Sunday, May 13, 2018

Letting Go of the Fence


On this Mother's Day, I'm reminded of a reflection I wrote in 2015 while we (myself and my nine siblings) were in the midst of getting my mother's house ready to sell a year after she had passed away. 
I posted it here and then deleted it because I thought it was "too personal" for my pastoral blog. It was actually a reflection on a reflection - my thoughts about an essay I had written back in 1999 about taking risks, seeking growth, and letting go of the fences that keeps us comfortable yet contained in life. 

Last Sunday, my congregation voted to name me as Acting Senior Pastor as of August 1st, once our current Senior Pastor retires. 
We'll spend the next 6-9 months in discernment, as we allow our still-speaking God to guide us towards what comes next. 

On this Mother's Day, as I contemplate letting go of yet another fence - the one that has kept me grounded and content as the Associate Pastor of this wonderful congregation for the last six years, I am once again looking down the road to what lies ahead. 
I am once again letting go of what has become comfortable and familiar and pushing off into the unknown. 

So, this is now a reflection on a reflection on a reflection. 
2018 looking back to 2015 looking back to 1999....and looking back even further still. 
Happy Mother's Day, mom. 
And thank you for teaching me that fences, while necessary, are not meant to keep us hemmed in forever. 





Today’s posting is not a sermon.
This is a reflection I wrote in 1999.
Before I became a pastor.
Before I went to seminary.
Before I went back to school at the age of 35 to get my undergrad degree.
Before I left Long Island and my job of 16 years and moved to CT.
Before I met the woman who would become my wife.
I wrote this reflection the year before any of this would begin to unfold and before I believed I was capable of doing any of it.

I was reminded of this reflection today while at my parent’s house on Long Island with all nine of my siblings. My mom passed away last July and my dad has been gone for 14 years. For the last few months we’ve been cleaning and renovating the house getting it ready to sell, and today my brothers worked together to remove the rusted chain link fence that ran the length of our driveway for as long as any of us can remember.  Sometime after my parents bought the house in 1950, my dad chipped in with our neighbor to purchase the fence that our neighbor then installed between the houses. We do wonder if our neighbor suggested the fence was needed to keep his three kids in his yard, or to keep the soon-to-be ten of us in our yard and out of his.

A few weeks ago I found a photo of my mom with me perched on that fence when I was four months old.  What’s remarkable about the photo is that up until a few weeks ago I never knew it existed. I had never seen a photo of myself as a baby with my mom.  I never questioned this. I was, after all, child number nine and my mom was notoriously camera shy and understandably busy. But I have felt like I’ve been missing something all of my life, never having seen an image of my mom holding me as a child. It’s a gap I’ve always had to fill in on my own. Until I found the picture of her with me, holding onto that fence.

Today as I watched my brothers cut up the fence and stack the rolled bundles of rusted wire in the driveway, one of my sisters remarked, “I learned how to ride a bike using that fence.”
And then I remembered writing this.
I share this because we all have fences in our lives that we hold onto for dear life and are reluctant to let go of.
Here’s a cliché to live by: Let Go, and Let God.
Try it and you’ll be amazed at how far you will fly. 







Letting Go of the Fence 
September 1999

 
I remember the day that I first learned how to ride a bicycle. 
I remember balancing precariously at the top of the driveway, holding onto the neighbor’s chain link fence for dear life.  I’d push off slightly with my left hand, quickly moving it from the fence to the handlebar and just as quickly back to the fence again as I tipped and jerked to a stop. I had gained a whole foot. With another balancing act and another burst of courage I’d push off again only to grab for the fence after only a few seconds of freedom. This process continued down the whole length of the driveway until I had run out of feet to gain and fence to grab on to. 
Stopped at the edge and peering up and down the street that seemed so open and dangerous to my six-year-old eyes, I had reached the point of no return.

I could have just used my feet to propel myself up and down the sidewalk as I had done since the day I first discovered that I could reach the ground on my sister’s hand-me-down bicycle, but this day was different.  My parents were away on a rare day excursion and I was determined to teach myself how to ride before they returned.  I was out to prove something.  Something that I felt I would never do under the watchful eye of others and the potential criticism they’d have to offer.
I had to do it on my own, by myself, or I would never do it all.

