, “A man will give up everything he has to save his own skin. But if you reach out and touch his flesh, he will curse you and despise you.”

And sure enough, it is soon after Job is left scraping his sores with potshards on a pile of ashes, that he raises his fist to God and says,
“How could you do this to me, I curse you and the day that I was even born.”

It’s when suffering gets closer to us – close enough to prick our own skin – that it becomes much harder to shake off, excuse, or explain away.

How often do we praise God for blessing us, when suffering lands in someone else’s home instead of our own?

How often do we shake our heads at those who’ve experienced suffering as a result of poverty, racism, addiction, or assault,
because we can’t help but wonder what they must have done to cause or contribute to their own pain?

How often do we question God’s presence in our life and struggle to find hope, when our own suffering becomes too heavy and too deep for us to carry or crawl out of?

This is not a judgment or moralizing wagging of the finger at us all,
but rather a naming of our common human experience.

The book of Job’s multi-faceted look at suffering resonates with us, because it is us.

As is Job’s ability to transcend his personal suffering, and to still find hope, and joy, and meaning in a life where God asks us to love and trust, and accept that we will never have all of our great questions answered.

That’s not an easy thing to do.
Which is why we find inspiration in those who find the will to do it.

17-year-old Jonathan Pitre had a lot to teach us about what it means to be skin deep in suffering and still find joy and hope in the world.

Earlier this year he contracted an infection that his weakened body could not fight and on April 6th – just 6-months after he left the hospital – Jonathan Pitre passed away.

Even as he resigned himself to a future that no longer held the hope of his own healing, he found hope in what he could do to aid someone else’s healing.

He compared his hopeful outlook to a wave.
He told his mother,
“A wave starts out small but it gets bigger and bigger.
I want to make sure when I leave, that wave is big enough to keep going on its own.”

In the book of Job, we find a wave that has continued to lap at our feet and wash over us for thousands of years -
as we search for God in a world that is full of complexities and paradoxes – great acts of love and extreme examples of suffering –
that defy our understanding.

But it’s where love, and hope, and healing, connect with our suffering, that we find the greatest meaning of all.

It’s in our Creator God, 
who moves through us and through others in our life, 
that we find the strength to close the door to the past, 
open the door to the future, 
take a deep breath, 
step on through 
and start a new chapter of our life.
Each and every day.       

Thanks be to God, and Amen.





Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Sermon: "Pardon Our Appearance"







The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 30, 2018 – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 8:22-24, 27-30, 41-43; Matthew 16:13-20

“Pardon Our Appearance”

As many of you know, at the beginning of the summer a tree fell through the roof of the parsonage, where I live next door with my wife, Stephanie.
In the midst of a wild thunderstorm, which later was identified as a microburst - a pine branch that was nearly as tall and wide as the tree itself broke off and landed across the family room on the back of the house, punching a gaping hole in the roof.
I was in Miami when it happened -
on our Youth Group mission trip with 20 teenagers.
Thankfully, my wife, who was in the house when the tree fell, was not injured. And we are forever grateful for those of you in this congregation who rushed over to help move the contents of our family room as the rain was pouring in,
who offered meals and a place to stay while the power was off,
who coordinated with the insurance companies and arranged for the tree removal – which required the use of a crane to lift it,
and who for the last four months, have overseen the continuing repairs and reconstruction that may take until Thanksgiving to be finished.

If any of you have ever had a tree fall on your house, or experienced flood damage, or had major remodeling work done to your home of any kind,
you know what’s like to suddenly find yourself living in a construction zone.

Where for months at a time your daily routine includes a steady stream of roofers, painters, electricians, drywallers, insulation crews, and floor and window installers.
Next door, we also threw in Critter Control for good measure.
The one silver lining of our tree mishap is that the squirrels who were living rent free above the family room, were suddenly evicted.
If you live in the village and they’ve since moved into your home I sincerely apologize.

