Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sermon: "The Terrible Twos"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 29, 2013
Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23

Scripture Intro

Our Gospel text this morning has been titled: “The Slaughter of the Innocents” – and you will soon understand why. In this story an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and urges him to flee with his family to Egypt. King Herod has heard that the Messiah has been born, and he has ordered the killing of every child in Bethlehem under the age of two.
We may wonder why this story is included in our lectionary so soon after Christmas.
This is supposed to be a season celebrating joy and hope, and a scripture text that centers on the killing of children appears to have none of that.
We may wonder where the Good News is found in this Christmas story.
But before we read this story it’s important to know something about its context.
This story about Herod appears only in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth.
The gospel of Luke mentions nothing about the holy family traveling to Egypt or the slaughter of children.
It’s also important to know that Matthew as a writer borrows elements from other stories that the people of Israel knew well and uses them to present Jesus as the next great prophet -  the “new Moses”- the one who had come to set them free. There are many ways in which Jesus’ story in the gospel of Matthew parallels the story of Moses. Jesus gives a sermon on the Mount, just as Moses delivered God’s law from Mount Sinai; Jesus fasts for 40 days and nights in the wilderness just as Moses did;, and the baby Jesus, like the baby Moses under the Pharaoh, escapes a slaughter of the innocents, when all children under two have their lives taken from them.
When the danger is over, Jesus comes up out of Egypt and returns to Israel to lead the people to freedom, just as Moses did hundreds of years before him.

As we often discover, the message of hope we find in scripture is not necessarily found in the details of the stories but in the outcome.
Love wins. Fear does not.
Because love will set you free.


“The Terrible Twos”

A few weeks before Christmas, there was an article circulating on the internet titled,
 A Ten-Month-Old’s Letter To Santa.*
The article was written by the mother of 10-month-old baby but the letter to Santa was written as if it came from the baby itself.

The letter went something like this:

Dear Santa,

I am a ten-month-old baby and I write because my mother has been sending out my “Christmas List” to people, and her list does not in any way represent the things I really want.  I have no interest in receiving stacking cups or other colorful toys.
I know everyone jokes about ten month-old babies and how all we want is the wrapping paper and the boxes.  We do, of course, want those things.  But I have a number of additional things I want very badly.

My list is enclosed below.  Have a lovely holiday.

Signed – a Ten Month-Old Baby

Included on the list are the following items complete with commentary from the baby:

1)    House keys – I would love a set of house keys.  To eat, obviously.  Only metal house keys will do.  Please do not send me plastic ones.  I know that plastic house keys are not real keys.

2)    Everybody's Eyeglasses – I pull these off the face of every person I meet, only to have them pried from my fingers and reclaimed by their original owners.   I would love a pair of my own.  Again, these are for eating.

3)    The Power Cord to my Mother’s Laptop. –  I want this laptop cord more than I have ever wanted anything.  I also want the power strip with the orange on/off button. Please.

4)    A Handful of the Dog’s Fur - This stuff is the best.  My favorite thing to do with dog fur is to put it in my mouth and then immediately realize that I didn’t want it in my mouth.

5)    The Hole in the Hallway Floorboard - I spend hours looking at this hole and poking at it with my fingers.  I know that I cannot “have” a hole, as a hole is not a thing that can be had. And yet I want this hole in the floor the way Gandhi wanted peace.

6)    The Dog’s Food - Every time I get close to this, someone pulls me away.  If they don’t want me to eat it, why is it on the floor?

.....and finally:

7)    An iPhone – I have no idea what these do, but it’s clearly a lot of fun, given that my mother never stops looking at it.

What this list tells us is that babies are fascinated by the world around them, and the very things that we tend to overlook or prefer to have left in place, are the things that their curious eyes and hands gravitate towards. 

And, as we know, everything a baby picks up seems to end up in their mouth. This turns the average parent into a frantic whirlwind bent on the retrieval, removal, and distraction from any and all objects that may pose a danger.
Once a child starts walking the threats increase exponentially.
Trying to childproof every environment for a 2-year-old who can climb and run is nearly impossible.

I have a toddler nephew who with the aid of a screwdriver and a kitchen chair managed to remove every doorknob in my sister’s house.

The truth is, we can only do so much with baby gates, childproof latches, and harnesses that keep our children strapped in and safe.
Sooner or later we have to let them loose in the world and just pray that they stay out of harms way.