I don’t remember how soon after I left the safety of the driveway and the support of the fence that I was sailing unaided down the middle of the street, but I did.  I’m sure it took a few false starts, it may have taken all afternoon, but I don’t remember the entire process.  I remember how it felt to start, and I remember how it felt to finish.  I remember how it felt to feel myself fly up and down a street that once felt so forbidden.  The balance that I struggled with only hours before now felt like the most innate ability in the world.  I had not just learned how to ride a bicycle, I had conquered my fears, I had persevered against failure, I had acquired a sense of accomplishment, and I had achieved freedom.

When my parents arrived home later that day and I proudly showed them what I had taught myself to do I don’t quite remember what their reaction was but I’m certain it was positive.  Although I thought at the time I was doing it for them, to earn their pride and their respect, the simple fact that I can’t remember how they reacted makes me realize that I really did it for myself. 
I needed to challenge myself, to learn something new, to face my fears and prove to myself that I was worthy and capable. 
Now of course I push off on my bicycle and never think twice about the mechanics or the properties of balance that it takes to accomplish this amazing feat.  It’s no longer amazing to me, but it is amazing to the six year old that’s watching me as I ride past, the one who is balancing precariously at the edge of her driveway on her first two wheeler, holding onto the fence for dear life.

I suspect that I went through the same process of trial, error, and sense of achievement when I first learned to walk, although not nearly on the same scale of self-awareness.
I’m certain that as a toddler I was not fearful of others ridiculing me as I tried and failed over and over again, and I did not risk damaging my self esteem every time I took an unsteady step and fell.  I’m sure that I did not need to give myself motivational talks of encouragement, or trick myself into doing what I wanted to accomplish by convincing myself that I was doing it to earn the praise of someone else.
By completing these processes of self-teaching I was able to transform what was once a conscious exercise into one that is now part of the sub-conscious.  That in itself is an amazing feat. 

There are many things that I’ve learned in life that now seem to be second nature.  Typing on this keyboard is one of them, but I still make mistakes and sometimes I find that I have to really think about what I’m doing.  Such as when I have to go back and correct the mistake.  Sometimes I zone out while I’m in my car and find myself driving on autopilot, but that couldn’t last very long without me ending up in a ditch at the side of the road.  Even in the act of walking or riding a bike I sometimes find myself thrown off balance and I have to consciously regain my equilibrium, yet it usually happens so fast that I can’t say what it is that I actually did to regain it!
The point is that what once was hard to do and seemed impossible at times is now so easy it’s done without a second thought.  That’s what conquering fear is all about.
 It’s getting from the “impossible” to the “second nature” that’s the hard part!

I still have a few fences in my life that I’m clinging to for dear life.  The ones that keep me from being as outgoing or as social as I’d like to be. The ones that have kept me in the same job and the same town for most of my life.  The ones that have kept me from reaching beyond what is comfortable and familiar.  I’ve held onto those fences for so long that they’ve left permanent marks on my hands, but gradually the fear of letting go is being overtaken by the fear of being left behind.  The fear of missing out on the very life and objective that I was put here to accomplish. Little by little as I let go of the small fences in my life I find myself gathering momentum toward letting go of the bigger ones. The ones that once loomed over me as impenetrable walls but now seem conquerable if I just learn to reach a little farther and a little higher. 
As soon as I make contact and get a good grip on the top then it will only take a leap of faith to push off from there.

Now instead of thinking about what could happen if I let go I now think about what will happen if I don’t.  I will not grow.  I will not discover and achieve what it is that I was brought here to do.  I will not be a guide or mentor for others who are clinging to their own fences.  I will still have not left the driveway when my parents arrive home and I will have never felt the sense of pride and accomplishment that I so desired.
As I find myself at a point in my life that looks very similar to the end of that driveway, I can not help but peer down both sides of the road that I’m about to enter and in my stomach feel both a tinge of fear and excitement.  There is no going back now.  I’ve had a taste of freedom in twelve-inch leaps down the whole length of the driveway and I want desperately to know what it feels like to fly. 
I can feel my fingertips lightly brushing the top of the fence, and in one swift motion,
I let go.









Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Sermon: "Love, Love, Love"



The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
April 29, 2018 – Fifth Sunday of Easter
1 John 4:7-21

“Love, Love, Love”

If you drive out of the center of the village up Mack Hill,
just before you get to Jones Rd., you’ll see a stone marker,
standing alone on a grassy patch near the corner. 
The front of the stone reads:
“Here was erected the first Meeting-House in Amherst - May 16, 1739.”

I pass by that maker nearly every day on my morning walk,
and as I do I make a point to stop and touch it –
running my hand along the rough granite surface before continuing on.

It’s a little ritual that I began doing shortly after I moved to Amherst in 2012.
There is something magical and awe inspiring about standing on the spot where a building once stood some 275 plus years ago –
and imagining what it looked like, 
imagining what the surrounding countryside must have looked like, 
and imagining the people – as they came walking up the hill on Sunday mornings to attend worship, at the first meeting house of the Congregational Church of Amherst.

While I love historical buildings, including this NEW meetinghouse that we worship in now, which is a mere 244 years old,
it’s the connection to the people that most enamors me -
as I imagine those first colonial settlers placing a whole lot of trust in God, and each other, as they came together to form a church and a community.

In a very literal way, the stone marker on the corner of Mack Hill and Jones Rd. grounds us in our past.
It connects us to the people who ventured into the wilderness, set up the first homesteads, cut and joined together the wooden clapboards of that first meetinghouse, and leaning on the power of love, committed themselves to walking together as a community of faith into an uncertain future.

It wasn’t long after our church was founded and the first building went up, that the new congregation began to experience growing pains.  
As the town grew, the congregation grew, and in the early 1770’s our forbearers made the bold decision to move out of their beloved meeting house and take on the massive project of building this new, larger meeting house at a new location on the town green.

In its first 40 years, the Amherst Congregationalists demonstrated a steadfast and unshakable spirit in the midst of change.
Given this, the Rev. Daniel Wilkins, who had served the church since its founding, felt that once the congregation had settled into this new space they were ready to take on an even bigger challenge.
In the early 1780’s, he suggested they try a new hymnal.

Those of you who’ve heard this story before know where this is going.

When many in the congregation objected to the contemporary 18th century tunes and language found in the new hymnal, Rev. Wilkins compromised, introducing only one new hymn each week at the end of the service.
It didn’t take long for those who favored the traditional hymns to catch on to this, and soon most of the choir and half the congregation was getting up and walking out before the last hymn was sung.
One church historian recorded,  “The opposers retired from the house rather than hear the words of the devil.”

This continued Sunday after Sunday.
Rev. Wilkins insisted those protesting did not know what they were opposing because they never stayed long enough to actually hear the new hymns.
So he decided to try an experiment.  
One Sunday, he arranged for a pulpit exchange. 
He went to preach at another church, and another minister came to preach here. 
The visiting minister used unfamiliar hymns during the service, as guest preachers sometimes do, and the congregation unquestioningly sang along.  Just before the last hymn, many stood up and exited the sanctuary as usual anticipating a switch to the dreaded contemporary hymnal.
Only afterward did they find out they had been singing from the new hymnal for the entire service.
According to one historian, “After that, their opposition became so ludicrous they were content to say no more about it.”

The challenges that our congregation has faced over the years – big and small – are not unique, as we see when read the first letter of John.
The letters we have preserved in our New Testament offer us a voyeuristic peek into the burgeoning Christian community that existed in the late first century.

Some 60 to 80 years after Jesus had died, the new Christian communities had been around long enough to have a history of their own.
And the church as many had known it was changing.
The founding members had either died or no longer had the energy or enthusiasm they once had.
Long-time members and leaders were leaving – moving on to other churches or founding their own.
New members were coming in who were unfamiliar with the way things were done, bringing new ideas and new expectations that others found challenging and discomforting.