If you’ve ever lived in a construction zone, of your own choosing or not,
you know that the need for “flexibility” and “patience” also becomes part of your daily experience.
As contractors arrive to work earlier than expected, later than expected, or not at all.
As individual projects get delayed, added on, or rescheduled, which in turn affects the scheduling of everything else.
And for months on end, you find yourself living amongst boxes and furniture that has been moved from other rooms,
sweeping up debris and dust that magically reappears the next day,
and making arrangements to be out of the house when smells and noise and flying particles make it uncomfortable or unsafe to be there.

Living in a construction zone is inconvenient, to say the least, and at the most, wears on our ability to absorb the other inconveniences and challenges of life with grace.
If you’ve ever lived through a kitchen remodel and found yourself snapping at your spouse or melting into a puddle of tears because you can’t find the can opener, than you know what I’m talking about.

This summer and now into the fall, we’ve also experienced what it like to work and worship as a congregation in the midst of a construction zone –
as we replace the fire suppression system throughout the building.
We have exposed pipes in our offices and meeting spaces,
furniture moved or piled up making rooms inaccessible,
and dirt and dust accumulating on the walls, the carpets, and falling from the ceiling over our heads.
I’ve lost count of the number of times people have picked bits of insulation out of my hair.
And as we embark upon a capital campaign to help us further care for these historic buildings, by updating electrical systems, replacing windows, remodeling the kitchen so we can better serve the community, and repairing and repainting weather-worn clapboards, we can look forward to a few more years of living and worshiping in a construction zone.
With all it’s unpredictability, uncertainty, and at times tear-inducing frustrations and inconvenience.
But this shouldn’t surprise us at all.
To be a church in the world is to willingly embrace life in a construction zone.
Where God is at work – within us and through us – on a daily basis.

When we think of the world that we live in, the world that we see when we turn on the evening news or scroll through our newsfeed online –
it can feel like we’re living in the midst of an endless torrent of human restoration projects that are perpetually left unfinished.
Poverty, oppression, violence, injustice of every kind.
All calling out for us to show up and tackle the hard, hard work that needs to be done, knowing that as human beings we simply don’t have the power, the resources, or the strength, to tackle it all on our own.

It can be frustrating, and disheartening, and soul-sucking to look out at the state of the world and realize that we just don’t have the will or the way to work together to fix it.  As if we ever could.

It is tempting, in the midst of that sense of frustration and feeling of powerlessness, to see the church as a sanctuary,
as a place to tune out the world out there, and find peace and comfort in here – as we pray and sing about a utopian world yet to come.

The truth is, we have a God who has the power to do amazing and difficult things.
And through our prayers we ask God to use that power to do amazing and difficult things, for us and with us and through us.
But to put ourselves in the midst of that kind of power is not always a safe and comforting place to be.

Author Annie Dillard, offers this dose of reality for those of us who sign up to be followers of Christ in the world: She writes,

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT (on) a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

When we call on God in our prayers to move in us and through us and to help us to heal this broken world, we have to know that healing always involves tearing down the old and building up the new.
We’re actually requesting to live in a construction zone – with all of its uncertainty and inconvenience and piles of accumulating dust, that never seem to go away.

Jesus knew that this was a message, a call to a way of living that his disciples were not ready to hear.
Which is why he turned to them one day and asked them,
“Who do you say that I am?”
Because he kept hearing the people talk of a Messiah who was going to liberate them by seizing control from their oppressors,
by leading them into battle, or rising to power as their king;  
taking the unjust world they lived in and simply shifting the pieces around,
putting them in charge, and imprisoning, killing, or oppressing those who had done the same to them.

But that’s not the world that God is seeking to create, and it’s not the kind of Messiah that Jesus came to be.
So Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am” and while the others named human prophets, who lived their lives calling for repentance and revolution and ultimately died as all humans do, only Simon responded by saying,
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”


Simon, as flawed and as human as he was, had a moment where he looked at Jesus and said, “There’s something different about you.
You’re not like the others that came before you.
It’s as if you have some supernatural connection to the Living God himself.”

