Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sermon: "Let Your Heart Break Open"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
February 17, 2013
Luke 4:1-13

“Let Your Heart Break Open”

I can always tell when the season of Lent has begun.
That’s when McDonald’s starts running its Filet-O-Fish sandwich commercials during prime time TV.
In recent years, Wendy’s and Long John Silver’s have jumped on the Lenten bandwagon as they too increase their marketing of their fish sandwiches to coincide with Ash Wednesday, supposedly to reach all those observant Christians who are abstaining from eating meat on Fridays during Lent.
There’s no irony lost in the fact that we might choose to emulate Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the wilderness by eating a 500 calorie fried fish sandwich, rather than a 600 calorie hamburger.

Those of you who are life-long Protestants may not be aware that Catholics are required to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent.
But then again, most Catholics are not even aware that this requirement is still in place for the rest of the year as well.
When I was growing up as a practicing Catholic, we abstained from meat and ate fish every Friday, not just during Lent. Many people believe that this rule was changed with the reforms of Vatican II in the 1960’s, but actually the rule was amended to say that Catholics could choose to eat meat on Fridays if they perform some other act of penance to make up for it.
I’m not sure if ordering a small Diet Coke to go with your Big Mac counts as a form of penance.

But why is abstaining from meat during Lent, or any other time of the year, held up as a spiritual practice that Christians should follow to honor the sacrifice of Jesus?

We may joke that the Vatican owns stock in Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, but some conspiracy theorists would say that’s not far from the truth.

It sounds like the plot of a Dan Brown novel, but those of you who grew up Catholic may remember being told that the Friday meat ban began when a powerful medieval pope made a secret pact to benefit the fishing industry and alter the global economy. The result: Millions of Catholics around the world end up eating fish on Fridays as part of a religious observance.

This makes for a great story, but there’s no evidence that it is true.
The more likely reason for no-meat Fridays came about when the early church instituted the practice to honor the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on Good Friday.  Meat was expensive and came from otherwise useful animals that sacrificed their lives for us by serving as a food source. Fish, however were considered to be expendable because they were plentiful, cheap, and had the added bonus of being closely associated with the meals that Jesus and his fisherman disciples shared together.

So there you have it, whether you were wondering or not, you now know why we have to endure Filet-O-Fish commercials during Lent.

Lent is traditionally the season where many Christians, not just Catholics, seek to emulate Jesus’ time of 40 days of fasting and resisting temptation in the wilderness by giving up some form of indulgence – like chocolate, sweets, alcohol, or some other luxury that brings us pleasure.
In recent years people have taken to giving up their reliance on technology by limiting the time they spend checking email or using their cell phone, staying off of Facebook, and doing less mindless surfing on the internet.

The criterion for choosing something to give up for Lent is that it has to be something that we would truly miss so every time we feel the urge to have it we become mindful that we are making a sacrifice for a full 40 days to honor the sacrifice made by Jesus.

But giving UP something for Lent has fallen out of favor in recent years as some claim the practice itself is self serving and self-indulgent.
Often our lists of things we’re giving up begin to resemble New Year’s resolutions that focus only on our own self-improvement.
We may see Lent as an ideal time to make the commitment to lose weight, eat healthier, or give up addictions in an effort to better ourselves.

The trend in recent years is to take something on during Lent rather than give something up.
We might pledge to try something new every day, to practice random acts of kindness to help others, to be more environmentally conscious and reduce our carbon footprint, or to keep a gratitude journal to remind us of all the blessings that we have in our life.

These are all wonderful things to do, and they do require us to make sacrifices – with our time, our energy, and our money.
But this drive to take something on rather than give something up may spring from our fear that simply depriving ourselves of something we enjoy is either not enough, or is too closely associated with all that is wrong with organized religion.
For some of us, the understanding that Lent is meant to be a time of penitence leaves a bad taste in our mouths.  Because it harkens back to the belief that we human beings are fallen, sinful, and unworthy of God’s love.
That we are no better than the dust we are made of, as represented by the smudge of dirt that we have placed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

It’s no wonder that those who feel weighed down by the baggage of these beliefs choose not to observe Ash Wednesday or resist the notion of “fasting” or giving up something during Lent.

But perhaps our attempt to zero in on the sacrificial practice of Lent and hold it up as antiquated, is in itself setting too narrow a focus.

