Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sermon: "Jesus: The Early Years"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church Of Amherst
December 30, 2012
Luke 2:41-52

“Jesus: The Early Years”

It’s every parent’s nightmare.
You and your family have traveled a long distance to a far away and bustling metropolis, and being small town people in a big, big city you’ve spent the entire trip with your eyes locked on each other and never straying more than an arms distance away. On the busy city streets and when exiting crowded theaters and shopping areas you clutch your children’s hands tightly, weaving your way through the crowds single file or in a huddled group, making sure no one gets pulled away by the constantly changing current of strangers moving all around you.

And then it happens…. you let your guard down, just for a second, or someone lets their hand slip or has their attention diverted by some curiosity or attraction….and suddenly one of you is gone.

In that worst case scenario that every parent experiences at some point in their life - in shopping malls, grocery stores, and amusement parks – you experience that gut wrenching feeling of dread in the moment that you realize that your child is no longer in sight.

You begin a frantic search of your immediate surroundings, hoping to find him or her hiding behind a clothing rack or wandering down the candy aisle or standing amongst other children crowded around a man selling balloons.

But as your search area widens and still your child is no where to be seen your mind begins to assume the worst – playing out scenarios of a possible child abduction, or at best picturing your crying child wandering around frightened and hopelessly lost, as you spend many heart wrenching minutes or hours searching for them and anticipating their return to your waiting arms.

It’s amazing how quickly the panic sets in, in that moment that you realize that your child is gone.
It’s amazing how strongly your heart can leap in your chest when you look at the spot where they last were and it registers that they’re no longer there.
Even if the very next second you catch sight of them standing only a few feet away or just behind you, you can’t help but let out a sigh of relief because thankfully, the loss you felt in that moment was only temporary.

Even if we’ve never experienced that moment as a parent, many of us may vividly remember a time when we were lost or strayed too far from our parents as a child.

That’s the moment that Luke captures for us in his gospel story this morning.
That feeling of dread, that breathless moment of experienced loss and fear that catches in our throat, and is ultimately followed by a sense of overwhelming relief when the one who was lost is found.

This scenario played out a little differently for Mary and Joseph.
According to Luke’s gospel, they were on their way home after the Passover celebration and had traveled a full day away from Jerusalem before they realized that the 12-year-old Jesus was no longer with them.

Now if you were traveling with say 28 teenagers in three passenger vans, it’s understandable how you might miscount and mistakenly leave one behind. Just ask our youth group advisors about our trip to New Orleans.

But Mary and Joseph had only one child, or possibly 3 or 4 if we accept that Jesus had brothers and sisters, which is still a reasonable number to keep track of, and yet it was a full day before Mary and Joseph noticed that their adolescent son was missing.

Which is actually not that unusual given the context. They were traveling in a large group of family and friends, most likely with the woman walking separately from the men. Mary probably assumed that Joseph had Jesus, and Joseph probably assumed that he was with Mary.
It was only when they came together at some point and sought him out amongst their family and friends that they realized that no one had seen him since they left Jerusalem.

We can imagine what that walk back to Jerusalem must have been like for these frantic parents.
It was a full day’s walk, and they may have done it all on their own, unless their family and friends chose to backtrack with them. 
And as much as we like to revere the holy family as being saint like and beyond reproach, there was undoubtedly some anger and blame being tossed around on that long walk back, as with each passing hour mother and father alike grew even more worried and fearful of what could happen to a 12-year-old boy left to fend for himself in a big city like Jerusalem.

Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus with great anxiety, for three days, before they finally found him.
And they found him in the safest place that he could be. Sitting in the Temple amongst the rabbis and teachers, listening to them speak and asking them questions, as any 12-year-old boy preparing for his Bar Mitzvah might do. 

When Mary caught sight of her son she didn’t glide up to him with her halo aglow and bless him for taking his first steps towards fulfilling his destiny as Emmanuel – God with Us.
Instead she did what any mother would do after searching for her lost son for three days - She yelled at him.
Especially after she found him safe and sound and seemingly oblivious to all the trouble and worry that he had caused.

“How could you worry us like this?” She said. “Your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety…how could you treat us with such disrespect?”
Jesus responded of course with wisdom beyond his years….or with sarcasm, depending on how you read it.
“Why were you searching for me?” he said, “Did you not know that I would be in my father’s house?”

In other words, why didn’t his parents just assume that he would be in the Temple – in God’s house?
Had they forgotten that their son was destined for greatness?
Did they forget about the angels who announced his birth and appeared above the manger in Bethlehem singing Glory to God in the Highest?
Did they forget that God was Jesus’ father, not Joseph?

Well, apparently they did.

If we step outside the story for a moment and look at it in the context of Luke’s gospel, we realize that Mary and Joseph are not behaving like parents who know that their son is THE Son of God.
Some scholars wonder if Luke stumbled across this story of Jesus as a 12-year-old and chose to include it in his Gospel as a transitional story, as a link between Jesus’ birth and adulthood, without giving thought to the fact that it seems to clash with the nativity story, which presents Mary and Joseph as being fully aware of the Divine nature of their son.