Our gospel story today tells us of the lengths that Joseph and Mary went to keep their baby safe.
They went all the way to Egypt to keep Jesus out of the reach of King Herod.
But as Matthew tells us, this wasn’t just a case of Mary and Joseph being overprotective parents.
They didn’t choose to leave because they were extremely astute about local politics and knew the ramifications of giving birth to the Messiah under the jurisdiction of the jealous and ruthless King Herod.
Joseph was a poor carpenter, and we can assume that he and Mary paid little attention to the goings on in the Royal Court. 

Which is why it took a dream and visit from a heavenly messenger to alert Joseph to the danger in Bethlehem and the need for him to flee with his family, putting Jesus out of the reach of Herod’s murderous grasp.

Of course, it was not unusual for Joseph to receive a visit from an angel.
He learned of Mary’s pregnancy this way.
In fact, Joseph receives guidance from an angel not once, but three times, in this story from Matthew’s gospel. Once to tell him to flee to Egypt, a second time to tell him it was safe to return to Israel, and a third time to warn him of the new King in power in Judea, which steered the Holy Family towards Nazareth instead.

As much as we understand that it was important that Jesus survive King Herod’s rampage, I’ll bet there were a few mothers and fathers back in Bethlehem who wished they had been tipped off by an angel and been given time to flee before Herod’s soldiers descended upon their homes and ripped their babies from their arms.
After all, aren’t we all children of God and worthy of saving?

This is the difficult question we ask ourselves whenever the chaotic randomness of our world pushes its way into our orderly lives, disrupting our routines and our plans, turning our lives upside down, ripping the people we love from our arms.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had a heavenly messenger to guide us so we could avoid the suffering caused by these seemingly random events? 

We could all use someone to whisper in our ear and tell us the right thing to do when we’re confronted with a difficult choice.
Someone to send up a signal flare when we’re about to do something stupid or regretful.
A still small voice that echoes in our head and in our heart when danger lies just in front of us, a voice that urges us to turn left, instead of right.

Much of our suffering could be eliminated if we had a heavenly messenger telling us what lies beyond every curve in the road. But if we knew this, much of the excitement and surprising joy in life would be eliminated as well.

Our God is an all powerful and loving God, and therefore one of the hardest things for us to understand is why God created a world that is just as likely to bring us pain as it is to bring us joy.
We may wonder why God did not child-proof our world….by setting up barriers to keep us from falling, or padding the sharp corners to keep us from bumping our heads.
We are, after all, fragile and curious creatures.
A dangerous combination as any parent knows.

But perhaps God, like any parent, knows we would never discover the joy of life if we were not allowed to explore on our own.  
Perhaps God sends us into the world like a parent sends off a toddler. Allowing us the freedom to wander, knowing we’re going to bump our heads, skin our knees, and burn our hands as we learn to navigate the dangers of this world.
Yet like a parent, God is always at the ready, and is there to scoop us up and offer comfort and healing when needed.

The prophet Isaiah recognized that God is not a protector in the sense that God shields or diverts human beings from suffering and harm.
Isaiah writes:
For the Lord said, “Surely they are my people,” and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.  (63:8-9)

For Isaiah, it was God’s presence in the people of Israel’s suffering that saved them. God did not shield them from pain.
God was their protector because God did not leave them to walk alone in their pain.
God brought them strength, comfort, and healing, and God offered hope that there would be joy in life even in the midst of suffering.

For Christians, Jesus is the embodiment of God’s presence.
Jesus is God’s hope and redemption given flesh and blood.
Jesus – his ministry, his teachings, his life – IS God’s way of sending us a messenger, someone who nudges us to make righteous choices – choices based in love rather than fear.

Jesus is the still small voice that we encounter in scripture, in our worship services, in our Sunday School classes, and in our mission work – the voice that whispers in our ear and sends up signal flares when we’re about to do something stupid or regretful,
the voice that warns us of danger ahead and nudges us to turn left instead of right,
the voice that asks us to consider whether our words and actions are rooted in compassion and concern for others, or in our own desire for comfort and self preservation.

Knowing all of this may not take the sting away when unexpected events rush into our lives and pull the rug out from underneath us, but it is comforting to know that when we collapse in a heap God will be there to help us stand up again.
No matter how long it takes for us to do so.

God so loved the world, that God gave us Jesus
         - to guide us, comfort us, and redeem us.

And that is the Good News of this Christmas story.