This was a time of transition for the followers of the Way of Jesus -
this once formless and free flowing movement had now existed long enough to set down roots, establish traditions of its own, and become resistant to change – because change upended the feelings of security and comfort that came with what was familiar and predictable.

The writer of the first letter of John, saw this time of transition as an opportunity to remind the community of the reason why they had gathered in the first place:
Love, Love, Love.

“No one has ever seen God;” writes John.
“But if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in God and God abides in us, because God’s Spirit has been given to us.”

We are rooted in God’s love, and God’s love is rooted in us.
It is the unconditional and always present love of God that guides us, sustains us, and grounds us – and births the love we offer to one another.

In the midst of turmoil and unrest – Love guides us.
In the midst of loss and grieving – Love sustains us.
In the midst of change and uncertainty – Love grounds us.

The first part of our current congregation’s Mission Statement says that as a church we are "Grounded in God’s Love."
In all that we do.
In our worship, our music, our fellowship, our attention to spiritual formation and education, our stewardship, our extravagant welcome of all, our service to neighbors near and far.

But it’s important that we also remember that we are Grounded in God’s Love in the midst of the challenges that we face as a community committed to following Jesus – in the midst of shifting membership, budget shortfalls, the demands of an aging building, new structures of leadership, pastoral transitions, and the polarizing cultural climate that we live in today.

As we learn from First John, and the history of our own congregation, we are not the only community of Christ to face challenges.
Some of the manifestations of those challenges may be unique to our time –
neither John’s community nor Rev. Wilkins had to contend with Sunday morning soccer games or Fake News on Facebook –
but the nature of the challenges remains the same –
The challenge of staying Grounded in God’s love amidst the distractions and fears that capture our attention and our hearts.

Being grounded doesn’t mean that we are ummoving or unchanging.
Quite the opposite.
Being grounded in God’s love and our love for one another means that we are intentionally creating a community that encourages and seeks out growth - 
as we look for new ways to experience and express God’s love as individuals and as a community. 

Growth can be exciting and liberating and surprising,
but it also can be painful and messy and at times terrifying.

Novelist Gail Godwin believes we often have no idea what we’re asking for when we ask God to help us to grow. She writes:
“How glibly and thoughtlessly that phrase “God, make us grow” slides off our tongues. As if growth were always a happy matter: Leaves unfurling, blossoms opening, hearts and minds joyously stretching towards more light. Whereas, when we ask for growth we’re asking for a mess. Exploding tempers, privately nursed little Petri dishes of resentments, insecure stumblings into dangerous new places.”

As a community of Christ, God is always beckoning us into dangerous new places.
Places that have us questioning long held assumptions, beliefs, and fears.
As we ask ourselves who is worthy of God’s love – and God responds: everyone is worthy.
As we ask God, who worthy of our love – and God responds: everyone is worthy.
As we continually refuse to believe this to be true and instead seek to rank one another on a scale of worthiness – based on power, wealth, gender, race, religion, ideology, and our own understanding of what constitutes moral or righteous behavior – we stumble and shrink back –
when God urges us to move forward and grow.

A few months ago, a friend of mine posted a picture of the door-frame in her kitchen.
On it she had marked the height measurements of her 5-year old son. 
Looking at the multiple lines and dates you could see that her little boy had grown 4 inches in the last 6 months.
Below the photo, my friend had commented,
“For any and all who been dealing with my moody and crabby 5 year old: I’m sorry. I hope this visual explanation helps."

It’s been so long since many of us have experienced literal growing pains,
That we sometimes forget that growth often hurts.

Our toes get pinched when our shoes no longer fit.
And our hearts get pinched when our assumptions, expectations, beliefs, and fears no longer fit.

The Good News is despite our flaws, and our resistance to change, God has gifted us with the capacity for tremendous growth…
And gifted us with capacity to give and receive tremendous love.

At Bruce Fraser’s memorial service on Friday, one of his granddaughters described her grandfather’s love as being “perpetual and unwavering.”
What a wonderful gift it is to feel such a love.
And what a wonderful gift it is to offer it.