And for that expression of faith, Jesus gave Simon a new name, Peter – which means rock, and it is on this rock solid expression of faith in a God who has the ability to do amazing things, that Jesus intended to build his church.

Peter, as we know, was a work in progress.
In a moment of clarity he sees Jesus as the presence of God in this world and just a short time later, he’s denying that he’s ever met the man to save his own skin.
We’re all a work in progress. We’re all under construction.

I think every church should have a sign above the doorway that says, “Pardon our Appearance – we’re building Christ’s church in the world one human being at a time.”

We really should wear hard hats when we come through these doors,
whether we’re seeking to be challenged or comforted.
Because we never know what work God has in store for us.

This morning, millions of women and men across our country will step into sanctuaries like this one, seeking healing, strength, vindication, and validation.
They are the victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.
For weeks they’ve either avoided the national news or been glued to it, unable to look away, as they relive the pain and humiliation of their own experience, no matter how long ago it was, and regardless of whether they said something or said nothing.
They’ve listened while politicians, pastors, self-appointed experts, and their own friends and family, have debated how much time is too much time to hold onto a secret pain,
what behavior or actions of their own may have invited or led to their pain, and what behavior or actions of their abuser can be excused or dismissed because of age, alcohol, and situational or gender proclivities.

Regardless of who we believe or what we believe about the latest accusations capturing our nation’s attention, there is a spiritual wounding that’s happening as a result of these discussions that we as people of faith must address.
As much as we may want to tune out the world and leave this stuff out there,
the truth is we bring it with us in here.
Because it touches so many of us, and so many of us need to hear that what happened to us matters.
That’s really what it comes down to.
Like the woman who tearfully confronted a politician this past week, following him to an elevator and telling him that she was sexually assaulted and reported it and nobody believed her.
Not wanting to deal with her pain, he looked away and walked away.
Through her tears she pleaded, “Don’t look away from me. Look at me and tell me that what happened to me doesn’t matter.”

There are millions, millions of survivors out there – and I know a good number of them are in here – most of whom are women,
surrounded by men, good men, who have no idea how many among them carry this pain.
And when passing comments are made about how long she waited,
or she shouldn’t have been drinking, or boys will be boys,
the survivors around us hold onto that secret a little bit tighter and feel all the more deeply that what happened to them doesn’t matter.

As a church, a community built on the belief in a God who can do amazing and difficult things, we should have the courage to say to the survivors among us, “What happened to you does matter. How can we help with the healing?”

Jesus didn’t call us to build a church that tunes out the outside world, or avoids talking about issues that make us uncomfortable.
And he didn’t teach us to deny the pain of others because we’ve never experienced such a pain ourselves,
or because we can’t believe someone we trust would be capable of inflicting such a pain,
or because we’re fearful that something we may have done, no matter how long ago, may have caused such a pain to another.

Jesus didn’t teach us to deny each others pain, but rather to hold it,
and to heal it, and to take collective ownership of it,
as the body of Christ in the world.

This is the challenge we face as a community of Christ –
as we seek to create church and be church that is both savior and sanctuary,
that is both confronting and comforting,
that is adept at stirring things up and calming things down,
at pushing out and bringing in.

Perhaps we should start wearing hard hats to church on Sunday mornings, and put up signs that say, “Pardon our Appearance – God is at Work”


I leave you this morning with the words of Islamic scholar and spiritual guide, Omid Safi:

"The Kingdom of God on Earth was not merely about saving an individual soul, but also about building a beloved community
Community is not merely a gathering of individuals coming together. Community is an almost alchemical reaction that happens among all that we are capable of being and becoming…
Each of us is like a musical symphony, made up of so many unsung notes. It is the encounters with our fellow human beings that determine what notes emerge from us." 


Thanks be to God, and Amen.