Here Mary and Joseph behave not like the parents of God incarnate, but instead like any parent with a lost child might behave.
They fear for his safety, they have no idea where he could have gone, they don’t trust that he has the power and the ability to look after himself.

But even if Mary and Joseph remember the fanfare that surrounded their son’s birth, perhaps they have seen no hint of his being different or special since that day.
Maybe Jesus grew up as any child did, with skinned knees and a fear of monsters under the bed.
Maybe he didn’t ace every test in school or change his lunch time water into wine - or chocolate milk - as might be expected given his adulthood powers.

Maybe he was just like every other little boy, albeit with a more curious disposition and a keener interest in scripture than other boys his age.
The truth is we don’t know what Jesus was like as a child.
Although it may interest you to know that we do have some ancient stories in our Christian tradition that speculate at just that.
We have four gospels in our New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – but as some of you may know there are other gospels that were written about Jesus that didn’t make it into our Bible, for various reasons. Some were written too long after Jesus death to be considered accurate, others contained theological inaccuracies as decided by the 4th century Council of bishops who assembled our Bible, and others were thought to be too fantastical or too speculative.
One such gospel is The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which dates to the second century, and includes stories of Jesus as a young boy.

The gospel writer here wondered how the miraculous powers that Jesus possessed might be expressed in the hands of an immature 5-year-old child.

If any of you have ever seen the Twilight Zone Episode where a young boy discovers that he has special powers to heal or harm at will but he does not yet have the judgment to control those powers, then you know where this is going.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas portrays Jesus as a precocious five-year-old who gets into all sorts of mischief.
He creates toy sparrows out of clay and brings them to life so he can watch them fly away….on the Sabbath, much to the chagrin of the Temple elders.

In school, he refuses to recite the alphabet when asked to do so by his teachers.
He tells them that they lack a true understanding of the meaning of the alpha and the omega as it pertains to God, and he calls them hypocrites and fools.
I wonder how many hours of detention he got for that.

And in one tragic yet humorous episode, Jesus and another young boy are playing on a rooftop when the other boy falls to his death.
The boy’s parents accuse Jesus of pushing the boy off the roof, as Jesus had been known to strike his playmates down in anger over the slightest transgression. But here Jesus professes his innocence and then proceeds to bring the other boy back to life so the boy can tell his parents himself that Jesus did not cause his death.
Maybe now we understand why the Council of bishops chose not to include this gospel in the Christian canon.

Given that we have only one wildly speculative account of Jesus childhood in this later gospel, and only one biblical portrayal of Jesus as a 12-year-old in the gospel Luke, we could say that Jesus just didn’t do much as a child to draw attention to himself.
It was his ministry as an adult that made him stand out and caused people to take notice…and in those three short years, he changed the world.

What this story in Luke’s gospel tells us about Jesus, is that while he may have been born into greatness, under the blessing of a heavenly angel, he didn’t assume that greatness right away.
He grew into it.
Luke ends his story of the 12-year-old boy Messiah by saying, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

As Jesus grew older, he grew wiser and he grew in his understanding of God and his understanding of his fellow man.
And he took baby steps, and child steps, and adolescent steps to get there, just as we all do.
Even the Son of God had to sit at the feet of his teachers and his parents and his peers to learn what it means to be a good person and a Godly person in this world.

And even the Son of God can worry his parents when he wanders too far from their loving reach.

One of our greatest fears when we lose sight of our children is not just that they will come to some harm, but we fear that we’ve seriously failed them as a parent.
We failed to protect them from harm. We failed to keep them under our constant watch and care. We let them wander off and allowed them to find trouble or allowed trouble to find them.

Mary and Joseph discovered that right around the age of twelve, their son was destined to wander off and take his first steps towards finding his own way in the world. He was beginning to assert his own identity and name who it is that God had called him to be…and their role as his parents was to give him enough space to allow him to do just that.
As much as they wanted to clutch him tightly and never let him out of their sight, he was as much a child of God’s as he was a child of theirs, and there would come a day when they would need to let him go, and give him space to grow.

Now, we all aren’t born into this world like Jesus was, beneath a chorus of heavenly angels, but God has chosen, named, and called each and every one of us to be a blessed child of God.
We may not project the image of Godliness that Jesus did in his lifetime or walk perfectly in his footsteps, but we’re called to devote our lives to walking in the way of God as best as we can.

And that can be a scary thing to do…which is why throughout our lives we assume the roles of both parent and child.
Sometimes clinging to the parts of ourselves that we can’t bear to let go of or let out of our sight, and sometimes wandering off down unfamiliar streets all on our own, trusting that God as our father and mother will come find us if we wander too far astray.

Like Jesus, we’re all searching for greater wisdom, of God and each other, and we’ll find that God’s house and the community we find there are the bearers of that wisdom.

