Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Sermon: "Faith In Things Not Seen"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 11, 2013
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

“Faith In Things Not Seen”

Once upon a time our world was flat.
A dome of water surrounded the earth above and below, and Heaven was up and Hell was down. Over time we began to recognize that the earth was not flat but round, but we still believed that the sun rose and set by God’s hand and we as God’s creation sat solidly at the center of the universe….until a man named Copernicus looked up the sky and saw it differently.

Through his observations of the seasons and shadows, Copernicus concluded that the sun, and not the earth, belonged at the center.
Perhaps sensing the trouble that this reversal of roles would cause, Copernicus waited until just before his death to publish his findings.
 When he did, Catholics and Protestants were equally perturbed.
The Roman Church claimed that Copernicus held no authority over God, and Martin Luther simply called him a fool.

A half a century later, Galileo peered at the night sky through his homemade telescope and concluded that Copernicus was right.
But unlike Copernicus, Galileo did not scribble in his notebook and tuck it safely away for a later date, instead he ran to the Pope with the news of his discovery, eager to share what God had revealed.
We all know what happened next.
Galileo was summoned before the Inquisition and ordered to renounce his findings.
In his defense, Galileo quoted the words of Cardinal Baronio, who said,
 “The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”
But Galileo’s inquisitors were not moved.

On June 22, 1633, at the age of 70, Galileo knelt down on a hard marble floor in Rome and read the renunciation that had been written for him:
With sincere heart and unfeigned faith I do damn and detest the said errors and heresies contrary to the Holy Church, and I do swear for the future that I will never again speak or write such things as might bring me under similar suspicion.

Galileo spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest, reading the seven daily psalms of penitence that were a part of his sentence, and sitting by the window with his telescope, watching the heavens move overhead by its own will, ignoring the will of those who wished to shade it in darkness.

Galileo’s story is but one example of how human beings can look at the same night sky and see very different things.
Some look at it through the lens of faith and mystery and see it as an uncharted playground that God has laid out before us to map and explore.
Others look at it through the lens of belief and tradition and declare it as unapproachable and unmovable by our desire to change what has always been.

Faith and belief are unavoidably intertwined, but while we often use the terms interchangeably in can be argued that they are not the same.

In a religious sense, BELIEF can be defined as an intellectual assent to a particular set of theological convictions that guide us and anchor us in tradition, whereas FAITH can be defined as an “unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be.”

Belief tethers us to what has been.
Faith opens us up to the possibility of what might be.

The unknown sermon writer who penned the words to the Hebrews, tells us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
This is what makes faith much harder to understand and explain, especially for those who feel that they lack faith or say that they have no need for it.
For those of us who claim to have faith, its lack of concrete terminology is what makes it so much harder for us to talk about amongst ourselves.
Often it’s much easier for us to talk about what we believe, and why we believe - rather than talk about how our faith is expressed in our lives – how it informs our actions, how it has changed our life, how it keeps calling us to move outside of our comfort zone to do things that we never in a million years could imagine doing without it.

Faith is the conviction of things not seen, but the results of faith often can be seen.
We see it where the hungry are fed, the sick are cared for, the oppressed are set free, and the ostracized are welcomed with open arms.
In this regard, the expression of faith has very little to do with memorizing scripture verses, reciting creeds, or following a set a rules that we believe will guarantee our entrance into the kingdom of God.
In fact, our gospel reading today assures us that is not belief but faith that will open our eyes to the gifts that God has to offer.

Jesus told his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
All you have to do is be prepared – and be open to receiving it.

As long as we have faith that the kingdom of God – the reign of God - where all will receive equally from the abundance of God’s creation – is real and attainable by each and every one of us, this is all that we need to see it into existence.

The beliefs that we hold about how we get in and who gets in are of our own creation and ultimately shield us from grasping the true breadth of God.
Expressed in this way, belief can actually be a hindrance to faith.

Conversely, faith that has no connection to belief can be just as hollow.
It’s our belief, the stories that we tell about ourselves - how we got here, and why we’re here - that add meaning to our lives.
But when we focus too much on the details of the stories and insist that they must be true with a small T in order to be true with a capital T – then we’re in danger of missing the point.

According to one Native American creation myth, our entire world rests on the back of a giant turtle.
An ethnologist who was attempting to record the story for a research paper asked a tribal elder what was underneath the turtle, and the elder said, “Another turtle.”
To which the ethnologist replied, “And what’s under that?”
The elder replied, “Another turtle.”
Showing his frustration, the ethnologist, said, “But what’s under that, what’s holding the whole structure up?”
And the elder said, “I assure you, sir, it’s turtles all the way down.”