Jesus went into the wilderness to prepare himself for his ministry.
Three years before he turned his face towards Jerusalem and resigned himself to his fate of carrying the cross, he walked out of the Jordan River, still dripping wet from his dunking by John the Baptist, and he set off into the desert.
He walked past the berry bushes and trickling streams and ignored the pangs of hunger and parched lips that urged him to shift his focus off of God and onto his human desires.
He did this for the same reason that religious observants have walked into the wilderness for thousands of years. Not to deprive themselves in an act of penance, but to turn down the volume knob on the unrelenting chatter of our human existence.
We can spend all of our waking hours consumed by our own needs.
Whether it’s our need for basic survival or our need to indulge our every want and desire.
All that chatter can easily distract us from seeking out and hearing the voice of God…and it can act as a cover for our own authentic voice that is desperately trying to be heard.

We may imagine that it was not the devil that Jesus encountered out in the wilderness, but the taunting voices of his own inner demons.
The voices that told him he was not good enough, not strong enough, not holy enough to do what it was God was calling him to do.

“You can’t survive without bread,” the voice said to him. “This is proof that you are only human and not as divine as you may think you are.”
“You can’t resist the tantalizing pull of power and glory,” the voice said to him. “This is proof that you will fail and not sacrifice yourself for the benefit of others as God has called you to do.”
“You don’t believe that God will ALWAYS be with you on this journey,” the voice said to him. “If you did you would not hesitate to test that presence by throwing yourself off a building, putting yourself in harm’s way”

We can say that Jesus was delirious and hallucinating after spending 6 weeks in the desert depriving himself of food and water…but there is something to be said for the spiritual practices of fasting and prayer….and the sense of clarity and focus that they bring.
We need not go to the extreme that Jesus did, of wandering in the desert for 40 days, but we can make an effort to turn down the chatter in our own lives by abstaining from the indulgences and behaviors that are making the most noise.
We may believe that Jesus was God incarnate and therefore he could easily overcome the temptations that he faced, but prior to beginning his ministry he lived 30 years fully immersed in a human existence.
Like all of us, we can imagine that he carried with him all the joys and pains of that existence. The times he felt lifted up, elated and celebrated. And the times he felt hurt or criticized, alone or abandoned, unworthy or unloved.
We can imagine that Jesus experienced times in his life when he had his heart broken like all of us do.

And ironically, in order to strengthen himself for the difficult ministry that lay before him, he needed to break his heart wide open all over again -
this time, in the loving presence of God.

All that we are is hidden in the recesses of our hearts.
Our hopes and our dreams, our fears and our weaknesses.
When we expose our hearts to God we allow light to pour in and illuminate those hopes and dreams, those fears and weaknesses.
That’s when the real work of tearing down and building up begins.

But we can’t get there if we don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable before God.

Giving up our indulgences for Lent may seem like a silly and antiquated practice, but the problem lies not with the practice but with the way we’ve been carrying it out.
We may have mastered the art of depriving ourselves, of saying “no” to the things that bring us pleasure and joy because we feel the need to sacrifice as Jesus sacrificed for us,
but too often we miss the next and most important step.
We don’t turn to prayer and reflection to open our hearts to God.

For Jesus’ ancestors, tearing ones clothing was seen as a sign of penance, because it left one naked and vulnerable, but the prophet Joel told the people of Israel:

“Let even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”   (Joel 2:12-13a)

Giving up our indulgences during Lent is the equivalent of tearing our clothing, removing the protective layer that serves as a buffer to the elements that may harm us. But if we truly want to build a relationship with God, we must take the next step and rend our hearts as well.

Earlier this week I came across a beautiful prayer written by Jan L. Richardson, a Methodist pastor, artist, and writer.
The prayer is called, “A Blessing for Ash Wednesday” and I share it with you now.

To receive this blessing,
all you have to do is let your heart break.
Let it crack open.
Let it fall apart
so that you can see its secret chambers,
the hidden spaces
where you have hesitated to go.
Your entire life is here,
inscribed whole upon your heart’s walls:
every path taken
or left behind,
every face you turned toward
or turned away,
every word spoken in love
or in rage,
every line of your life
you would prefer to leave in shadow,
every story that shimmers
with treasures known
and those you have yet to find.
It could take you days to wander these rooms.
Forty, at least.
And so let this be
a season for wandering
for trusting the breaking
for tracing the tear
that will return you
to the One who waits
who watches
who works within the rending
to make your heart whole.