* The full article "A Tenth-Month Old's Letter to Santa" can be found here:

Friday, December 27, 2013

Sermon: "A Christmas Story"

“A Christmas Story”
December 24, 2013
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
Rev. Maureen Frescott

"I bring you good news of a great joy….for unto you a child is born this day in the city of David, and you will find him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."

This is good news.
This is good news to us because we know who that child is –
and we know the man he will grow up to be.
We know of his ministry and his teachings.
We know that he will heal the sick and feed the hungry.
We know that he will bring down the mighty and lift up the lowly.
And we know that even though he no longer walks this earth in human form, his message and his spirit lives on.
Guiding, comforting, strengthening and redeeming.

We hear the words “and unto you a child is born” and we see Jesus.
But to those shepherds standing out in that frozen field on a cold winter’s night 2,000 years ago, this GOOD NEWS brought to them by a heavenly messenger must have been confusing.
Why would the birth of a child in a far away town have any bearing on what happened in their lives?
How could a baby save the world?

They had heard the stories of the great Messiah who was expected to come and overthrow those in power and liberate the oppressed, but these were only stories.
These were tales that they told each other at night around the dying embers of the campfire.
Stories that were intended to give them a reason to get up in the morning,
to inspire them to go out and stand in a field tending sheep day after day, doing a job that only the lowest of the low were expected to do, one that sent them to bed hungry on more nights than they cared to admit.

The Messiah stories assured them that God had not forsaken them -
That they were not expected to lift the weight of poverty and oppression off their shoulders all on their own. The stories gave them hope that someone greater than they would set them free.

A Messiah is just what they needed – but they needed a full-grown Messiah – a King or a warrior – someone who had the power to step up and make their lives better, right here, right now. What were they to do with a baby?

A baby is small, and vulnerable and weak.
The very things a Messiah is NOT supposed to be.
The very things a GOD is not supposed to be.

Which is why even in our time, so many question why we Christians believe this fanciful tale of a God who chooses to come into the world not in a blaze of glory, not through an awesome display of power and strength, but chooses instead to slip into the world in the quiet of a winter’s night, in the form of a crying infant, something so small, so vulnerable, and so weak.
What an improbable and implausible tale.
Who would be crazy enough to believe it?

When I was a freshman in college, I took an introductory religion class, and when it came time to discuss the incarnation of Jesus one of the students raised his hand and asked how anyone possessing even average intelligence and a rational mind would believe such an implausible story. 

Why would an all-powerful and infinite God diminish itself by becoming a powerless and finite human being?
For that matter, why did God need Jesus? Didn’t God have the power to heal the world without having to become one of us to do it?

These are questions we may have asked ourselves or have heard others ask, in college classrooms, youth group discussions, or even in confirmation class.  For many of us, when we ponder the Christmas Story for the first time with a critical eye, we may have trouble believing it as well.

Perhaps God did not need to become one of us to heal the world.
Perhaps God didn’t need to experience firsthand what it’s like to feel pain, hopelessness and despair, in order to offer comfort to us.
But perhaps God understood that WE needed to know that God felt and understood our pain. Not as some distant deity, but as a God who is close enough for us to reach out and touch.

And the best way that God knew how to do that was to become one of us,
To experience what it feels like to be born kicking and screaming into this world, to feel the sudden chill of the night air and the warmth of a mother’s arms against bare skin,
to look up through clouded eyes and see the faces of joyful parents and curious strangers,
to be held in the supportive embrace of a loving community.

What a fantastic way to build a bridge between an infinite God and a finite human being.
As the infant Jesus, God depended upon us for food and shelter and even life. And in return, God gave up power and control so that we would know that God understands what it is like to feel helpless and weak.
What an amazing and unexpected thing for God to do.

And yes, what an improbable and implausible tale God has given us to tell.  
Who would be crazy enough to believe it?

Those shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night were crazy enough to believe it.
They went to Bethlehem, they saw the child, they believed the good news - that this baby was the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
And then they returned to their homes and told everyone within earshot that the wait was over, that the hope and light of God had been born into the world.

And 2,000 years later, we’re still telling this story, we’re still holding on to that hope, we’re still celebrating and sharing this good news of how a baby saved the world. 

What is the good news you are waiting to hear on this Christmas Eve?
Perhaps like the shepherds you are waiting for a messenger who will tell you that the tide has turned, that the day of vindication and hope has arrived, that God has come to set you free.