And like Mary and Joseph, we’re all searching for Jesus, and we’ll find him right here too, in God’s house, in God’s community, and in the lost and found pieces of our own gentle hearts.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sermon: "This Little Light of Mine"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 16, 2012

John 1:1-18; Isaiah 12:2-6; Phil 4:4-7

“This Little Light of Mine”

In the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota there’s a natural attraction known as Jewel Cave, which contains 160 miles of underground caverns.
For the benefit of the many tourists that flock there every year, there are guided tours that carefully navigate the forty flights of stairs that descend deep within the cave.  
There are lights that hang on the walls of the cave to ensure that no one loses their footing on the way down, but at various times during the descent the tour stops and the lights are turned out, leaving the group in complete darkness. Not even a shadow or the outline of the person standing in front of you can be seen. This is done to demonstrate how dark it actually is inside an underground cavern, but it also serves as a reminder that without light, even a tiny pinpoint of light, our eyes will never adjust to the darkness.
We could be down in that cave for five minutes, five hours, or five years and never see our hand in front of our face.
But all it takes is the smallest amount of light to allow our eyes to adjust and to eventually be able to see once again.

The season of Advent marks the time that we spend waiting for the light to return to the world.
We await the visible light that comes with the Winter Solstice on December 21st, as the days begin to grow longer and the time we spend in darkness grows shorter.
And we await the spiritual light that we welcome into the world on Christmas day, the day we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

But while we celebrate this time of waiting for the light to return every year, in reality the light of Jesus is always with us. We may dim the lights during Advent, but the light is still there – in the light of the Advent candles, and in the light of God that we carry within us.
 So it may be hard for us to imagine what life would be like in the absence of that light.  To feel the disorienting fear of standing in an underground cave in absolute darkness, trying desperately to see our hand in front of our face.

I suspect that many of us came here this morning hoping to find some sliver of light to penetrate the darkness that has descended upon us over the last several days.
Many, if not all of us, are still reeling from the traumatic event that took place on Friday morning, when a 20-year-old man walked into an elementary school in Newtown Connecticut and murdered 26 people, including 20 children, all of whom were first graders, aged 6 and 7 years-old.

There is no part of this that makes any sense.
There is no motive or rational reason why anyone would commit such a violent and heart breaking crime.

But in the coming days as the media and the behavioral experts pull this young man’s life apart, looking for clues as to what may have caused such darkness to emerge from within him, and as we continue to hear the stories of the heroic acts of teachers and administrators and children who saved the lives of others by sacrificing their own, we’re still left with this numbing, and gnawing pain inside of us that screams out for an answer to the question, “Why?”

Why are 26 families faced with the horrific task of burying their children and their loved ones - at this joyous time of year or at any time of year?

Why would anyone come to believe that their pain, their anger, or their fear provides them with a justifiable reason to take the life of another, let alone the lives of 20 innocent children?

Why wasn’t more done beforehand to prevent this from happening, and why aren’t we doing more to prevent this from happening again?

We demand answers to these questions but we also know that these questions are not easily answered or cannot be answered at all.
In the same way that we scream out to God in times of pain and loss demanding to know why God allowed this to happen, we throw these anguished questions out into the air and watch them dissipate without receiving a satisfying response.

As human beings we know all to well what it is to grieve, to feel awash in waves of sadness, anger, frustration, and disbelief.

Whether we’re grieving the senseless murders of the children, teachers, and staff members in Newtown; or a personal loss caused by the death of a loved one; or the loss of life that our world suffers every day through the forces of violence, poverty, disease, and oppression,
we all have those times in our lives when we feel like we’re standing in a cave with all the lights turned out, and we’re desperate to find something, anything, that will help us find our way out of the darkness.

It may seem ironic that on this third Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of joy.
It may not sit right with us that the lectionary texts for this Sunday from Isaiah and Paul tell us to “Shout aloud and sing for joy” and “Rejoice in the Lord always” regardless of the sorrows that befall us.

It may leave a bad taste in our mouth in the same way that watching the evening news with its detailed stories of death and destruction leaves us questioning our faith in humanity and in God, and then we change the channel and some earnest television preacher tells us not to worry, that all will be well if we just smile in the face of hardship and hand our troubles over to the Lord.

This “let go and give it up to God” style of faith works for some but not for all.
In the midst of our pain we may feel pressured to prematurely search for reasons to be joyful because we believe it’s what God calls us to do.
But where can we find space for our pain and our suffering if not in the presence of God?

The prophet Isaiah tells us to “Shout aloud and sing for joy” but it may surprise us to know that when he spoke these words, he wasn’t speaking in a time when the Israelites were basking in the glow of the Promised Land.
In fact, he spoke the words in a time of national humiliation.
The people of Israel had been carried off into exile.
Their homeland was gone and their Temple — the visible sign of God’s presence and blessing — had been destroyed.
And it’s probably safe to say that when the Babylonians invaded Isaiah’s homeland, property was plundered, homes and businesses were burned to the ground, and many people were killed, including innocent children.    Yet in the midst of all this pain and suffering Isaiah was singing out with joy.