During this season of Lent, as we journey into the wilderness and leave our distractions behind, let us remember to listen deeply for the voice of God.
Let us allow ourselves to truly be vulnerable – to allow the light to flow into our broken places as we rend our hearts before God.

This yearly journey that we make towards the cross with Jesus brings us face to face with pain, deprivation, and death,
     but it always, ALWAYS, ends in resurrection.

As we wander in the wilderness, we may just notice that the fearful and resistant person we see in the mirror every day has begun to whither and die,
      as we’re born anew in the loving presence of God.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down....

It’s an odd tradition isn’t it?
To walk about with a darkened smear
in the center of our forehead
visible to all eyes but our own.

It’s supposed to remind us of our mortality,
our finiteness,
because most of us tend to tuck death away
in hospital rooms,
funeral parlors, and the back alley recesses of our minds.
But while we may be reminded in the moment,
when the cool sticky smudge is traced above our brow,
it doesn’t take long for us to forget once again.
Until an inadvertent brush of a misplaced lock of hair,
or a glimpse in a restroom mirror
reminds us that something is different;
that something is where nothing usually is.

When I was young it was harder to forget.
We’d slowly rise from our pews
and line up behind each other,
tugging nervously at our school uniforms
and craning our necks to see what was happening up ahead.
The man we called Father was bigger then.
Taller, wider, casting a shadow that kept us safe
and confined.

One by one we stepped before him
and felt the touch of his thumb upon our head.
It was foreign for me
to feel this touch.
Priest. Male. Authority. God.
It was humbling,
as it reminded me of everything I was not,
and I could not return to my seat
fast enough.

But a reminder of the touch was left behind.
For the rest of the day
we’d point and giggle,
our eyes darting from one face to the next,
noticing which marks were darker
and which were more grey than black,
noticing that some took the shape of an obvious cross,
and others were simply an indistinguishable blur.

The reminder stayed with us throughout the day,
through recess and Social Studies,
through afterschool play and homework,
through dinner and TV time,
Until our mothers wiped it off
with soapy water and kisses just before bed.

But now,
I barely have a chance to feel its presence.
Rushing to an evening service,
the transition to the darkened, quiet sanctuary
from the world outside
is jarring.
The rituals, the music, the liturgy,
the lining up to receive the burned palms 
from a celebration a year in the past,
all carry so much more meaning for me now.

Remember, from dust you have come,
and to dust you shall return.
The words sink in
as I hear them repeated
over and over again.
You are mortal.
You are finite.
You are made of the same 
ordinary substance
that God used to create the world.
And yet you are so much more.
You have been graced
with the ability to rise from the ashes,
and be reborn
into something new.

Now I am the one
doing the repeating.
Slipping my thumb into the oiled ash
and marking those who line up before me.
A cross for one.
A circle for another.
But the words remain the same.
Remember, from dust you have come,
and to dust you shall return.

As I too receive the mark
I begin to wonder what it looks like.
Is it light, or is it dark?
Does it say to the world,
“This person is unique
because she bears the mark of Christ!”
or does it say to the world,
“This person needs to be reminded
of her own limitedness.”
Do I look as odd,
as branded,
as out of sorts,
as the rest of the faces
gathered around me in the pews?

As I exit into the cool night air
the silence closes in on me.
And I begin to forget, again.
At home I go about my nightly routine
and take my one and only glimpse of the mark
just before I wash it off
and retire to bed.

Lent is a season
of reflection and remembrance.
Forty plus days of looking inward,
and moving outward,
as we become intentional
about acknowledging our connection to God,
to each other,
and to this world
that was created from dust,
and to dust it shall return.

I sometimes wish
I could bear to wear that mark
for more than a few hours,
for more than a day.
That I had the faith,
and the discipline, and the courage,
to receive the mark
every day
for the 40 plus days of Lent.
To awake each day
and forget that it’s there.
Until I rub the sleep from my eyes
and look down at my fingertips,
and see the darkened residue
of oil and ash
that marks me
as a beloved child
of God. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sermon: Cliff Diving With Jesus

Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst
February 3, 2013
1 Cor. 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-44

“Cliff Diving With Jesus”

Love causes us to do crazy things.
If you’ve ever been in love, you know what I’m talking about.
It’s as if we become a very different person.
Our willingness to try new things, travel to unfamiliar places, and act courageously out of character increases tenfold, and is driven by our desire to connect with and be with the one that we love.
Love causes us to step outside of our comfort zones and to take risks that we normally would not take if we were not bolstered by its presence.