Or, perhaps you have secretly given up hope,
and you’ve convinced yourself that it is entirely up to you to bring the peace that your heart longs for, and God will not bother to intervene at all.

But isn't Christmas all about God intervening in our world?
Isn't Christmas about God telling us not to give up hope - because it’s not up to us to do this all on our own?
Isn’t Christmas about hearing and telling a story that is so implausible, it takes a leap of faith to believe it?

Once upon a time, in a far away land, a baby is born.
A baby that in many ways is just like you and me, and in many ways is the personification of who we are meant to be. 
This baby embodies the hope that each new life has to offer the world. 

This baby is born helpless just as we all are, but without the gift of human love and compassion, this baby will never grow to be the guiding light that many will come to rely on.
This baby does not come into this world alone.
This baby has guardians, teachers, companions and friends.
This baby is the expression of God’s love and grace entering into the world, and it is up to us to nurture it to fruition.

This baby is God incarnate.
This baby is God coming to change the world.

And I can’t think of a better story to tell on Christmas Eve.

Merry Christmas to us all, and Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sermon: "John and Mary: Prepare Ye the Way"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 15, 2013
Luke 1:46-55; Matthew 11:2-11

“John and Mary: Prepare Ye The Way”

When I was in the 4th grade at St Martin of Tours parochial school, I reluctantly agreed to take part in the school pageant.
Not the Christmas pageant, but the Easter pageant, believe it or not.  
I played the part of one of the women who knelt at the foot of Jesus’ cross.
The script referred to our group as “the women and the Marys” -  because among us were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus.
I did not play one of the Marys and I had no lines whatsoever but I was a terrified because I hated being in the spotlight.

I don’t recall much about the play itself, but I clearly remember that the part of Mary Magdalene was played by my classmate Mary Ann Hill.
Mary Ann and I spent a lot of time together in school, not because we were close friends but because the nuns always arranged our class in height order, and we were the two tallest girls in our class. We were always seated next to each other at the back of the classroom and stood together at the back of every single file line.
MaryAnn and I also had similar looking hair – hair that was thick and wavy and tended to frizz out rather than lay flat.
But that’s where our similarities ended.
Mary Ann was outgoing, confident, and popular, and I was shy, insecure, and quiet.   I had no desire to be in the spotlight while Mary Ann landed the leading role in every school play we had.
And boy could she sing.

In that Easter pageant, as Mary Magdalene, she belted out a rousing rendition of “I don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar and brought the house down.
I both admired and envied her.
I wondered, “What must it be like to receive that much attention and adulation?”  “What must it be like to have the confidence to sing with such joy?”

After the play was over and we were milling around backstage, one of the nuns came up behind me, wrapped her arms around my shoulders, and squealed with delight –
“You were fabulous! I am so, so proud of you!”
It was Sister Magdala. One of the most hard to please and cantankerous nuns in our school.
Suddenly, I was awash in this feeling of surprising joy, thinking,
“This is what it feels like to be noticed and appreciated! I must have really put my heart and soul into that role!”

And then Sister Magdala spun me around, and said,
    “Oh…’re not Mary Ann!”
She quickly patted me on the shoulder and said,
“Oh well, you were good too.” And off she went to find her star.

For me, that moment was both eye opening and humbling.
The look I saw on Sister Magdala face in that millisecond before she realized who I was, was one of joy and approval….and it was not meant for me.
I had no reason to expect otherwise. All I had done was kneel on the stage while someone else stood up and stepped into the spotlight.
At that young age I had not yet learned that all the roles we play have value, and sometimes the supporting roles are the hardest ones to take on.

In our gospel readings this morning we encounter John the Baptist and Mary the mother of Jesus - both of whom played key supporting roles in the story of God’s in-breaking into our world.

John and Mary’s stories are beautifully intertwined.
Mary first met John when he was still in his mother Elizabeth’s womb – when he leapt for joy at Mary’s announcement that she too would bear a child in a very unexpected way.
Elizabeth had assumed she was barren.
Mary was unmarried and oh so very young.
Yet they came together to share their joy at having been chosen - each in their own unique way - to prepare the way for God to come into our world.