In a similar way, Paul urged the people of Philippi to set aside their worries and to rejoice in the Lord regardless of the trouble they found themselves in.
And like Isaiah, Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians in the midst of very trying circumstances.
Paul was arrested and imprisoned on four separate occasions during his missionary travels, serving a total of seven years in jail, the last of which ended with his execution. Paul wrote his hopeful letter to the Philippians while he was incarcerated.

We can just imagine him sitting on the cold dirt floor of a dark, underground prison cell, chained at the ankles, his back pressed against the rough stone walls, scratching out his words of encouragement on small scraps of papyrus, and using the slim shaft of sunlight that filtered through the bars of a window high above, as his only source of light, and his only source of warmth, at least for a few hours during the day.
But it was when the sunlight moved on, during the hours of dusk and darkness, that Paul turned to his true source of illumination and warmth - the love of God, and the light that God sent into the world in the form of Jesus Christ.

Both Paul and Isaiah experienced tremendous loss and grief in their lives, yet they both had the audacity to speak not only of rejoicing, but also of living in any circumstance with confident hope in a loving and gracious God - a God who is always present even in the midst of the pain, suffering, and tragedy that is part of our human experience.

Rejoicing over the fact that God is present with us in our pain does not mean we are to negate or push aside the very real and deep human emotions we feel in the face of grief, rather the joy we find in God’s presence is meant to be the sliver of light that penetrates our darkness.

It’s not about flicking a switch and moving from sadness into joy, from darkness into daylight. Instead its about finding hope in that sliver of light, finding comfort in its presence, and having faith that it will grow in brightness as our brokenness begins to heal and our pain begins to lessen.

There is no time limit on how long it should take us to begin to outwardly express joy after experiencing a loss, just as there is no right way to grieve.

One thing that we learn about each other in the wake of traumatic events is that we all process these events and our grief differently.
Some of us are prayers and prone to contemplation and we find comfort in coming together in reflective silence and prayer.
Others are doers and activists who find comfort in lifting up the root causes of a tragedy and proposing solutions to prevent it from happening again.
Some of us cry in sorrow. Some of us shout in anger. Some us just feel numb.
Most of us do and feel all three at some point.
Healing comes in finding a space for all the ways in which we grieve, and allowing others to do the same.

Regardless of how we grieve, we never walk through our pain alone.
John’s gospel tells us that God’s light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will NOT overcome it.
There is no circumstance we might find ourselves in, and there is nothing that can happen to us that will leave us standing completely in the dark.
Even in the darkest of tragedies there is always a pinpoint of light for us to focus on, just enough to allow our eyes to adjust to the dark and find our way out.

In the wake of the horrific shootings in Newtown, one of the most shared inspirational quotes on social media sites on Friday was not from the Bible or from a well-known spiritual leader.  It was a quote from children’s television host Mr. Rogers. In response to the question of how to explain traumatic events to children, Fred Rogers said the following:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world.

One of the less talked about byproducts of well-publicized violent crimes is that these crimes raise the level of fear in our already fearful society, and this can warp our perception of the world and cause us to feel like there is more evil around us than good.
We should not minimize these extreme acts of violence when they occur, but there is so much joy and good in this world that often gets overlooked.

On Friday, the actions of one person took 27 lives and sent thousands of others spiraling into overwhelming grief and sadness. But out of that sadness hundreds of police officers, EMS workers, grief counselors, pastors, teachers, and parents stepped forward to help. Hundreds of thousands more have come forward to show their support in solidarity and in prayer. 

Look for the helpers.
Perhaps that's where we find the Joy in this third week of Advent.
Not in the pain, but in the response to the pain.

The light of God flows through us and illuminates the dark corners of our world.

In two weeks time we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, the physical manifestation of God’s light who serves as a beacon and a model for us all.
Our voices will lift up in song, and joy will flow from our hearts,  as we welcome Emmanuel, God with us, who comes to us in the smallest and most vulnerable form possible - in the squealing cry of a newborn baby.

In the meantime, may we continue to find solace in the season of Advent.
As we cling to each other in the darkness, offering hugs and prayers to those who need them, continuing to work for justice, and lighting candles to bring joy, peace, hope, and love, into a world that is in need of them all.

God’s light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
Let us rejoice in the Lord, always.


 Art by Jeremy Collins - Little Red Guy Drawings
"Dear Parents At Sandy Hook"

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sermon: "I'm King of the World!"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst
November 25, 2012
John 18:33-37

“I’m King of the World!”

My Kingdom is not from this world.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the day where we ponder what it means for us to say to Jesus, “You are our King”, and what it meant for Jesus to say to us, “My Kingdom is not from this world.”

Christ the King Sunday is essentially New Years Eve on the Christian church calendar. This is the LAST Sunday in the liturgical year, as we move out of the season of Pentecost, the season that celebrates the ministry of Jesus, and begin the year anew with the season of Advent next Sunday.

For those of you who pay attention to such things, (other than the deacons whose job it is to change the paraments on the pulpit and lectern to match the color of the liturgical season) you may have noticed that typically we move from Pentecost green right to Advent blue, but today the color is white. This year is one of those rare years where we have an extra Sunday in between Thanksgiving and the first Sunday of Advent…because Thanksgiving fell so early this year. So, on this Sunday, we celebrate Christ the King.