We may laugh, but the story of the earth existing on the back of an infinite number of turtles is no more ludicrous than our own image of an eternal anthropomorphic God gathering dust into his hands, breathing life into it and creating a world teaming with trees, birds, sea creatures, and human beings.

This is how we make meaning of our world.
In belief we find meaning.
But the danger of weaving our beliefs too tightly with our faith is if we tug on one thread and pull it loose the whole thing is in danger of unraveling.

This is how some of us end up turning our backs on God when we discover that the details of the stories and the “facts” of our tradition may not necessarily be true. We begin to question not just our beliefs, but our faith as well.

But surprisingly, if we look at the stories of our Judeo-Christian tradition, we’ll see that God is rarely open to being hemmed in by our expectations and beliefs.

As the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor puts it:
“The Bible is one long story about how God demolishes human beliefs in order to clear space for faith.”
Abraham and Sara believe that they are too old to bear a child and God sends them Isaac as a surprising gift.
Elijah believes that God’s voice will come thundering out of the heavens and he hears it in the silence instead. Paul believes he’s doing God’s work by dragging Christians into the streets to be killed and God knocks him flat on his back and fills him with the love of Christ.

When we take the stories that God inspired us to create about ourselves and our origins and turn them into irrefutable beliefs then we run the risk of losing the gift of these stories when those beliefs no longer ring true.
It is faith that allows us to hold onto and celebrate these stories of our tradition even if we no longer believe them to be factually true.

In belief we find meaning.
We find meaning in the story of unmarried pregnant teenager who is unshaken by the fact that she is young, poor, female, and powerless. Instead she defies those who dismiss her and says, “Yes” to giving birth to God.

We find meaning in the story of a God who chooses to be born into flesh – into poverty, into pain, into vulnerability, and into a world that was woefully unprepared to hear a message about God’s radically inclusive love and mercy.

We find meaning in the story of a man from Nazareth who turns the other cheek, prays for those who persecute him, loves his neighbor and his enemy as himself, and demands that the last will be first and the first will be last. A man so dangerous to so many that there was no other way for the story to end but with his long and tortured death.

But the story didn’t end there.
And we find meaning in the resurrection, the rising from the earth, the message that fear never, NEVER, conquers Love.

In all this we find meaning.
But this alone is not our faith.
Our faith exists beyond the details of these stories.

From a faith perspective it doesn’t matter if Mary was not really a virgin, or if Jesus never said he was the Messiah, or if God created the world over the course of 4 billion years rather than 6 days. What matters is that Mary loved, Jesus lived, and God created.

Belief is found in the details of the story.
Faith is found in the message of the story.

One compliments the other, and neither should stand on it’s own.

Galileo was forced to recant his revelation on his knees to preserve the beliefs of his time, but his faith in God as one who invites us to see things in new ways never left him, as he continued to point his telescope towards the sky.

Whether the subject is science or religion, if we’re as open to the world as God calls us to be our beliefs can’t help but be challenged by our experience, which begs us to never put a lid on the truth. To never place a period where God has placed a comma, as Gracie Allen was so fond of saying. To remain keenly aware of how we feel threatened or fearful when our beliefs are challenged and to ask ourselves what is more important to us -  preserving the belief, or allowing ourselves to be changed by the presence of God.

Once upon at time our world was flat.
And then we looked up at the sky and realized that it was more then it we ever imagined it to be.
Once upon a time we named God as our Creator.
And we looked at God and each other and realized that we can be more then we ever imagined we could be.
The story of faith, our story, is still being written, and it is so much more than we can ever imagine it to be.
Thanks be to God!


Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sermon: "Bonfire of the Vanities"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 4, 2013
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Luke 12:13-21

“Bonfire of the Vanities”

There’s an old story about a stingy old rich man who was bedridden in his final days. He had heard the saying, “You can’t take it with you,” and was determined to prove it wrong.

He instructed his wife to go to the bank and withdraw enough money to fill two pillowcases.
He then told her to take the bags of money to the attic and leave them directly above his bed. His plan? When he passed away, he would reach out and grab the bags on his way to heaven.

Several weeks after the man died, his wife was up in the attic cleaning, when she came upon the two forgotten pillowcases stuffed with cash.
“Oh, that darned old fool,” she exclaimed. “I knew I should have put the money in the basement.”