One of my favorite Advent images is an artists’ rendering of that moment when Mary and Elizabeth came together to share their news.
Mary is looking down as she guides Elizabeth’s hand to rest on her belly and Elizabeth is looking up towards the sky, and both women are bursting forth with joy-filled laughter as they learn of each other’s blessing.
It’s a very tender, and very human moment.
One we all experience when something new and joyous comes into our life in a very unexpected way.

When Mary received the news that she would bear a child who would be called Emmanuel – God with us – she lifted up her voice in praise.
The gospel of Luke preserves Mary’s words in the Magnificat – capturing the outpouring of joy and gratitude that Mary felt after being chosen to prepare the way for such a special child.

Now, many of us tend to forget how young Mary was when the Angel Gabriel gave her this news.
In classic works of art she is often depicted as a full-grown woman, which she was by the time she sat at the foot of the cross and held Jesus’ lifeless body in her arms.
But when she gave birth to her first son, Mary was most likely only 14 or 15 years old.
How could she have possibly known what she was getting herself into?

Mary gave birth to her boy, she nursed him, she taught him how to walk and talk, she taught him how to pray.
She encouraged him when he tried new things, and it’s likely she reprimanded him when he pushed back against the rules that she and Joseph had set.    She must have been so proud of him when he began his ministry,
and when he drew the attention of those in power; she must have spent many nights lying awake with worry.
And like any mother, she undoubtedly tore herself inside out with anguish as she watched him suffer and die.

We don’t know if Mary knew any of this was going to happen when she said “Yes” to becoming the mother of Jesus.  
When she joined hands with Elizabeth and sang her Magnificat – lifting the praise of her soul to God for choosing her to serve in such an amazing way - did she have any inkling of what it was she was agreeing to endure?

Perhaps her lack of fear sprung from adolescent naivety or the acceptance that as a young girl giving birth in her time and culture there was already a good possibility that neither she nor the child would survive.
Perhaps her belief that she was giving birth to a child of God – regardless of who he grew up to be - made this a risk she was willing to take.

John the Baptist agreed to follow a similar risky path, or rather, his parents agreed to it for him, when they were told that their son would grow to be the forerunner to the Messiah - That he would turn the hearts of a broken and jaded people back towards God and prepare a way for Jesus to grab hold in their lives.

Elizabeth may not have known that she was agreeing to allow her son to rebel against the culture she had raised him in and have him thumb his nose at the establishment as he retreated into the dessert. There he would shun the soft robes and rich diets of the successful and powerful and instead dress in camel skins and eat insects he picked out the crevices of rocks.

Elizabeth may not have known that while the sons of her friends studied to be craftsmen and rabbis, her son would shake his fist at the masses urging them to repent of their sins and then dunk their heads in the Jordan River in an act of cleansing that defied the Temple priests. 
Both Elizabeth and John, may not have known that he would end up in prison as a result of all the prep work he was doing for Jesus, and that ultimately his head would wind up on a platter in a final bid to silence him.

John was a liberator who promised freedom and salvation to those who opened their hearts to God….and he had the crazy idea that one who came after him would be the ONE who would save them all.

John was a dangerous man with dangerous ideas about God, and God’s Love and Grace, and he prepared the way for yet another dangerous man who had ideas that bumped up the threat level even further.

Yet Mary reacted with JOY when she learned who her son was to be, and Elizabeth did the same.
They had to know that neither of their son’s lives would be easy.
That God’s in-breaking into the world would threaten to tear apart the imbalanced structure that human beings were desperately trying to hold in place, and that their sons would be standing at ground zero.

Perhaps it was the promise of what God would create in their son’s wake that brought Mary and Elizabeth joy, and for that they were willing to endure the pain.

The truth is, we never know what it is we’re getting ourselves into when we say “yes” to preparing the way for God to enter into the world.
When we agree to live out our faith by loving our neighbors and our enemies, to let go of our fear of loss and change, and to give as if we lived in a world of abundance rather than scarcity.

When we agree to live our lives so differently from those around us, we may find ourselves thrust into the spotlight, and for some of us that is not a very comfortable place to be.
We’d rather stay on our knees and blend into the background….but when we agree to prepare a way for God in the world we can’t stay there for long.
When we see with our own eyes the incredible acts of compassion and grace that happen in God’s wake, when we see new life taking root where none had been before, we can’t help but sing out with confidence and joy.

Our souls magnify the Lord and our spirits rejoice in God our savior.
God saves us all.
The blind, the lame, the poor, and those left for dead.
Jesus is just waiting to born within us.

Joy to the world and Amen.