The truth is, Christ the King Sunday is celebrated on the Christian calendar every year but typically it shares the date with Thanksgiving Sunday. But other than appearing at the top of the bulletin as “Thanksgiving/Christ the King Sunday”, it usually gets no further mention, as we instead spend our worship time focusing on gratitude and the spirit of Thanksgiving.
But this year is different.
This year we have a whole Sunday devoted to Christ the King.
Aren’t you glad you came?!

If we think about, it’s easy to understand why the Christ the King theme often plays second fiddle to the Thanksgiving theme.
The concept of Thanksgiving is something we all know and understand.
Gratitude and the need to name the blessings in our lives are virtues we want to lift up and celebrate.
And in the world outside these church walls, Thanksgiving is part of our collective culture. It’s the day where our nation as a whole hits the pause button and gathers together as family, friends, and neighbors to express thanks for all that we have.

Christ the King Sunday is none of these things.
It’s not celebrated in the secular world, it’s not a concept we can easily understand or explain, even to our fellow Christians, and for some, describing Jesus using “kingly” language – with all the baggage that such language has in regards to hierarchal power, paternal power, and abuse of power – doesn’t quite fit with our image of Jesus as a humble and suffering servant.

Taking about Jesus in terms of kingship and kingdoms can seem archaic and irrelevant to our modern sensibilities.
When we think of kings and kingdoms we may think of the Crusades, Disney fairytales, Renaissance fairs, or the celebrity of the modern-day British monarchy.
Historically, we inherited this language of Kingdom not just from the Hebrew Bible’s tradition of telling the stories of earthly kings, like David and Solomon, but also from the history of Kingdom that grew out of medieval England and influenced the King James version of our Bible.

I admit that when I think of kings and kingdoms I can’t help but think of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable bumble their way through medieval England in search of the cup of Christ.    But there is a scene in that movie that I believe perfectly captures our modern distaste for Kings and Kingdoms.

In this scene, King Arthur approaches a group of lowly peasants working in a field and gets embroiled in a heated discussion over whether the peasants live in an “autonomous collective” run by the people, or a “dictatorship that represses the masses.”
When King Arthur orders the peasants to stop arguing and be quiet, one woman laughs and says, “He’s ordering us? Who does he think he is?”  Arthur replies, “I am your King”, to which she responds, “Well, I didn’t vote for you!

The iconic image of Jesus wearing a crown and sitting on a throne ruling over his kingdom is derived from the limitations of our cultural experience and our language.
We may attempt to move beyond these limitations by interpreting Christ the King to mean that we accept Jesus as our savior and redeemer, and thus allow his teachings to rule and guide our lives – but truth be told, when we’re forced to make the choice between celebrating Thanksgiving Sunday and celebrating Christ the King Sunday, Thanksgiving usually wins out.

Perhaps this goes much deeper than our desire to move beyond archaic images.
I wonder if our discomfort with the image of Christ as ruler of our lives arises from the feeling of uncertainty we experience when we move from the world in here to the world out there.

As Christians we often stand hesitantly in two very different worlds.
One world where we’re told to love our neighbor, forgive our enemy, and care for the least among us.
And one world where we’re told to mistrust our neighbor, fear our enemy, and to care for only ourselves, our family, or our country, and leave everyone else to fend for themselves.

In one world we’re encouraged to live as a collective, to reach consensus, and to make sure every voice is heard and every need is met.
And in the other world we’re encouraged to live as individuals, to seek out what is best for us, and to silence or reprimand those who try to take power from us or who take more than their fair share.

It’s no wonder why many of us stagger in here on Sunday mornings, seeking respite and peace.
We have these conflicting messages playing in our heads all week long and we come here hoping to make some sense of it all.
But talking about Jesus as King, and ruler of our lives may NOT be something that we imagine will bring us peace, instead we may fear that it will cause even more conflict to arise within us.

Living as a Christian in the context of a Christian community is difficult, but at least we’re all trying to do it together, and we do our best to forgive each other when we fail.
But living as a Christian in the world outside of the church some would say is darn near impossible.
To say that Jesus and his teachings rule our lives is to invite constant conflict as we navigate in that world, because almost every word and action of consequence presents us with a point of decision, and conflicting choices.

Do we store up treasures on earth, by putting away money for retirement, or do we store up treasures in heaven by giving all that we have to the poor?
Do we stand up against evil and injustice, using violent force if necessary, or do we turn the other cheek and rely on non-violent protest to enact change in our world?
Do we punish those who do wrong and seek retribution, or do we leave the judging to God and offer forgiveness to those who trespass against us?

These are not easy choices to make, and as Christians very few of us agree on which are the correct choices. Some would say these choices as presented are overly simplistic and open to interpretation, and the real choice - the truth of God’s will - lies somewhere in between.

But we can’t deny that the constant wrestling that takes place within us when we’re confronted with these choices can be downright tiring.
Trying to rectify the pull of these two different worlds is like trying to straddle two trains that are moving in different directions. We can do it, but it takes a lot of hopping between the two to stay upright.