The message of both of our scripture passages this morning is that we can’t take it with us.  
Anyone who has ever moved, downsized to a smaller living space, or inherited a household worth of stuff after the death of a parent, knows this.
All that we work so hard to accumulate in this life will be left behind – left as a joy or burden to our families, to gather dust in someone else’s attic, or to gradually decay, rust, and be reclaimed to the earth by the ravages of time.
Nothing in this world lasts forever.

Jesus has much to say about putting undue value on things that are in reality, temporary and worth much less than we think they are.
The Parable of the Rich Fool is a signature Jesus parable in this regard.

Now, any time a rich man talks to Jesus or asks him a question we know it’s not going to end well.  As I said earlier in our introduction to the gospel reading, Luke in particular loved pairing the words “rich” and “fool” together.

The gospels are full of tales of rich men hoarding their possessions and not getting into heaven, widows giving their last nickel to the church while the rich give very little, money changers having their tables overturned, and greedy land owners not paying a fair wage.

But while the rich are the focus if all of these stories, what Jesus is lifting up here is not the evil of having money and possessions, but rather the evils that result when we place too much value upon them.  
The focus of these stories is greed.

The rich man in our parable today is looking for a way to store his crops for future use. His concern is that without a larger barn to store his goods, he will not feel secure enough to relax and enjoy life.

And we might ask, what’s wrong with that?
The man has done nothing illegal to gain his bounty. He didn’t steal it, he didn’t manipulate anyone into giving it to him, and there is no mention of him not treating his workers well or tying to cheat anyone out of a fair wage. His land produces a bountiful crop. The soil, sun and rain worked together to make him a rich man. He simply builds bigger barns to hold what he rightfully harvested from his land.
Would it be better for him to let it go to waste?

We might answer that what God has given us is not for us to hold onto for ourselves. The man should give the excess back to God, by giving it to those in his community who have less.
But perhaps the message that Jesus has for us here goes a bit deeper than our need to give back to God.  It’s hard for us to pour out God’s love if we haven’t made room to receive it.

The man’s life has been taken over with worry and concern over how to store his possessions. He believes that he cannot relax into the joy of living as long as his future is insecure. He does not acknowledge the gift that God has given him and he does not trust that God will continue to provide.

In a world ravaged by drought, floods, unstable economies, and food insecurity, many of us might have cause to doubt that “God will provide” as well.
When children in our own communities go to bed hungry at night and families have to choose between rent and groceries, telling them that God will provide may not be enough to keep them from imagining how they might build their own bigger barn, to ensure they have enough to feel secure.

When I was in seminary, I traveled to Kentucky with twelve of my classmates to learn how poverty affected children living in the poorest parts of Appalachia.
We visited a church that gathered as a community every Thursday night to pack bags full of food to be given to local schoolchildren.  During the week these children relied on the free meals offered at school and would often go hungry for the 68 hours between Friday afternoon and Monday morning.  What was striking is that the children receiving the food bags were instructed to hide the bags from their parents, as too often the food was taken away from the children, hoarded for another day, or sold to fund a parent’s addiction.

Greed is fed by insecurity and fear.
It is not limited to one socioeconomic class and it comes in many forms.
We might place undue value on our possessions, the size of the land that we own, the number of people under our influence, and our ability to exert power over others.
Greed also comes into play when we withhold our time, attention, respect, and love from those whom we deem unworthy of receiving it.

Jesus sees and calls out the fear that is at the root of our greed.
Our fear of not having enough.
Our fear that we are powerless.
Our fear that we ourselves are unworthy of love.
But too often what we desire, what we long to possess, what we hoard because without it we feel insecure, is something that is perishable and temporary, and once it’s gone we fall into fear yet again.

The author of Ecclesiastes writes,
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity   and a chasing after wind.

When we hear this text, our modern ears translate the word vanity as meaning self-centeredness, narcissism, or pride.
But the root of the word vanity is emptiness.
In fact, the word that appears in the original Hebrew text is hevel,
  which means “breath, vapor, impermanence” –
Hevel is a fleeting vaporous apparition that is easily blown away.

Perhaps this text from Ecclesiastes is better read as:
“Vapor of vapors. All is vapor. All the deeds that are done under the sun are vapor, and a chasing after wind.”