But authentic love such as this often involves risks.
Especially when we seek to express it as a community.

When I run my fingers along the stone that marks the spot of our congregation’s first meetinghouse, I feel connected to all those who took a profound risk – out of love – in our past.

Those who built the timber frame of that first meetinghouse and called their first pastor years before they even had a roof on the place.
Those who saw the potential for growth and left 'what came before' behind to build a new sanctuary on the green.
Those who adapted to the changing times and the separation of church and state by hauling the church off the green and setting it down on this spot.

Those of you here – and those who have since moved on - who invested money and time and took on great debt to build classrooms and meeting spaces to accommodate the needs of an overflowing church school, and a future that was not yet known.

Those who chose to stay, or leave and return – after conflicts divided the church and it seemed as if we had forgotten how to love each other as a community of Christ.

And more recently, those of you who wrestled with long held beliefs and discomfort and participated in many years of difficult conversations - and yet still voted “yes” to become an Open and Affirming congregation –
and explicitly welcome those who are explicitly not welcome in most Christian churches.
People like myself - 
who had otherwise given up on finding a faith community that embodied the perpetual and unwavering love of God.


“If we love one another, God lives in us,
and God’s love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in God and God abides in us,
because God’s Spirit has been given to us.”

As a congregation – in this place and time –
we ARE Grounded in God’s Love.
Whatever the future may hold.
Whatever challenges may come.
Whatever changes we embrace or have thrust upon us.

As long as we have love,
We will endure, and grow, and thrive…
Together.

Thanks be to God, and Amen. 


Artist's conception of the pre-1835 Amherst meetinghouse before 
it was moved off the village green and remodeled. Drawing by Philip S. Avery.






Sunday, April 8, 2018

Sermon: "True or False?"



The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
April 8, 2018 – First Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31

“True or False?”

In 1849, an Englishman named Samuel Rowbotham published a 16-page pamphlet titled: “Earth: Not a Globe.” 
In it Rowbotham proposed that the Earth is not a round sphere, but rather a flat disc, with the North Pole at the center, and encircled at its outer edge by a wall of ice, otherwise known as Antarctica.

Rowbotham was not a scientist, he was a writer and an inventor.
He based his proposal on a series of observations he recorded while attempting to measure the curvature of the earth along the Old Bedford River in Cambridgeshire, England.
The river is actually a canal that runs for six miles in a near straight line on relatively flat terrain, making it an ideal place to observe how an object moving downstream disappears over the horizon the further it moves away.
The problem was, Rowbotham did not observe this to be true.

He waded into the canal, leveled a telescope about 8 inches above the surface of the water, and sent a small boat with a flag on its mast downstream.
He expected that it would reach a point where it would descend out of sight as the earth curved away from him. But it did not.
The boat remained at the same measurable height the entire length of its journey and was still fully visible through the telescope at 6 miles away.

Rowbotham repeated his experiment multiple times over the course of a decade, and in 1865, fully convinced that he had proved that the earth was in fact flat, he published his findings in a 430-page book that bore the same name as his earlier pamphlet, “Earth: Not a Globe.”

Others in the general public were intrigued by his book, and devised their own experiments that repeated Rowbotham’s findings, and they too became true believers in the flat-earth movement.  

It didn’t take long for those with more than a basic understanding of physics to point out that Rowbotham’s observations did not take into account atmospheric refraction.
In non-scientific terms, this simply means that light bends when it moves through the earth’s atmosphere, and depending on the air temperature and how close you are to the ground when you’re observing an object at a distance, the object may appear to be level with you or even raised up, even when it is in fact lower than you are.
It’s an optical illusion.
It’s the same effect that makes the pavement appear to shimmer when we look down the road on a hot day.

Rowbatham and most of his followers were not convinced by the scientific explanation offered to them, choosing to trust their own eyes over the so- called facts presented by those who claimed to hold the truth.

Rowbotham responded to his detractors with another pamphlet titled,
The inconsistency of Modern Astronomy and its Opposition to the Scriptures, in which he wrote, "The Bible, alongside our senses, supports the idea that the earth is flat and immovable and this essential truth should not be set aside for a system based solely on human conjecture."