In our gospel reading today, we get a glimpse of the dueling worlds inhabited by Pontius Pilate.  
Pilate served and derived his power from the world of the Roman Empire, but as a ruler in the Roman province of Judea he also inhabited the world of the descendents of Abraham, who prayed to a God he didn’t recognize and followed a law that he couldn’t comprehend. 
The province of Judea sat at the edge of the Roman Empire, where uprisings could quickly gain momentum and spiral out of control, and Pilate had orders to keep the peace at all costs.  Which he did. Pilate had the blood of many on his hands, but he also understood that playing the part of politician in two worlds sometimes required him to bend to the will of others.
Thus, with one foot in each world, it worked in Pilate’s favor to appease the Jewish leaders and keep uprisings from occurring.  

So we can imagine what Pilate must have felt when he encountered Jesus, who was dragged before him in the middle of the night and threatened to upset the balancing act that Pilate had taken such great care to achieve.

Jesus was accused of claiming to be a king.
This was a claim that neither Rome nor Pilate would tolerate.
But it was also this claim that got Jesus on the Most Wanted list of the Jewish Sanhedrin.
They wanted him killed, but if Pilate did so it would surely upset Jesus’ followers and would threaten the peace during the busy Passover season in Jerusalem.  All eyes were upon Pilate, and the two worlds he inhabited were suddenly careening in two different directions.

All he had to do was to get Jesus to admit that he was not a king.
This would satisfy Pilate and his superiors, it would hopefully appease the Jewish leaders, and it would allow Pilate to release Jesus to his followers, thus keeping the peace for everyone involved.

It must have been obvious to Pilate that Jesus was NOT a king.
He had no wealth, he had no army, he had no land, and he had no power by anyone’s standards, except those of his low ranking followers.
Even the claim that Jesus was “King of the Jews” was suspect because the Jewish leaders themselves insisted that he was not.

With his life on the line, surely Jesus would admit that he was not a king, and this impromptu middle of the night trial would be over before it started.

But Pilot was falling victim to his limited vision in the same way that we do when we try to rectify our image of God’s world with the world we know out there.    
Pilate heard the word “King” and he pictured an earthly king, one who would steal power from him and threaten the world in which he existed.
But as Jesus told Pilate, and as Jesus tells us, his Kingdom is not from this world.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus promises us in the gospels is a world where all God’s children will share equally in the abundance of God’s creation.
A world where war, disease, injustice, poverty, and death will be no more.
A world where we will all gather at God’s table and eat freely of the bread of life.

In many ways Jesus’ Kingdom bears little resemblance to the world that we know.
Our world is broken and imperfect.
Our world is full of inequities and injustice.
Our world is full of pain and suffering and heartache.

But in some ways, this world offers us glimpses of the Kingdom to come.
Our world is full of beauty, new life, growth, and healing.
Our world is full of compassionate people working for equality and justice.
Our world is full of joy and hope and individual points of light shining together into the darkness.

This is the world that we know.
This is a world that contains both good and evil.
And as much as we try to tell ourselves that the world in here is different from the world out there, it’s not.
Crosses and steeples and Bibles in the pews don’t prevent that world from coming in here.
But they help us to imagine the ways in which our world could be different, and they inspire us to work together to be the change we want to see in our world.  

The Kingdom that Jesus promises us is an ideal.
It’s like one of those fairy tale kingdoms we read about as children and dream about being whisked away to as adults.

Some of us can’t help but look at Jesus’ world and look at our world and become discouraged because we feel like we’re never going to get there.
We can see by the dwindling attendance in many of our churches that some people have found the disparity between the world we talk about in here and the world that exists out there to be too much to handle.

Like Pontius Pilate, we often lack the vision to see beyond the limitations of our human experience.
We feel like we’re straddling two worlds because we’re trying to overlay the image of God’s Kingdom with the image of our human Kingdom, and as Jesus tells us, his Kingdom is not from this world.

The choices we wrestle with in this world will not exist in God’s world.
Should we keep a portion of our money for ourselves or give it to the poor?
In God’s world all will share equally in God’s abundance.
Imbalances of resources will not exist.
Should we use force or peaceful measures to counteract injustice?
In God’s world all will share equally in God’s abundance.
Imbalances of power will not exist.
Should we punish those who do wrong or leave it up to God?
In God’s world all will share equally in God’s abundance.
Imbalances of love and mercy will not exist.

The truth is that we cannot create the Kingdom of God here on earth,
only God has the power to do that.
But what we can do is latch onto those glimpses we have God’s Kingdom and do what we can move our world closer to God’s world.