Now we might argue that we accept that our material possessions are fleeting and temporary, but our work – all the deeds and toil that we’ve done under the sun – are not.
What we do now has the power to affect generations to come – socially, economically, environmentally, and spiritually; and while our human legacies will not live on for eternity, there is still value in what we create and leave behind for future generations.
All is not vanity. All is not empty.
All is not foolish toil left to wither under the sun.

But perhaps too much of it is.

If we all took out a sheet of paper and listed everything that we do in a typical week, we might be forced to defend the necessity of a good number of things on the list.
Work is necessary. Play is necessary. Time spent with family and friends is necessary. As members of a church community, we might add that time spent serving others and serving God, is necessary.

But how much is too much?
How far can we stretch the reasoning, the rationalization, for the necessity of every thing that we do?

The average adult in our society leads an increasingly overscheduled life, add a couple of kids to the mix, and one’s life quickly becomes an endless parade of lacrosse practices, soccer games, dance recitals, violin lessons, doctors appointments, teacher meetings, and school assemblies.
Even without school age children, when we string together work commitments, plans with friends, trips to the gym, caring for adult children or elderly parents, and various boards, committees, and organizations that we choose to serve, we quickly see why the mantra of our modern world has become, “I’d love to, but I have no time.”

Earlier this week I saw a posting on facebook that read,
        “Stop the glorification of BUSY!”

Too often we wear our busyness as a badge of honor.
As we list all those things that we do in a typical week, we may feel a sense of pride in what we’ve managed to accomplish.
Our busyness can add to our sense of importance and value, to the point that when a friend asks us how we’re doing and we respond with a breathless rundown of all the things we’ve done, and still have yet to do – perhaps we’re not complaining so much as bragging.

For many of us, beneath the feeling that we’re exhausted, overworked, and overstressed, is the fear that if we don’t have a full schedule, we will cease to have value….or will be thought of as unimportant.
We worry that our kids will fail to keep up with those who have a multitude of extracurricular activities to add to their college applications.
Or we believe that we are too important to lessen our pace.

We imagine all that would fall through the cracks and ask ourselves,
“What would the people at work do without me?”
“What would my family do without me?”
“What would my church – and God – do without me?”

What is so wonderful about our scripture texts today is that they both give us good reason to yank ourselves off the treadmill that we’re struggling to stay on.

Because all those things on our to do lists are really not as important as we think they are.
And all our toiling under the sun is not going to make us live longer or live happier.
And all those things we have stored up in our barns are not going to keep us secure, or healthy, or safely out of harms way.

Jesus said to the rich man, “You are a fool. You could die this very night. And the things you have set aside, whose will they be?’

What Jesus offers as an alternative to all our toiling and storing up, is the love of God.

What makes us feel powerful, what makes us feel secure, what makes us feel connected to others, is love….and God’s love, God’s unconditional love, is the greatest love of all.  
But we can’t feel, experience, or seek concrete ways to respond to that love if we haven’t created a space in our lives for it to take root.

In 15th century Italy, it was a common sight to see priests gathering up and publically burning items that might tempt one to sin  – books, works of art, musical instruments, fine dresses, and even mirrors. These public burnings were known as bonfires of the vanities.
It was believed that the removal of these items would cause people to turn back towards God.

But as we know, removing the temptation doesn’t reduce our desire or need for the love and security that we seek. And we if don’t seek those things in God, and in our relationships with each other, then we’ll find something else, some other vanity, to fill in the void.

If we empty our barns of possessions but don’t seek to fill our lives with love, then it won’t be long before we fill those barns back up again.

If we reduce or commitments and clear our schedules to create a day of Sabbath for us and our families, but don’t fill that space with love, then it won’t be long before we’re seeking something else to do to keep us occupied.

Filling that space with love doesn’t mean that we have to take on yet another community service project or church commitment, if we’ve already made space in our lives for such things.
But if we haven’t made space for such things, we may be surprised how rewarding it is once we do.

Filling that space with love will look different for each and every one of us. It could entail spending more time together as a family, visiting a friend we haven’t seen in a while, taking longer walks at a slower pace, setting aside time to mediate or pray, opening up a creative channel and learning how to paint, sculpt, or sing.

Remember this is not a challenge to add more things to our lives, but to actively reduce how much we are doing and how much we are holding onto and creating a space for God’s love, mercy, and grace to work it’s way into our lives.

All of life is vanity.
All of life is hevel – a fleeting breath, a passing vapor.

Give yourself time to experience it while it’s here –
   in all its fullness,
        and in the loving company of God.