Now some of you may be recalling the time you colored your hair in high school because the boy you liked preferred blondes, or the time you fell on your face 100 times while learning to ice skate because you had a crush on a girl who worked at the local rink, or the time you drove 300 miles in one night to visit a college girlfriend or boyfriend after getting a phone message that says, “I miss you” or “I wish you were here.”
But it’s not just romantic love that causes us to do crazy things.
Love in all of its forms, as it turns out, has the power to influence, and transform us, in amazing ways.

Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who worked in Budapest, Hungary during World War II. Between July and December of 1944 he set up housing for thousands of Hungarian Jews and issued them “protective passports” which identified them as Swedish subjects and prevented their deportation. Wallenberg rented thirty-two buildings in Budapest, and declared them to be protected by diplomatic immunity. On the building’s front doors he placed signs that read “The Swedish Library” and “The Swedish Research Institute” and he hung oversize Swedish flags on the front to bolster the deception. The buildings housed almost 10,000 refugees. All together Wallenberg saved an estimated 100,000 lives during the Holocaust. 
After the war, Wallenberg was captured by the Soviets and imprisoned, which is where he died in 1947.
We might say that Wallenberg was driven by an overwhelming sense of compassion and a true desire for justice.
But as we know, at the root of such compassion and justice seeking, is love.
It’s our love of God, and our love for each other, that drives us to take such extraordinary risks in this world.

The passage we heard this morning from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a beautiful ode to the power of love, but it also pushes us to live up to the high, high standard that being purveyors and recipients of that love sets before us.

As we noted earlier, we’re used to hearing this text from first Corinthians in the context of weddings.
Love is patient, love is kind….
As we gaze into the eyes of our beloved it all seems so easy, so doable.
Even those of us who know the challenges of maintaining marital love over time can’t help but get caught up in the moment, as the happy couple exchanges their vows and promises to love each other til death do they part. We believe it can happen. If not for us, then at least it will for them.
But when we remove the overlay of romantic love and drop this text into the context of Christian community, as Paul intended, the challenge of true love seems much more difficult, if not impossible to live up to.

The church in Corinth was in trouble.
It appeared to be thriving but once Paul looked beneath the fa├žade he saw that it was coming apart at the seams.
To all outward appearances this was a faithful and active congregation whose people were blessed with many spiritual gifts, but in reality they were lauding those gifts over each other and going through the motions of faith to advance their own standing within the church.
They were motivated not by love but by their own desire for recognition and power.

In his letter, Paul held up a mirror and named the ways in which the church in Corinth had been perceiving and projecting a distorted image of love.

I wonder if we hear these words from first Corinthians 13 differently once we realize that this is not a poetic ode to romantic love, but rather a letter of reprimand pointing out the ways in which the people of Corinth have failed to love truly and faithfully.
We can feel Paul’s frustration and anger in his words:
If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

We might wonder how these words were received in Corinth when Paul’s letter was read aloud to the congregation as they gathered for worship.
I can imagine that many of them were shifting uncomfortably in their seats, as they listened. Paul was accusing their faith filled and spiritually gifted community of being shallow and petty and having little understanding of what it meant to be a loving community of God.

I’m wondering how likely it is that the congregation collectively took Paul’s words to heart and immediately pledged to change their ways.
It’s probably more likely that a good portion of them began to call for a new leader to emerge from within their ranks, as Paul had clearly lost touch with who they were as a congregation.

Paul founded the church in Corinth, but he pastored it from a far, visiting on occasion, but primarily writing letters to chastise them when they drifted too far astray. Perhaps Paul knew from experience that the people of Corinth would have run him out of town if he stuck around too long.

But Paul was in good company in this regard.
As our text from the gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus was run out of town after reprimanding a congregation in his home city for the very same failing that Paul had seen in the people of Corinth.
They weren’t being as courageous or as expansive or as radically generous as they should be or could be with their love.

When Jesus stood up in his home synagogue to read from the sacred text from the prophet Isaiah we might imagine his friends and family beaming with pride. This was Joseph’s son.
A carpenter by trade who had been declared as the Messiah by John the Baptist. Reports of his teaching and preaching had spread throughout the countryside and now here he was, about to deliver his first scripture interpretation, his first sermon, in his home congregation.