And as we get ready to enter the season of Advent and anticipate the light of Christ entering into our lives all over again, let us celebrate this Sabbath day, this Christ the King Sunday, by celebrating Jesus’ ministry as an example we’re all meant to follow.
Jesus’ Kingdom is not from this world. But we are.
Let’s make the best of it while we’re here.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Sermon: "Faith, Hope, and Clarity"

Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst
October 28, 2012
Mark 10:46-52

“Faith, Hope, and Clarity”

Bartimaeus and I go way back.
This story of the blind man who regains his sight by simply having faith has followed me for most of my life.
His passion-filled cry of, “Teacher, let me see again” and Jesus’ immediate response, “Go, your faith has made you well” are forever woven into my faith journey because call it coincidence or call it divine intervention, God keeps dropping Bartimaeus in my lap.

As a child, I often had questions about the beliefs we adhere to as Christians, and I wondered how we could truly have faith in God when our knowledge and experience of God, and our ability to feel the presence of God, are so limited.
When I was 14-years-old I brought these questions to one of the nuns at the Catholic school I attended and she told me the story of Bartimaeus.
“Bartimaeus didn’t question Jesus’ ability to heal him,” she said.
He simply asked to be healed, and he was.
He believed it would be true, and his faith made him well.

As a skeptical teenager, I was not about to place all of my trust in miraculous healings or blind faith, especially when the faith I was told I should have didn’t leave room for doubt, didn’t leave room for diversity, and ultimately didn’t leave room for me.

I concluded that Bartimaeus was a relic from another time…and I dismissed him, his unquestioning faith, and organized religion as a whole, and threw it in a box labeled, “Things that are no longer relevant or meaningful in my life.”

But as I grew older, I discovered that God would not stay in that box.

Twelve years ago on a late October day very much like this one, I stepped into a UCC church for the very first time….because God would not stay in that box, and I was searching for a way to define, describe, and share in community the many ways in which God was emerging in my life.

On that October Sunday, the lectionary text was the same gospel reading that we heard this morning, the story of Bartimaeus.
“My Teacher, let me see again!” Bartimaeus cried, and Jesus said to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.”

I remember cringing as I heard these words yet again.
As a lapsed Catholic, I came to the United Church of Christ with the hope that it would be a different kind of church -
one that encouraged hands-on service and critical thinking, rather than belief in miraculous healings and blind unquestioning faith.
But there was Bartimaeus once again, running up to Jesus and regaining his sight without so much as a wave of the hand, simply because he believed.

But my fear that that I was treading on familiar ground was eased somewhat by the pastor’s sermon that morning.
He spoke of how the image of the blind being healed was often used in the bible as a metaphor for those who lack not sight, but insight.
The man may not have been literally blind, but rather he lacked the ability to understand the message of Jesus…the message that we are all loved by God, we are all saved by grace, and that through Jesus, God was calling us to do something truly amazing and radically new in this world.
When Bartimaeus encountered Jesus in the flesh, something deep inside of him recognized that Jesus was the one whom God had sent to heal not just him, but the entire world….and his eyes were opened.

As I pondered this, my eyes began to open as well, but only slightly.
I was drawn to the idea that God loves us all fully and equally and that we are called to do something new in this world, but I still did not understand what it meant to have faith …and I still could not fathom that one needed to believe IN Jesus, as the only true savior and son of God, in order to be accepted into God’s embrace.
The language of Christianity continued to act as a barrier for me, as did all that I had previously learned about what one needed to believe and do in order to be considered a true person of faith.

My eyes were opening but I was seeing only shadows, so I resumed my spiritual wandering and four more years passed before I found my way back into a Christian church again.
That second time I tried a different UCC church, thinking that perhaps not all UCC churches were the same, but inexplicably the text the preacher had chosen for that day was the story of Bartimaeus.  
I could not get away from this guy.

But this time, as Bartimaeus was calling up the road after Jesus saying,
“My teacher, let me see again!” I was right there with him.
I had done my wandering, and I was ready to come home.
In my wandering, I was drawn to a path that was God centered, justice seeking, and inclusive of all, and it led me right back to Jesus.
Right back to that first century Jewish itinerate preacher and teacher who challenged the people of his time to open their minds and their hearts to the life changing love that God offers to each and every one of us.

He challenged them, and us, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to forgive our enemies, to care for those who are the least among us.
He challenges us not just to have faith, but to live out our faith in the world.
Because if our faith in God is true, it can’t help but flow through us and back into the world in the form of compassionate love and action.

Bartimaeus had been chasing me for most of my life, and he’d finally caught up with me. Through him, and the UCC church that I found him in, I came to recognize what it means to have faith, and what it meant to be a follower of Christ.
So imagine my surprise when I sat down earlier this week and looked at the lectionary texts for today, knowing that this is the Sunday that I will be officially installed as the Associate Pastor of this wonderful church.  
On this Sunday that marks a milestone moment on my own journey, my old friend Bartimaeus is making himself known yet again.
Faith is a journey.
It grows over time and shifts and changes as we shift and change.
When Bartimaeus heard Jesus coming down the road, at that moment in time it all clicked into to place for him. His eyes were opened.
But we don’t know how long it took him to get there and we don’t know where he ended up after that.
He became a follower of Jesus but did he follow him to the end?
Was he one of the few who stayed with him as he hung on the cross?
Or was he long gone by then? …and can we fault him if he was?