We may laugh at these antiquated beliefs and dismiss them as the product of an age where scientific knowledge and access to information was not as vast as it is now.
But that doesn’t explain why an organization known as the “Flat Earth Society” still exists today.
And its membership is currently growing, thanks to the internet, and the ability it gives us to access and embrace alternative truths –
or alternative realities as some would call it. 

According to a recent poll, only 66% of millenials believe that the earth is a sphere. The remaining 34% are skeptical about whether this is true, are uncertain about what they believe, or fully believe that the earth is in fact flat. 

Then we have Mike Hughes, a 61-year-old daredevil from California who just two weeks ago launched himself 1800 feet into the air in a home-made rocket.
Hughes’ goal is to eventually soar 52 miles above the earth’s surface to prove that the earth is flat, and in doing so also prove that NASA astronauts, like Neil Armstrong and John Glenn, were paid actors, and the moon landing was actually staged as part of an elaborate plot to deceive the world. 

 

Given all of this questioning of a truth that most would say is undeniable and irrefutable, perhaps we should give poor old Doubting Thomas a break,
and not wag our finger at him because he was a little skeptical when he was told that a man he knew and loved, and whom he had seen die right before his eyes, had in fact been raised from the dead.

The reality is that none of the disciples came to believe on faith alone.
All of them questioned and doubted.
They sat huddled in a locked room, convinced that Jesus was dead and buried, despite having been told by Mary Magdalene just that morning that she had seen the risen Christ outside the tomb…
and despite having looked into the empty tomb themselves.
If they had truly believed that Jesus had risen, they would have been out shouting it in the streets rather than hiding behind a locked door in fear for their lives.

As we mentioned in the intro to this morning’s scripture reading, the risen Christ appeared four times in the Gospel of John.
When we read chapter 20 of John’s gospel in its entirety we may notice that John is weaving a thread through Jesus’ resurrection story.
A thread that connects each appearance to the others with a string of human beings questioning and misunderstanding and not seeing what is right before them. 

Peter and another disciple look into the empty tomb and then go home,
because they don’t understand what they have seen.
Mary looks right at Jesus as says, “Where have you taken my master, my friend?” because she thinks she is talking to the gardener.
A week after Jesus appears to the disciples in the locked room, we find them still in that room, with the door shut – because they still can’t comprehend what they have seen – and it’s not compelling enough to force them into the streets.
And later still, after Thomas has touched Jesus’ wounds and the other ten have even further proof that Jesus is alive –
He appears to them once again, on the beach while they’re out casting their nets, and we’re told they looked at him standing on the shore and even carried on a conversation with him, and still did not know who he was.

So I suggest we ease up on poor Thomas.
He wasn’t the only one to question what was true and what was false.

The Resurrection is not something we’re meant to easily comprehend.  
It doesn’t make sense to us…
That someone who is dead can suddenly come back to life.
And all the comparisons to spring flowers, and butterflies, and death providing nourishment for new life to grow – these analogies only go so far before they begin to break down.
We know Jesus is not a flower, or a butterfly, or an autumn leaf returning to the earth.

And while many of us believe in our heart of hearts that "with God all things are possible" – even raising someone up from the dead,
there aren’t too many of us who live our lives believing this 100% of the time.

Which is why we hedge our bets.
While we may believe God is ultimately in control –
and that God will provide – and with God all things are possible…
We still know and accept our limitations as human beings.
We put on seatbelts to protect us from harm, 
and take medications to ease our pain and cure our ills, 
and stash money away for a rain day.

Because we can’t know the future.
Because we know what it means to suffer – due to hunger, sickness, poverty, or injustice.
Because we know that when our loved ones die they’re not coming back to us, at least not in this life, in this form.  

So when we speak about the resurrection – What is it that we’re hoping for?

What changes for us when we believe that God really did raise Jesus from the dead?
 
Perhaps the more relevant question for some of us is:
What changes for us when we realize that the disciples who were there, who witnessed the risen Christ multiple times, also struggled to believe?