Jesus stood up and read the familiar words of Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

After reading these words, Luke tells us that Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down, with all eyes fixed upon him.

He then said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Yes, this was Jesus having the audacity to claim that he was the one who had been sent by the Lord to do all these amazing things for the poor, the blind, and the oppressed, but that’s not what caused all eyes to be upon him, or caused him to be chased out of the synagogue only a few moments later.

The people were starting to believe that he might be the Messiah, so they likely weren’t angry or perplexed that he was making this claim.
It’s more likely that they were angry and perplexed because Jesus didn’t read the text from Isaiah in its entirety. 
In fact he abruptly stopped in the middle of a sentence and left out what was for them the most vital part of the scripture.
The part where Isaiah says, “He has sent me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.”
Jesus left off the part about God avenging Israel’s suffering and providing for his chosen people of Zion.

This is the day of vengeance the people were waiting for. Receiving their freedom was only the first part of their redemption, watching their enemies get what was coming to them was what would make it all worth while.

The people in that Galilean synagogue most likely knew the text of Isaiah by heart so it’s natural that they would question why Jesus chose to end his reading as he did. Was it intentional? What message was he trying to send?

To get ourselves inside the minds of the people in that synagogue, we might imagine someone standing up before a crowd of modern day Americans and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and leaving out the phrase, “One Nation, under God.”

Although the “under God” portion wasn’t added until 1954, most of us have become so accustomed to hearing it this way that we would notice if it were left out.
And it’s likely that some might question why it was left out and what message the one reciting it was trying to send, about their faith, and their loyalty to the nation.

Which is exactly what the people in that Galilean synagogue did with Jesus. Especially when Jesus raised their suspicions even further by peppering his sermon with scriptures that suggested that those outside the circle of God's grace, the Gentiles, were meant to receive God's favor and attention as well.
Jesus now had two strikes against him.
What kind of Messiah shows up and announces "the day of the Lord's favor" without also bringing "the day of vengeance" that was promised so long ago?
What kind of Messiah would take the grace and favor that was meant for just a few and make the claim that it was meant for all?

We may now understand how the people in the synagogue went from praising Jesus to threatening to throw him off a cliff.
We can imagine that the people of the church in Corinth thought about throwing Paul off a cliff as well. 
All because they so desperately wanted their people to broaden their understanding of love. They wanted their people to imagine God in a much bigger and much more inclusive way.

We know what happened to Paul. He was arrested and ended up dying in prison.
And we know what ultimately happened to Jesus. Somehow he slipped away from the angry mob on the edge of that cliff in Galilee, but they eventually caught up with him. And he was nailed to a cross and left to die because he dared to imagine a love that was meant to be freeing for all.

Love causes us to do crazy and courageous things.

Love is what causes some people to lay their lives on the line, to risk arrest, beatings, loss of freedom, loss of livelihood, loss of respect, loss of life, because of a principle, a belief, an inner knowing that they must DO SOMETHING to stop an injustice or an act of fear or hatred.

Love is what drove Raoul Wallenberg to risk his freedom and his life to save so many during WWII, even though each passport that he signed and each person that he stowed away brought him one step closer to being caught.

Love is what drove Rosa Parks to look a white man in the face and say, “No, I’m not doing it anymore. I’m not moving to the back of the bus. I’m staying right where I am and you’re just going to have to learn to deal with it.”

Love is what drove an anonymous man carrying a shopping bag in each hand to step in front of moving tanks in Tiananmen Square. Love is what caused him to step out of his routine life and into the center of a battle between freedom and oppression.

Love is what drives any one of us to step out of our comfort zone – To invite a homeless person to stay in our spare bedroom, to volunteer to visit a prisoner who has no family, to stand up to a bully in a middle school hallway.

Love is what strengthens us when we feel backed up to the edge of cliff and we’re fearful that those who oppose our generosity of hospitality just might throw us off into the abyss.
Love is what gives us the courage to teeter on that edge, and to take a leap of faith on our own accord, as we break our hearts wide open and follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

      Love is patient; Love is kind;      
        Love bears all things, believes all things, 
                hopes all things, endures all things.     
                 Love never ends.

                         Thanks be to God.