Jesus own disciples had varying degrees of faith, despite having the living, breathing man right in front of them.
They were not certain that he was the one who would release them from the captivity of fear, scarcity, and oppression.
And they had trouble grasping the message that he carried of an all-loving and forgiving God who was calling them to change themselves and the world.
So much of what Jesus said and did contradicted what they had been taught, or come to believe by observing the way the world worked around them.
The meek shall inherit the earth?
The poor are blessed?
How much faith did it take to believe this to be true?

We can’t say the disciples were lacking in faith; they believed in God and they believed that Jesus was doing something different in their lives.
They believed enough to leave their families and livelihoods behind and follow him. They had faith, they just had trouble understanding what it meant to live as a people of faith.

And so do we.
Which is why we can’t agree on what it means to be a Christian in today’s world, and we argue over which form of Christianity, which ideology, and which political party, best reflects the teachings of Christ.

We seem driven to hold up a yardstick to measure our own faith and that of others, and judge who is deserving of God’s healing and who is not.
I do wonder how much of our uncertainty about faith and its true power traces back to this text about Bartimaeus.
Jesus said to him, “Your faith has made you well.”

Regardless of whether we believe Bartimaeus had his sight restored in a literal or figurative sense, the text tells us that Jesus pronounced him healed because he had faith.
Does this mean that we will also find healing, simply because we have faith?

A few years ago I attended a worship service where members of the congregation performed what is known as a Cardboard Testimonial.  One by one, each participant walked out on stage, holding a hand-written cardboard sign naming a struggle or affliction that once overwhelmed them  – “Diagnosed with Cancer at Age 40,” “Unemployed for 17 months,” “Addicted to Cocaine.”

As they reached the edge of the stage they flipped over their cardboard sign to reveal the healing they had received from God - “Cancer Free at age 45,” “New Job for Higher Pay,” “Total Life Transformation.”
The congregation applauded after each reveal and it was a very powerful ritual because it carried the message that healing is found in God’s presence regardless of how dire one’s circumstances seem. 

But what about those who haven’t been healed?
This is where Faith and Hope often become intertwined.
We may have faith that God will be there for us when we’ve hit rock bottom.
But we may not have faith that God’s presence in our life will result in what we would call a positive outcome – a physical healing, a transformation, a new beginning – We can hope for such an outcome but we can’t be sure that it will happen.

As powerful as those cardboard testimonials were, and as much as I stood and clapped as each person triumphantly revealed the healing that had entered their lives ….. I couldn’t help but think of those who have hope, who have faith, and yet DO NOT feel touched by God’s healing hand.

What about the man who has been out of work for more than 17 months and has not yet found a job – is his faith not strong enough for God to reward him with work?

What about the woman struggling with addictions who hasn’t yet garnered the strength to seek help – is her faith too small for God to notice that she is in need of a transformation?

What about the 40-year-old who is diagnosed with cancer and does not live to see her 45th birthday – was her faith too meager, too inadequate, for God’s healing Spirit to descend upon her?

Testimonials are wonderful. They help us to feel hopeful that if someone else has overcome a hardship that is similar to our own then maybe we can too.
But what if we can’t overcome it?

When our struggles seem to out number our joys, we may say that God has a plan that we can’t yet see, or that God doesn’t give us any more than we can handle…but let’s be honest, sometimes life does give us more than we can handle.
In this case faith is not found in hoping for miracles or in making sure that we live and act as faithful Christians so God will reward us with healing and prosperity.
Faith is found in the knowing that we have in the core of our being that God is with us no matter what.
God is with us in our pain, and in our suffering.
We may HOPE for a desired outcome but we must have FAITH that regardless of the outcome God is still with us.

Faith is not a journey towards God, because God is right there with us even when we’ve hit rock bottom and we feel as if God has abandoned us.
What faith does is open our eyes to the presence of God that is already there.

Bartimaeus was healed in the moment he sensed Jesus entering his space.
He called out from the spot on the side of that busy road where he had sat begging for who knows how many years.
He called out over the noise of the crowd and despite the efforts that others made to silence him he would not give up.
And Jesus, who always hears the cries of those on the margins, did not overlook him.
He saw the divine recognition on the man’s face and heard it in his voice and he pronounced him well.
By acknowledging God’s loving and merciful presence in his life the man had healed himself.
“Your eyes have been opened, your faith has made you well.”

This is not blind faith.
This is eyes-wide-open faith.
The kind of faith that recognizes that we live in a world full of brokenness. Where people lose their jobs, battle addictions, and die of diseases that have no cure.
But we also live in a world full of miraculous healing.
Where people reach out to another in their suffering and their pain and walk together, acting as conduits for God’s love, mercy, and grace.

I have a feeling that this is not the last time Bartimaeus will make an appearance in my life.
My hope is that he will continue to make an appearance in your life as well.
That you will see him in every person that you pass on the street, and that you will be the presence of God that they need to see.

And I hope that you will see him every time you’re seeking the presence of God in your own life, as you cry out “Teacher, let me see again.”
…and you too will hear Jesus say, “Go, your faith has made you well.”