If I had a dollar for every time someone came to me as a pastor – or to Pastor Dick, or to all the other pastors who’ve served this church over its many years and said,
“I don’t know if I belong in church because I have doubts…”

If I had a dollar for every time this has been said, well, suffice it to say, we’d have enough money to fix our sprinkler system and fund our ministries for years to come.

From little children who make us laugh when they hear the resurrection story and ask, “How’d he do that?”
To 8th graders who question whether they should be confirmed because they still don’t understand the Trinity… (spoiler alert: nobody does),
To teens who ask me if they can participate in youth group even if they’re not sure if they believe in God,
To full-grown adults who’ve rejected the faith they were brought up in and aren’t quite sure whether they’re still a Christian but know that they’re something to this way of Jesus that resonates with them…
because it’s the religion OF Jesus that moves them,
and not necessarily the religion ABOUT Jesus.

Unlike some pastors, I love the Sunday after Easter.
I love the story of Doubting Thomas.
Because this is the Sunday that we get to tell everyone that it’s okay to doubt.
It’s okay to ask questions.
It’s okay to read the Bible and say, “This part inspires me, this part comforts me, but this part over here, I don’t even know why that’s even in there.”
It’s okay to wonder about the things we’re asked to believe about Jesus – like the virgin birth, or walking on water, or even being raised from the dead.

It’s okay to wonder where God is when we’re feeling like the universe is conspiring to pull the rug out from underneath us,
and we’re struggling to see the good in others or find hope in the world.

God can handle our doubt.                         
God is so much bigger and more giving and forgiving than we often imagine.

Four times, in the Gospel of John, the risen Christ appears before those who knew and loved him.
And each time, before he was recognized,
his appearance caused doubt and confusion.
But still, he kept coming back.
He came back, even after the horrendous events of Good Friday,
when his friends betrayed him, denied him, and deserted him.
He came back to them - not with anger or judgment - and said,
“Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I send you.”

So tell me again, why we think God expects any more from us?
Why we expect to believe without seeing, and have faith without doubt?

Jesus returns to us again and again.
To remind us that we’re not walking in this world alone.

And ultimately, whether we believe the earth we walk upon is spherical or flat, this is the one truth we can count on.

Christ is alive and moving in our world.
Christ has risen, indeed,
Hallelujah and Amen!











Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Sermon: "A Stone's Throw"




The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
Easter Sunrise Service – April 1, 2018
Mark 16:1-8

“A Stone’s Throw”

As each of you arrived here this morning, you were given a stone with a single word written upon it – HOPE.

It’s not a large stone, but as you hold it, I invite you to feel the weight of it in your hand.
Now flip it over in your palm or between your fingers so the blank side is visible - and imagine that it’s just an ordinary unmarked stone.

Now imagine carrying this stone with you – in your hand – wherever you go.

You might imagine that even though it feels light in your hand right now, if you never put it down and had to carry it everywhere, it’s heaviness would surely increase over time.

Back in the early 1980’s, I participated in a charity walk-a-thon with my younger brother, Larry.
We decided it would be cool to carry a portable radio so we could listen to music along the way (yes, I am dating myself here).
It was a small boombox and only weighed about 3 pounds, so we thought we could easily carry it the entire 15 miles of the walk.
At mile one we were happily bouncing along to REO Speedwagon and Supertramp.
By mile five our arms had gotten so tired we were trading the radio back and forth every few minutes, saying “You carry it” “No, You carry it.”
By mile eight we were on the phone to our mother begging her to pick us up because we were so exhausted from carrying that 3 lb radio. 
(and yes, we had to find a pay phone to make that call)

So you might imagine, how even this small stone would seem to grow heavy if you had to carry it wherever you went.

Not only that, its sheer presence in your hand would make it difficult to go about your daily routine.
If you think about all the things you do with your hands during the day – brushing your teeth, eating multiple meals, folding laundry, driving a car, working on your computer, washing your face – and then think about how you might accomplish all those tasks while trying to also hold onto this stone – you would soon see how even a small stone can become a burden if we’re forced to carry it with us – everywhere.

Now imagine this stone is an actual burden that you’re carrying.
A worry - or regret - or fear.
Perhaps an unhappiness or issue that you’re dealing with at work or school.
A decision that you’re reluctant to make.
A broken relationship that you don’t know how to fix.
Perhaps it’s a mistake you made years ago that follows you and keeps you anchored in the past.
Or a hopelessness about the current state of the world that has you immobilized in the present.
Or a deep concern about money or security that has you anxious as you look ahead to an uncertain future.

It may not require a huge leap of your imagination to see this physical stone that you hold in your hand as the manifestation of a very real burden that you’re carrying.

And while you may be tempted at this point to just throw the stone away,
as a symbolic ‘letting go’ of whatever it is that is weighing you down,  
I ask you to resist that urge.
(especially since you’re all facing me I don’t necessarily want to get hit by all those stones)

Instead, keep holding that stone, and step with me just for a moment into the story we just heard from Mark’s gospel…

Where Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and a woman named Salome – are walking into a graveyard at daybreak on a Sunday morning.
They’re headed towards the stone tomb that held the lifeless body of their teacher and friend, Jesus.
The body was put in the tomb after being removed from the cross late in the day on Friday – and a large stone would have been rolled across the entrance of the tomb to protect the body until it could be anointed with oils and properly prepared for burial.
There was no time to do this on Friday, before the Jewish observance of Sabbath began at sunset, so the women came on Sunday,
after the Sabbath was over, carrying their special oils and perfumes –
and as they walk towards the graveyard we hear them wonder aloud to one another –
“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

The stone would have been much too large and heavy for the three women to move on their own, and they were likely hoping that some of Jesus’ other followers might be there to help.

So when they arrived at the tomb and saw that the stone had already been rolled away, their initial reaction was probably one of relief –
“Oh, thank God, someone knew we were coming and got here early to make sure the stone was moved for us.”

But this relief quickly changed to confusion, and uncertainty, and even fear – when they looked in the tomb and saw that Jesus’ body was not there.

Instead, they saw a mysterious young man, who told them,
“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised up; he is not here….
Now go, tell the others that Jesus has gone ahead of you to Galilee;
there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Now, our other gospel writers – Matthew, Luke and John –
have their own versions of this resurrection story –
where Jesus physically appears to the women at the tomb.
But Mark chooses to end his gospel here,
with the women fleeing in amazement and fear,
carrying only the HOPE of seeing Jesus in Galilee –
letting the joyous mystery of the empty tomb speak for itself.

If you read the Gospel of Mark you will find additional verses that talk about sightings of the resurrected Jesus, but must biblical scholars agree these verses were added on many years later by some future editor,
Perhaps because the story seemed unfinished or unsatisfying with its original ending – as it left us staring into an empty tomb with only HOPE to hold onto.

But as I sat in our sanctuary on Palm Sunday and again on Maundy Thursday and listened to the story of Jesus’ last night with his disciples in the garden – where we’re told “he withdrew about a stone’s throw away” from them to pray, I was reminded of the hope that rested on that mysteriously moving stone in Mark’s gospel.
Whether Jesus is praying in the garden - while we, his disciples, struggle to stay awake - or arising from the tomb pushing aside the heavy stone that stands in his way, he is never far from us.

The invitation that Mark leaves us with still stands.
“Jesus has gone ahead of you, and is waiting for you to join him.”

Now I invite you to flip over that stone in your hand,
and run your finger along the engraving –
literally feel the hope that has been impressed into it.

I encourage you to take this stone with you -  
not as a reminder of the burden that you carry – whatever that may be,
but as a reminder of the hope that you have been given –
in the life and eternal presence of Jesus –
in the unconditional love and grace of God –
in the power that LOVE has to release all burdens, and conquer all fear.

Regardless of what you do or do not believe about how the tomb came to be empty, or how the stone was mysteriously rolled away, know this…

The GOOD NEWS is that Jesus is alive and moving in the world.
And he is beckoning for us to join him. 
Carrying HOPE wherever we go.

      Thanks be to God, and Amen